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Heroes In The Sky

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At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Rwanda featured prominently for its drone technology, especially for its delivery of blood supplies to its rural areas.

The small East African nation was praised for being the first country in the world to adopt performance-based regulation for drones, which includes policies for safety, innovation and approvals.

Most would imagine that a small emerging land locked economy would have far more pressing priorities than drone technology, an element of the fourth industrial revolution which is still in concept phase in most developed countries, but they would be wrong.

The country is using it as an opportunity to address age old struggles, such as preventable deaths like postpartum bleeding.

Regulation, however, is not Rwanda’s first global milestone with drone technology. In October 2016, the country was the first in the world to commercially launch and use drones to deliver medical supplies.

To understand this development, one has to travel to Muhanga, a small town in Rwanda’s Southern Province, which hosts the country’s ‘drone port’.

On a cloudy Thursday afternoon in January, a remotely-piloted buzzing drone flies low above Ruhango District Hospital, in Muhanga, drops a red package on the lawn and takes to the skies again.

The hospital’s patients are not surprised by the low-flying drone; they are accustomed to such occurrences. A nurse rushes out of the nearby consultation waiting area, picks up the package and makes his way back to the patients.

Earlier in the day, another drone made a similar drop at Kabgayi Hospital, about 30 minutes away. This is how Rwanda’s remote healthcare facilities receive blood supplies in the southern and western parts of the hilly country.

Previously, the delivery of blood supplies from the central National Centre for Blood Transfusion to remote parts of the country took hours, holding up resources and medical staff, and at times forcing them to spend a night in Kigali.

Prior to drones, it took ambulances four hours to transport blood supplies from Kigali to Kabgayi Hospital by road. The ambulance would need to make this trip two to four times a week.

Apart from the difficulties of the road trip, laboratory technicians had to abandon their facilities and patients to process orders of blood supplies. With the adoption of drone technology by the Rwandan government, through a public-private partnership, the process now takes about 30 minutes.

READ MORE: Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

The innovative initiative was launched in October 2016, following an agreement between the Rwandan government and Zipline, a robotics company in California.

The partnership was one-of-a-kind. Across the world, drones are associated with bombing and spying. In Rwanda, however, drones were a sight for sore eyes as they came with much-needed medical supplies.

To many people, the two partners were underdogs. Zipline was a start-up firm and was yet to commercially roll out the concept, while Rwanda was not renowned for being a global innovation hub.

Keller Rinaudo, the CEO and Co-Founder of Zipline, says they were driven to succeed because of the millions of lives lost across the world due to preventable causes, like excessive blood loss.

Zipline co-founders Keller Rinaudo (left) and Will Hetzler at the launch of the firm’s operations in Muhanga (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

While most countries adopted a wait and see attitude, Rwanda was willing to step up.

Millions of women across the world die each year due to postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH). In fact, the United States has the highest rate of maternal death due to PPH in the industrialized world. It’s a major global problem. Rwanda was the first country in the world to step up and decide that they would tackle it with the most cutting-edge technology available,” says Rinaudo.

As the Rwandan government established regulatory framework to operate drones, Zipline gathered advice from everyone involved, including governmental departments, doctors, nurses, National Centre for Blood Transfusion officials, and laboratory technicians.

“The easy part was building the technology. The hard part was integrating with the national health system,” says Rinaudo.

As Zipline was building an ecosystem for drone technology, the state was looking at the safety and security concerns around the disruptive technology. This resulted in regulations such as seeking clearance from the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority before taking off, registration of drones, and acquiring flying permits.

These regulations reduce the likelihood of drones being used for illegal activities or interfering with a plane’s flight path.

The hype around the innovative project attracted the attention of international corporations.

UPS, a global logistics firm, and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a public-private global health partnership, sought to be involved.

UPS, with an interest in using drones for their own deliveries, supported the initial launch with a grant of $800,000. GAVI was using the project to see if they could use the model elsewhere and improve healthcare across the world.

With a staff of about 50 and a fleet of 15 drones, Zipline has since made over 2,000 deliveries with over a quarter of them saving lives. The company is now looking to double the number of its drones as well as adding more advanced drones to its fleet.

“Our base in Rwanda has operated with 15 planes. We’re replacing those aircraft with the next generation and will soon begin flying 30 drones from each base we operate,” says Rinaudo.

This is welcome news for Rwandans, like Esperanza Ugirambabazi, who needed a transfusion when giving birth to her son at Kabgayi Hospital. In about 30 minutes, this was made possible because of one of the drones.

Another young mother from the same district tells of her months-old son who had malaria and urgently needed a blood transfusion. He is alive today because of the drone delivery.

The success of the project has led to a second phase starting in the eastern part of Rwanda, as well as demand for the service in other African countries.

“We’re in the process of setting up a second base in Rwanda to serve the rest of the country, bringing all 11 million citizens within a reach of this lifesaving technology. We’ll be expanding across Africa and the world this year. Zipline is building an instant delivery service for the planet,” Rinaudo says confidently.

Tanzania, with a neighbor of Rwanda, has expressed demand for the services. In 2017, the country announced that it would launch drone delivery services to provide medical supplies in the first quarter of 2018.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health ambitiously intends to make up to 2,000 deliveries a day to over 1,000 facilities across the country, targeting about 10 million people. The country has already established regulatory framework for the technology.

A drone ready to take off from Muhanga drone port in Rwanda’s Southern Province (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

For Rwanda, the success of the partnership with Zipline is just the start.

Rwanda’s Minister of Information Technology and Communication Jean de Dieu Rurangirwa says that the country is creating an enabling environment for further deployment of drone technology.

Beyond regulation, the government has been mulling plans to build capacity among emerging techies to increase the number of players in the sector.

“Building on the success of Zipline’s blood delivery technology, we are working to nurture a drone industry. As we look to the future, we will continue to put in place the infrastructure and policy frameworks that accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to transform people’s lives,” says Rurangirwa.

“We are also establishing capacity-building programs to invest in local talent and leverage public-private partnerships to lay the groundwork for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

READ MORE: Something To Drone About

Already, other sectors have been working around incorporating the technology in their line of work.

In Musanze District, in the Northern Province, a pilot test phase is underway to introduce drone technology for potato crop monitoring, involving around 20 farming cooperatives. This will monitor for pests and diseases, which could boost crop harvests.

There are also conversations about introducing drones in the famous Akagera National Park to combat poaching.

With the new regulations in place, small businesses and entrepreneurs are finding ways to make the most of the technology. Local photographers, for example, are in the process of acquiring drones so their services can include aerial photography.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster is another who has been quick to take advantage. His firm, Foster + Partners, has expressed interest in building the world’s first drone port in the country.

Rwanda’s approach and progress in drone technology is seen as a model for other countries in the region.

“The government of Rwanda’s leadership in co-designing agile policy frameworks around the use of drones could be a model for other countries that want to accelerate adoption of this game-changing technology,” says Murat Sonmez, Head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, based in San Francisco.

Rwanda may be a small country, but it’s taking giant strides.

Entrepreneurs

Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm

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Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

 

– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria

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With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.

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Africa’s New Silicon Valleys

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Perhaps most famously, Route 128 and Silicon Valley in the United States developed around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford universities, while key European knowledge regions developed at the Sophia Antipolis high-tech park in Côte d’Azur, France, and the Leuven region in Belgium.

In Africa, however, it is a relatively new phenomenon. But some universities on the continent are working towards setting themselves up as catalysts of innovation and entrepreneurship. Notable mentions must go to the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo, but South Africa is leading the charge.

The likes of Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) are focusing more than ever on equipping their students to be entrepreneurs, primarily in response to unemployment issues in the country. Almost 50% of those aged between 15 and 24 in South Africa are without a job, and some tertiary institutions are adapting by equipping them to become job creators.

READ MORE: Forbes Africa Under 30 Technology Entrepreneurs

Bakang Moetse is Impact Investing Project Manager at the Bertha Centre, a dedicated entrepreneurial unit within the Graduate School of Business at UCT. She says high youth unemployment had made the promotion of entrepreneurship an imperative for many African governments.

“Whilst government may be responsible for creating an enabling environment for the development of businesses, universities play a key role in delivering skills and expertise, as well as creating enabling environments for incubation of entrepreneurs,” says Moetse.

Universities also stand to gain. At a time when the relevance of university degrees has come into question due to the number of unemployed graduates and lack of employment readiness of those graduates who do enter the workforce, promoting entrepreneurship provides a way of ensuring universities continue to be recognized as key to the development of societies and economies.

“For universities interested in taking on a more active role in this regard, there is a competitive advantage to be gained in becoming leaders within this field of research, which can further bolster their credentials,” says Moetse.

Stellenbosch University runs its own incubator – LaunchLab – and also invests in some student-run tech startups. Head of Incubation Brandon Paschal says universities that do so will produce more employable and resilient graduates, and their reputations will grow as such.

“Also, with the current student fee climate, if universities are not backing and pursuing commercializing university technology, their financial sustainability and broader access to tertiary education is in jeopardy,” he says.

So how have startups incubated by universities benefitted? G-J van Rooyen was an associate professor at Stellenbosch, and launched his bitcoin-based anti-piracy startup Custos Media Technologies out of LaunchLab. He says it had been a great space from which to grow an early-stage company.

“At a startup, you’re constantly juggling concerns and issues. Being in a supportive environment where space and facilities are one less thing to worry about makes a huge difference,” Van Rooyen says. “Since LaunchLab is a hub for startups and investors, it directly impacted our fundraising efforts, and introduced us to our angel investor.”

Michael-John Dippenaar’s on-demand storage space startup Sxuirrel first encountered LaunchLab after winning a competition run by the incubator, earning funding and support.

“Amongst other intangibles thereafter, and in the period leading up to then and now, we gained help in the form of advice, community and networks,” Dippenaar says.

“We had support in finding lawyers, connecting to additional entrepreneurs to learn from, and access to soft-skill building resources.”

READ MORE: Investment Marketplace Coming To Africa

Training students – and professors – in entrepreneurial skills and providing them a safe space from which to launch their ideas in one thing, but universities also need to ensure they have solid links with corporates and funders to help incubated startups scale. This can be a challenge.

However, Tine Fisker Henriksen, Senior Project Manager, Innovative Finance, at Bertha Centre, says the credibility associated with university brands lends itself to bringing in new partnerships and streams of funding entrepreneurs on their own would not be able to tap into.

“We are seeing increased interest from the corporate sector to get involved in supporting entrepreneurship, and we have managed to establish partnerships that have been valuable in this regard,” she says.

“From our point of view, there is great potential to expand this beyond mere sponsorship of events and once-off fundraising, as is commonly the case, and move in the direction of more sustainable partnerships approaches for rising entrepreneurs.”

The initiatives at places like Stellenbosch and UCT are well developed, with a track record of helping startups launch and raise funding for their next stage of development, but are enough universities following their lead?

Paschal says there is some evidence of this, but it takes time to transform very traditional and conservative institutions. Part of the challenge is that “startup skills” are intangible, EQ-related things that you cannot learn in a classroom.

“The push for universities spinning out companies, and supporting startups and SMEs, is disrupting the traditional role of universities. The trend is going in this direction, but generally universities are battling to get beyond the academic side,” he says.

Henriksen agrees more needs to be done.

“We have seen the top universities develop more entrepreneurial courses, hubs and initiatives. But there is definitely room for greater involvement, and coordination of efforts in this space to create a synergized impact,” she says.

– Tom Jackson

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