Drones for Health in Malawi

Community witnessing drone test flights during sensitizations, 2018. Photo credit: VillageReach

VillageReach has been working in Malawi for nearly five years. Beginning in 2016, it supported UNICEF in one of the first ever feasibility studies on the use of drones for transport of laboratory samples. VillageReach conducted the cost analysis for the study.

Between 2017 and 2019, with funds from Grand Challenges Canada and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, VillageReach worked with two US-based drone companies to conduct a second feasibility study on the emergency use of drones to transport blood and oxytocin to improve maternal health outcomes.

The study focused on the delivery of products to a peri-urban health center in Lilongwe and a rural hospital in Dowa district to understand several critical factors required to integrate drones into the public health supply chain system. This included:

  • Stakeholder and community perceptions and acceptability;
  • Identification of the costs and benefits of drone transport; and,
  • Development of a business case based on the results of the study.

During the study, technology issues prevented the completion of the planned flights. As with the implementation of any innovation, the lessons learned were useful for future initiatives in Malawi, as well as in Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As of mid-October 2020, VillageReach has collaborated with the Malawi Ministry of Health and Swoop Aero, an Australian drone-powered health logistics firm, on routine drone deliveries, using a local workforce (drone operators and pilots).  This includes getting vaccines; HIV, TB and COVID lab samples; HIV and essential medicines; and supplies to 25 health facilities in Chikwawa and Nsanje districts in Southern Malawi.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Technical Working Group (TWG)

VillageReach has facilitated the formation of the national RPA TWG, led by the Department of Civil Aviation, in which VillageReach remains the secretariat. The committee provides technical oversight, facilitates the development of guidelines and tools for implementation, shares lessons and coordinates the use of drones for health, humanitarian and scientific purposes in Malawi. VillageReach assisted the TWG in developing an  operational toolkit for implementers and drone companies.

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Malawi healthcare worker