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Jan 18, 2023   |   Blog Post

As a Crow flies, the Drone flies: Broadening the Arc of Awareness for Supply Chain Leaders

By Tapiwa Mukwashi

Director, Global Technical Team

When we embark on a journey we often bring more with us than just our luggage. We bring our past experiences, knowledge and perceptions, but we also need to bring a willingness to take in new insights and adapt our thinking.

As I set out on my recent journey – a four-hour canoe trip on the Congo River to Maita Island in the Democratic Republic of Congo – I packed both my past and my willingness to learn. This included my knowledge and experience as a supply chain professional, as well as my childhood fear of crocodiles! My colleague Olivier Defawe (Director, Health Systems; Solution Owner, Drones for Health) tried to reassure me that there were none, but looking it up after the fact I can say without hesitation that they were there, lurking under the water even if I did not see them. Yikes!

I also packed my familiarity with long journeys. Having grown up in post-colonial rural Zimbabwe in the early 1980s where a protracted war for independence destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, I was accustomed to traversing challenging terrain at a snail’s pace. I recall occasionally shooting the ‘Are we there yet?’ question.

However, most importantly, as I set off with my VillageReach colleagues Olivier and Archimède Makaya (Program Manager, Drones for Health), I was ready to take in new insights and see first-hand how drones can overcome extreme constraints getting medicines and health products to people.

Broadening Awareness

I recently read “The Arc of Awareness: Broadening the Gaze and Widening the Heart of Leadership,” by Joe Mutizwa, and I was inspired to apply this philosophy to public health supply chains during my trip in the DRC. Supply chain leaders in Africa must consider how their past influences their thinking and be willing to undergo a mindset shift. We can’t let our fear of crocodiles keep us from embarking on journeys. Just as we cannot let the fear of disrupting the status quo (suboptimal equilibriums) keep us from embracing supply chain innovations. We must broaden our ‘arc of awareness’ in order to build more equitable, people-centred, resilient and sustainable public health supply chains.

Now that I am back on land, with all of my limbs, I am sharing insights from my journey to encourage other supply chain leaders to have a willingness to learn in tow, on their next leadership journey.

Drones solve a specific problem

Drones should not be used to distribute all products across all countries in Africa. That is not feasible or affordable. I am talking about looking specifically at those areas with extreme geographic conditions. Off-road vehicle lovers have a motto which says, ‘where the road ends is where the fun begins!’ But if you have not seen a medicine-loaded four-wheel drive vehicle get stuck for days in the middle of nowhere, then you should go on an excursion into some locations where we work in Africa. Some of these roads are not passable, and some waterways are too dangerous (regardless of your fear of crocodiles). But ‘where the road ends’ and health products cannot reach certain communities means loss of lives – it is in those cases where drones are the best tool for the job.

Drones improve equity

The best measure of success in the supply chain is not only the availability of vaccines but also the improved health of communities. Improving health outcomes in this next decade will be driven by reaching pockets of zero-dose children in communities, and reaching more vulnerable populations that supply chains using traditional modes of transport have failed to reach. In this way drones are a tool for good in crossing the equity chasm. Investments made to integrate drone delivery capabilities into public health supply chains means more vulnerable populations in the hardest-to-reach places have access to quality health care – ultimately contributing to Universal Health Coverage by 2030.

Drones improve efficiency

On paper and in practice, straight lines are the shortest link between points. This sounds so obvious. However, there are limited opportunities to apply this timeless principle in last mile distribution systems. The story of vaccine delivery has been one of toil, perseverance and the sheer commitment of hardworking frontline staff in the DRC. In Maita they endure a three-day journey by canoe (if they do not have access to a speed canoe) to Mbandaka to collect the vaccines and do the same on the return trip. Drones reduce this three-day vaccine journey, with overnight stops and unreliable cold storage, to twenty-minutes. Gone are the days when vaccine routes only use traditional modes of transport such as canoes, trucks and motorbikes to navigate swamps, rivers, mountains and dense forests. In the DRC we are transitioning to an era of drones which fly fast and as straight as a crow flies.

Gone are the days when vaccine routes only use traditional modes of transport such as canoes, trucks and motorbikes to navigate swamps, rivers, mountains and dense forests. In the DRC we are transitioning to an era of drones which fly… Click To Tweet
Drones require champions

Solving last-mile supply chain delivery problems is hard if you are stuck in the past. Supply chain leaders who embrace change serve as champions to connect the dots between the infrastructure we have now and new tools like drones. If supply chain leaders can play the role of champions, we can achieve what legendary South African jazz musician Bra Hughes (Hughes Masekela) sang about regarding his wish, ‘to be there when the people turn it around.’ Bra Hughes clearly expresses his wish to see that time and day when ‘people triumph over disease and poverty.’

Today we have the tools to triumph over disease with medicines and vaccines, and when routine delivery systems are not reaching everyone we should absolutely invest in drones for health product delivery. One life lost is one life too many, so as supply chain leaders we must embark on every journey with the knowledge we have, while being willing to broaden our ‘arc of awareness’ of what could be.

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