NEW TAFO AKIM, GHANA - At New Tafo Hospital, health care workers watch the sky, listening for a distinct buzzing noise they have grown used to in the past month. In seconds, a small drone comes into view and quickly drops a package before it returns to its base.
Ghana's drone service, launched in April, makes on-demand emergency deliveries of 148 different vaccines, blood products and lifesaving medications to health facilities in the country, 24 hours a day.
New Tafo, a government hospital about two hours north of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, was the first hospital to use the service, brought to Ghana by Silicon Valley company Zipline. Medical superintendent Kobena Wriedu said the hospital had received at least 25 drone deliveries in the past month, with a handful coming in emergency situations. The service is much faster than deliveries made by road, especially in Ghana, were road networks are poor.
Critical supply source
'There was this child who was on my ward who was virtually O Rh negative,' a blood type that's difficult to get, Wriedu said. 'We had to fall on Zipline. They were able to deliver it. ... Sometimes, we need fresh frozen plasma for bleeding cases that we encounter, and the delivery is done in a very short time to save lives. So, many lives have been saved within the period of the one month that the medical drone service was launched in Ghana.'
The products come from the country's first Zipline drone center at Omenako, which is about 40 minutes by pothole-riddled road to the hospital - or 12 minutes by drone. By the end of the year, an additional three centers are set to be opened across Ghana. Combined, they will provide deliveries to 2,000 health facilities serving 12 million people, making up to 600 delivery flights a day on behalf of the Ghanaian government, under a contract worth $12.5 million over four years.
Taking orders, preparing flights
The center in Omenako where the drones come from has a cold storage facility for the blood and medicines to be stored. Workers watch the screens as orders come through and quickly fill the orders and assemble and launch the drones. They get the orders from health care workers like George Appiah Boadu at the New Tafo Hospital, who places them by text message. For him, access to blood products has been particularly useful.
'We have pregnant women who also come in,' Boadu said. 'For instance, if we have an ectopic case and for this patient the only option for us is to get to the [operating] theater ... if you don't have blood available, you risk losing her life.' So the drone technology has been a lifesaver, he said.
The drones fly autonomously, can carry 1.8 kilos of cargo, can cruise at 110 kilometers an hour and have an all-weather round-trip range of 160 kilometers. They look like small propeller planes. A drone will zoom above the hospital, release its package attached to a red parachute, then zip back to the base without landing at the hospital.
The launch in Ghana marked Zipline's expansion in Africa. It started operating in Rwanda in October 2016 and now delivers more than 65 percent of Rwanda's blood supply outside the capital, Kigali. The service helped transform the country's medical supply chain.
Rainy season ahead
Ghana's services are still in the early stages, with only four health facilities using it so far. The Omenako center's fulfillment operations coordinator, Samuel Akuffo, said the service would prove its worth as Ghana starts to see heavy rain for the rainy season. The drones can fly in all weather conditions, and over roads that vehicles might not be able to pass in heavy rain.
'During this rainy season some of the roads to some of the health centers are very bad,' Akuffo said. 'When some of the roads get very muddy and very difficult to ply, most of the facilities find it difficult having to go and look for a particular medication or blood. ... It also makes it difficult for their supplies to reach them, so most of the supplies are either postponed or they don't even go and get the product at all.'