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Reactions to the proposed Zipline Drone deal have been excitable but lacking substance. Like a baby roused from sleep, the minority in parliament flung the bill out of parliament crying political bias. The minority in rejecting this deal have described it as a stark example of misplaced priority, tugging at the public and invoking the President to intervene.

These reactions, coupled with public outcry and supposed unsatisfactory regulatory checks saw decision on the motion postponed.

The Government of Ghana is seeking approval from Parliament to engage Fly Zipline Ghana Limited, a private firm, for the design, installation and operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), after approval from the Public Procurement Authority. These drones according to Dr Nsiah-Asare Anthony (Director of the Ghana Health Service), would be used to distribute blood, essential drugs and emergency medical products to hard-to-reach areas across the country.

Medic collects emergency drone delivery in Rwanda CREDIT: JASON FLORIO

While no objection has been made pertaining the usefulness of these drones, it’s the $12 million price tag that’s got the minority questioning government’s priority.  “The challenges we have in our health system don’t need drones. People are dying not because there are no drones to deliver the medical supplies. They are dying because the supplies aren’t available in the first place” – Wa West MP.

It’s worth noting that flying medical products in timely fashion would reduce drastically cases of Maternal Mortality related to childbirth as we journey towards achieving our SDGs. The argument shouldn’t be hinged heavily on political underpinnings  (which is nearly impossible, given the NDC – NPP nature of everything) but looked at from a neutral and critical perspective.

If these drones are to be useful at all, in which ways can we maximize results while tempering costs? IMANI Center for Policy & Education, a global think tank, put out salient points worth introducing into this already exhausting debate:

  1. The drone program should be piloted at a budget not exceeding $100,000 over a period of 6 months in one of the very few areas of Ghana where an emergency drone service can be justified on social welfare and public finance grounds. Such a location is the area around Saboba, Kpalba and Wapuli in the Northern region, where the topography, health demographics, and infrastructure situation warrants such an investment. During the rainy season, these communities are cut off from Yendi, their only vital link to the national health supply chain.

2.  After 6 months of piloting, a detailed evaluation report by independent  researchers should guide any further investments and scale up.

  3. The $100,000 budget implies costs of 10 deliveries a day and a $45,000 overhead. Either Zipline or another service provider can operate this pilot though for obvious reasons Zipline’s enthusiasm and clear political support give it advantages.

Drone being prepped, Tanzania

Now, this sounds like a call on the Government of Ghana to really exhaust due diligence before committing financially to a project that could end up down the drain. In Rwanda (which seems to be a star pupil by Dr Nsiah-Asare’s standards) statistics reveal less than 10 deliveries are made per day, after 2 years of implementation, showing that the program is being used for a narrow set of interventions. Tanzania took a more thorough approach, launching a small pilot program directed by its Ministry of Health in the Lake Victoria program to establish proof of concept before committing to Zipline’s offer.

Dr Nsiah-Asare, in a press conference on 4th December, explained the contract would be performance-based. Payment to Zipline will be dependent on the magnitude of work and satisfaction derived from it. He went further to reveal ‘the  Ministry will pay $88,000 to Zipline per a distribution centre in a month and not the $145,000 wrongly quoted by the Minority in Parliament.’

Our political-sphere is such that, it has become increasingly difficult to separate policies/interventions that are good in and of themselves, versus political engineering for purposes of personal acquisitions.

Read more on the subject here

Success of medical drones in Rwanda

Challenges of drones in medical supply chain