There is strong optimism in Nigeria, and particularly among Kaduna state residents in Northern Nigeria, over the prospect of using drones to deliver medical and consumer supplies especially to remote locations. This follows the launch of a drone-based healthcare delivery project in Kaduna state in June 2022 by Zipline International, a global leader in drone delivery services, in partnership with the Kaduna state government.

Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna state described the project as a milestone in the health systems transformation programme in Kaduna state.

"The partnership with Zipline enhances our ability to distribute medical commodities more efficiently to our health facilities throughout the state, including the remotest and otherwise inaccessible rural clinics, health centres and hospitals," El Rufai stated.

Kaduna state has 1,068 Primary Health Centres and Clinics (PHCs) from 23 local government areas with a population of 10 million, expected to be served by this novel drone delivery project. Ramatu Abdulkadir, pioneer CEO of Kaduna State Health Supplies Management Agency (KADHSMA), was eulogized for championing the supply chain transformation programme.

The General Manager of Zipline in Nigeria, Catherine Odiase, said the Kaduna project emerged the first among other states because of the expeditious push it received from involved parties. She stated further that the company is working on commencing operations in Cross River state and Bayelsa state in Nigeria. "We have also signed similar partnership agreements with Cross River and Bayelsa sates and should be launching our operations there before end of year 2022," she said.

Effective regulation
It is noteworthy that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the global aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) community are working on achieving globally acceptable regulatory guideline to ensure safety in the coexistence of unmanned and manned aircraft in the airspace. Individual states are therefore encouraged by ICAO to develop ad hoc innovative measures to effectively manage drone operations within their jurisdictions until a global framework is developed. Nigeria is one of the countires in Africa with high demand for drone registration, and the country also has a robust registration process to ensure safety and security in the deployment of UAVs in Nigeria.

According to Odiase, Zipline had to undergo "a rigorous regulatory process for the required permit and partnerships that made it possible to import our drones into Nigeria." She noted also that the regulations in Nigeria are similar to requirements also in Ghana.

She said Zipline is leading in distribution of immunization vaccines to over two-thousand health facilities in Ghana. "We have also delivered over one million Covid-19 vaccines to more than one thousand health dosing centers; first of such national scale delivery of Covid-19 vaccines in the world," she added.

Having successfully passed the regulatory hurdle would facilitate launch of drone services in more states in Nigeria who have already shown interest in the novel intervention.

Residents hopeful
The Zipline project in Kaduna state is a pace-setter that evokes excitement among Kaduna residents. Aisha Isyaku, Executive Secretary of KADHSMA, said: "Zipline is a very good innovation for the state. You know the drone is going to supply drugs and commodities plus vaccines and blood products to hard-to-reach areas in Kaduna state. Of course it will move us towards the achievement of universal health coverage."

Noah Ebija, a resident and journalist in Kaduna described the launch of Zipline's project in Kaduna state as timely. He added: "As far as I am concerned as a journalist, Zipline has a good package for distribution of drugs, using drones to reach remote areas of Kaduna state."

Kaduna urban area

The Zipline technology, he added, would overcome the challenges of the rocky and hilly terrain of rural areas in Kaduna state, as well as "the high rate of insecurity in the state."

Also, a local community resident in Kaduna, Audu Wada said drone delivery of healthcare supplies is a welcome development because most communities in the state need urgent healthcare services, "I thank the state government for this rare achievement in the health sector," Wada said.

Furthermore, noting that the Zipline intervention will "ultimately improve healthcare," Fortune Idu, CEO of FCI International Ltd, the organizer of airports and drone events in Nigeria, however points out that "it is important that health centres around Kaduna state are properly equipped to administer the health services."

Drones for eCommerce logistics
The use of drones for healthcare delivery is not new in Africa. In 2017, Malawi and UNICEF launched "an air corridor" aimed at testing the deployment of drones for humanitarian purposes.

However, the launch of drone healthcare services by Zipline in Nigeria opens a new vista of safe, secure and timely service delivery likely to expand rapidly to several Nigerian states with remote, densely populated and hitherto hardly accessible localities.

Beyond humanitarian services, the prospect of deploying the drones for fast delivery of consumer goods would bolster eCommerce which has tremendously increased in Nigeria over the last 5 years strengthened by huge percentage of Nigeria's young population immersed in new and mobile technology. Zipline is also looking at exploring the potential of using drone deliveries to boost eCommerce in Africa overtime.

Participants at a recent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) event in Lagos observe that "the fast integration of artificial intelligence and other technologies in the global UAS growth in the next few years will be unprecedented and require Nigeria and Africa to key in immediately."

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