How do you get medical supplies delivered to remote African communities? Two words: women, and drones

An interview with Mamabird — ‘drones that nurture’ for The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice

Words

Anne-Sophie Garrigou

This interview was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.

We have made huge strides in reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. Since 1990, there has been an over 50% decline in preventable child deaths globally and maternal mortality fell by 45% worldwide. Despite this incredible progress, more than six million children still die before their fifth birthday every year. Every day hundreds of women die during pregnancy or from child-birth related complications and in many rural areas, only 56% of births are attended by skilled professionals.

One of the main challenges that women in remote communities face is the access to simple life saving supplies. Their access to transportation and money is also limited, so when they reach a market after a whole day of walking, there’s little they can buy. On the other hand, healthcare providers and disaster relief responders who work in remote areas depend on costly, slow and unreliable transportation.

How then can we increase chances of survival, especially during childbirth, for both the mother and the child? That’s one of the questions Thomas Lauzon and Eugene Maseya are trying to answer with their startup Mamabird. Both men come from a very technical background. We talked to Eugene about their ambition to turn their skills into a sustainable business contributing to solve a social issue. Their idea: to deliver low cost health innovations, ready-to-use therapeutic food, or clean birth kits by drones to rural health centres in Africa, and train women to use drones for medical and baby supplies deliveries in the meantime.

What are the main healthcare issues that women and children face in remote communities in Africa? And how exactly are you contributing to solving these issues?

One of the biggest challenges for healthcare in remote villages in Africa is not the lack of low cost affordable solutions, but rather access to these solutions. People in rural areas do not have access to all seasons roads, which creates significant healthcare challenges to women and children. When Thomas (Editor’s note: Thomas Lauzon, Mamabird Co-Founder) visited Africa for the first time, he was moved by the condition of women in the villages. Can you imagine having your whole life and role in society confined to child rearing and cooking for the family. Women and children have extremely limited access to resources. No transport, nowhere to go, no money and even if they can reach a market after a whole day of walking, there’s nothing they can buy there to help their children. Healthcare providers and disaster relief responders depend on costly, slow, and unreliable transportation by motorcycles, cars, helicopters and trucks to serve remote communities.

“Having women in mission critical positions in our organisation is extremely important because a group of men will miss obvious issues related to female recipients.”

To address this problem, we propose a network of cost efficient heavy-lift hybrid power drones that can reach villages as far as 37 miles from a health center and carry ten times the payload of traditional drones, about the size of a checked-in luggage. This technology is a true game changer for the women and children awaiting any help to address their health challenges and the organizations trying to send these supplies to them.

Where did you first come up with this idea of delivering healthcare supplies with drones? What inspired you?

We first met online looking at a ‘Request For Proposal’ that UNICEF put out to use drones to carry dry blood spot samples from remote areas with no testing facilities to health centres where the tests could be carried out, and results for new born babies known quickly, to prevent the newborn getting HIV.

This got us thinking about what else we could do with drones with both of us being passionate about using our skills in this technology for social good. The more we researched, we found that women in remote areas faced a lot of challenges in accessing simple life saving supplies that increase chances of survival, especially during childbirth for both the mother and the child.

What exactly will you ‘ship’ with these drones, and how do you make sure that these supplies will be used properly by the population?

The supplies that we are planning to ship are low cost health innovations that make a significant difference to a mother and her child’s survival. Specifically the drones carry ready-to-use therapeutic food, and high energy nutrition sachets that can solve undernutrition for a child during the critical first 1000 days of his or her life. The same drones can also carry clean birth kits containing the basic items for sanitary conditions for birth, i.e soap, a sterile blade to cut the umbilical cord and a clamp, pads and wipes. These supplies are sent out to rural health centres where health worker provide care and instructions to mothers and expecting mothers.

You said that “women can be at the forefront of a technology that is created for them, that is solving their problem”. How important is it for you to include women in your project? And how exactly are you including them?

We strongly feel that solutions for women’s problems should have a strong inclusion of women in the process. Having women in mission critical positions in our organisation is extremely important because a group of men will miss obvious issues related to female recipients. Women count for a majority of our advisors and partners. In the future we aim to hire a well balanced team of men and women. Having said that, we are keenly aware of the shortage of a women workforce in our technical fields. Our hope is to attract talented women by the worthiness of our mission and letting them know how much we need them for the success of Mamabird.

Can you already talk about the most significant impact created by your deliveries (on both the people and the environment)?

We can’t talk about that yet because we are in testing phase but ideally we see the drones as being more efficient when compared to a truck or van covering the same distance. Drones fly shorter distances because they move in straight lines. Vehicles on the road would burn significantly more gas for the same distance as compared to a drone.

What do you think is the role of tech in solving environmental and sustainable development issues?

This is a tough question. Refinements in technology tend to reduce the impact of technology on the environment but also have unintended consequences as more have access to it. In the case of drones, we are enabling something that used to be cost prohibitive and providing underdeveloped areas with supplies that are not common in these areas. It’s hard to take into account all the impact that drones will have. With drone deliveries, remote areas will become less remote. People there will have better life outcomes. They will need more clean water, more electricity, more facilities, etc. All this will create an impact on the environment. However, can you really let people stay behind and have no access to lifesaving resources and basic necessities? That is morally unjust. Should we let people live with no electricity and other modern conveniences because it will create more environmental impact? Decidedly no! We believe that everyone should have access to basic levels of supplies, education and health. What we can do is try to design technologies with smaller carbon footprints compared to less sustainable solutions, such as building roads everywhere and making more cars and trucks.

Photo: Vodafone Institute

We‘re particularly interested to hear more about the law around drone delivery. Does your project require special authorisation from the government? Are you hoping to develop your deliveries to other countries in the future? And how easy will this be (in term of drones flying regulations)?

Yes, so UNICEF set up a drone testing corridor in Malawi in early 2017, an 80 kilometres radius area where companies working on humanitarian applications of drones are invited to test out their use case. UNICEF has also helped the Malawian government set up regulatory framework on drones and make a favourable environment for emerging startups like ours.

Other countries in the region and beyond have a negative attitude towards drones probably because they do not understand the technology but we feel that successful tests and operations in Malawi would only help improve acceptance of drones by other governments and countries where similar solutions could be deployed.

What three insights would you like to give to women who are interested in working on developing a tech project?

In a tech project you can prove you are right by building a solution that works. Most techies will respect that regardless of your gender.

The gender pay gap is smaller compared to other fields!

You can have the impact you want by working on projects you care about and matter to you and other people.

What was the most limiting belief — and what was your biggest breakthrough?

I don’t really think its a breakthrough but maybe the fact that we are on track with our milestones for this year. We understand that in the life of a startup nothing is ever set in stone and so we have a healthy dose of cautious optimism but hopefully by the time this goes to print we’ll be able to talk more about the progress we’ve made in our tests with our partners.

One of our limiting beliefs is that we sometimes get the impression that the world doesn’t care about people in remote areas, and what we are doing amounts to a charity project. However, on this journey, NGOs and private enterprises have reached out to us to see if we could provide delivery services to them. Remote areas matter. It’s where food comes from and these areas provide much of the population that ends up joining urban areas. There is a lot of interest in connecting remote areas to the rest of the world.

What helped you the most on your journey?

Sometimes it gets hard, but I think that because it’s something we are both very passionate about and because we have an army of strong supportive women cheering us on, it makes it easy to keep forging on.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou

This interview was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.

This article is also available on our Medium page.