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Drones deliver blood to prevent maternal death in Botswana

For women in Botswana, especially those living in remote communities where medical supplies and blood may not be in stock, giving birth can be life-threatening. In 2019, the country recorded a maternal mortality rate of 166 deaths per 100,000 births, more than double the average for upper-middle-income countries. 

“When a woman has lost a lot of blood during childbirth and may need to be transferred to a bigger medical facility, she first needs to be stabilized where she is before being driven out of that place. Timely delivery of blood can be lifesaving. A drone can be sent to deliver the blood so that the patient is stabilized,” says Lorato Mokganya, Chief Health Officer in the Ministry of Health and Wellness. 

In an effort to curb the country’s preventable maternal deaths and overcome geographical barriers this innovative initiative will revolutionize the delivery of essential medical supplies and services across Botswana.   

“Timeliness in attending to women who experience pregnancy and childbirth-related complications is paramount, especially in remote and hard-to-reach areas,” says Dimane Mpoeleng, Computer Science Lecturer at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). 

The leading causes of maternal deaths in Botswana are excessive bleeding, complications after abortion and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.  

However, the last-mile delivery of lifesaving medical products and supplies can be challenging in this large and sparsely populated country with long distances between lower and higher-level facilities. This is heightened in hard-to-reach places where there may be a shortage of vehicles, inaccessible roads, and inefficient supply chain systems.   

© UNFPA Botswana
A nurse places a cargo of medical supplies in a drone before take-off.

Drones for Health 

In May, the university, the government and the  United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) joined forces to launch Botswana’s first drone delivery project, called “Drones For Health. With this initiative, Botswana also became the first country in southern Africa and third on the African continent, after Ghana and Rwanda, to pilot drone technology for health care support. 

Drones are expected to drastically reduce the delivery time from hours to minutes, improving the delivery of obstetric emergency supplies and thus saving more lives. 

Beatrice Mutali, UNFPA Botswana Country Director, believes the project is a game-changer, which will not only improve the maternal health situation in Botswana, but also transform the entire health system for the country. 

“At UNFPA, we envision a world where no woman dies while giving a life, and this initiative promises to alleviate the problem of maternal deaths in Botswana,” Ms. Mutali says, stressing that innovation is an indispensable engine to bring transformative change for women, girls, and young people.  

For example, women at rural facilities such as Mogapi Health Centre, which serves a population of over 3,000, will benefit immensely from the speed and efficiency that the newly launched drone technology will bring to the health sector.  

According to Dr. Mpoeleng, the project leader of Drones For Health, each battery-powered flying aerodrone has a delivery distance of 100 kilometers and can carry up to 2 kilogrammes of cargo.  

Four villages were chosen for the pilot project. The drones will be automatically programmed for takeoff and landing and can carry back another load of supplies. Community members in the pilot areas supported the project by building all drone landing pads at the designated health posts. 

© UNFPA Botswana
Members of the community helped to build the drone landing pad at the remote Moremi health post.

In 2017, Botswana set a national maternal mortality ratio target of 71 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2025 reducing to 54 deaths by 2030 in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3. If the current maternal death trend continues, Botswana is likely not to meet the SDG target. 

Speaking at the launch, the Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Edwin Gorataone Dikoloti said, “The need to invest in innovative options to bridge the long distances, reduce current transportation costs, overcome road infrastructure challenges, and improve timely availability of essential emergency obstetric care drugs, commodities and supplies is therefore urgent.” 

A 2017 report on maternal mortality rate shows that a significant proportion of maternal deaths in Botswana are preventable.  

“Now more than ever, innovation is critical to achieving the ‘leaving no one behind’ goal. And with innovation come powerful partnerships, hence our work with the university and ministries. We believe that today’s problems and changing context call for harnessing innovations that can provide breakthrough solutions that deliver sexual and reproductive health for all,” UNFPA’s Country Director says. 

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