Located at the gates of East Africa is the Republic of Rwanda; a small, landlocked country with a green mountainous landscape. Most of the country’s rural settlements are characterised by expansive plantations, haphazardly sited village homes, and meandering mountain roads.
Sitting quietly in those unassuming surroundings – like a soldier clad in camouflage lying in wait ambush-style – is a barely recognisable strip of land no bigger than a soccer field. And on that piece of land sits the launchpad from which Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana launches drones that carry blood to doctors making frantic efforts to save patients who are in critical condition.
You could think of Nizeyimana as some sort of time-travelling deliveryman from the future, and one of the first of his kind too. And you won’t be too far from the truth.
Apparently, a lot is made of the tendency of new technology to put people out of jobs by rendering them redundant, and perhaps rightfully so. However, we must also recognize the new jobs that are being created from the emergence of new technology.
For starters, Nizeyimana and his colleagues at the drone facility in Rwanda are amongst the few now waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana works for a startup called Zipline. Although the company is headquartered in California, U.S.A, it runs a drone facility located due west from Kigali, the Rwandan capital. The company launched one of the world’s first drone delivery services in the East African country.
Niyezimana, along with his colleagues at the facility, is combating a serious problem in his homeland. Although the country has made tremendous progress in the areas of economy and infrastructure in the last two decades, Rwanda is still trying to erase its name from an unenviable list which contains some of the world’s poorest countries.
Parts of its landscape are dotted by winding, bumpy dirt roads in the mountains, and much of those get washed out during the twice-yearly rainy season, and a number of regional hospitals sit in the midst of the mountainous terrain. The situation makes the job of health workers who already have a Herculean task getting supplies to some of the country’s more remote parts a lot more difficult.
Typically, if a hospital is running low on something as vital as blood, it would need to find a vehicle, and then drive all the way to Kigali. On a good day, the trip takes eight hours to and fro – which sounds a lot like a death sentence in cases of emergency.
In many of those regional hospitals, doctors are unable to perform a number of life-saving operations due to the difficulties associated with procuring blood in emergency situations in those locales.
As a result of this, a lot of precious lives have been lost under very salvageable circumstances.
And this is where Nizeyimana is proving his worth – helping people in very remote places access the vital fluid. The team works like a well-oiled machine; once the request comes in, they get moving.
It’s a pretty straightforward process; the package (which has the dimensions of a shoebox) is loaded onto a hatch which is then fastened securely with the drone’s flying mechanism. He assembles the plane and places it on a launcher. The drone, nicknamed ‘zip,’ is readied for launch and voila! it takes to the skies like a miniature fighter jet.
The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is guided by GPS technology and other sensors, all the way to the hospital that made the request. Once it reaches its destination, it drops its payload and heads back to base, and a hospital staff retrieves the package.
It’s pretty interesting how the drone is brought to a stop on its return journey. You’d expect it to come to a halt after a landing routine, but that’s not exactly the case. The drone is snatched from the air by its tail in one deft, precise move by means of a robotically controlled arm. If there’s anything like ‘aerial angling,’ that’s probably what it would look like.
Once the drone is retrieved, it is disassembled and stashed – at least, until the next request comes. If repair/maintenance is required, Nzeyimana knows it’s time to party. The entire operation usually takes no more than 30 minutes, with the delivery itself requiring just about a quarter of an hour.
It would appear Nizeyimana is doing well for himself at the moment. He’s doing a rewarding job and there is a sense of duty about his work – one hinged on a detail as important as helping save people’s lives. But ironically, he was fighting for his own life not too long ago. All the success so far achieved have come in the wake of unimaginable pain and tragedy.
It was the spring of 1994 and little Nzeyimana had just heard his father’s voice for the last time. No, the old man didn’t go peacefully in his sleep after some last words on his sick bed. Nzeyimana’s father was hacked to death right outside their house in the thick of the infamous Rwandan genocide.
About a fortnight after the Hutu majority-controlled government took its decades-long persecution of the Tutsi minority to a whole new level of bloodthirsty by ordering an ethnic cleansing, thousands of Tutsis had been slaughtered, and it wasn’t long before the rampaging Hutus found Nzeyimana’s family. Being Tutsis, they were always in grave danger.
In a bid to save his family, his father hid Nzeyimana, his mother and his two other siblings under a bed and stepped out to meet the attackers – probably to tell them his family wasn’t home and offer himself.
It was a very brief conversation as the militia struck him down before he could say much. Then, the bloodthirsty band burst into the house and found the rest of the family. The men were wielding machetes and they swung wildly at everyone, including Nzeyimana who was only three-years-old at the time. Everyone died. Everyone except him.
Despite the deep cut, Nzeyimana survived. He was taken to a homeless shelter by a stranger where his grandmother eventually found him. He’s lived with her ever since.
It was a harrowing experience – in just 100 days, over 800,000 thousand people were slaughtered in the pogrom – but except for the scar he still carries on his head, everything now seems like a blur.
Nzeyimana’s grandmother remembers him as a studious boy growing up but the young man has different memories. As he told Bloomberg, “I was a stubborn kid at school, and I caused a lot of trouble for my grandma. The first couple of years of school were really, really hard.”
He may have turned a corner after an encounter in which his uncle and chief benefactor pulled him aside and opened his eyes to the perils of an unruly lifestyle. Since then, he has resolved to be better and do better too.
And the hard work is paying off. Nzeyimana has gone on to obtain an associate’s degree in Renewable Energy, and then a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering – all the while, juggling academics with different jobs.
He’s currently working towards a post-grad in robotics while leading a team of young people in Rwanda who launch and retrieve autonomous drones that deliver blood to remote hospitals. Perhaps the 27-year-old is one of the few persons on the planet with significant knowledge of how to run a drone delivery operation day-to-day.
Zipline came to the fore in April 2016 when the successful conclusion of talks with the Rwandan government led to the opening of its first distribution centre in Muhanga, west of Kigali. Nzeyimana and his coworkers have now completed over 8,000 flights carrying about 15,000 units of blood to 21 hospitals in Rwanda’s western region.
The company receives a fixed amount as payment from the Rwandan government per delivery and there are talks of launching operations in the eastern half of the country pretty soon.
In September 2016, Abdoul Salam Nzeyimana became Zipline’s first local hire and it was the culmination of a chance encounter.
He had heard about the company a month after it kicked off operations in his home country but he didn’t think much of it.
During his school days, he had attempted unsuccessful drone delivery projects and he was well aware of the difficulties – this beefed up his scepticism. As time passed, he was hired by an American company to fix a generator on the recommendation of a friend, and the company in question happened to be Zipline.
He was intrigued by what he saw on ground and eventually applied. And the rest is history. Today, Rwandans make up most of the company’s 20-man staff in the country.
Nzeyimana is hoping to expand his knowledge and put it to use in serving the community. Having survived such a dastardly attack so early in life, he sees his life as a rare second chance and wants to spend every day of it impacting the lives of people.
Featured Image Courtesy: morebranches.com