South Africa

Service delivery, anyone? Time for radical solutions.

By J Brooks Spector 5 December 2013

The sound of drones isn’t usually welcomed. But that could be changing. in addition to their use as weapon delivery platforms, the US military is rumoured to be contemplating developing drones that can deliver urgent medical supplies in difficult battlefield circumstances. Drones are also being used as surveillance platforms for the military - and even some local police forces. Not to mention their commercial use to distribute much-anticipated antiretrovirals where they are needed most. Someone please phone Amazon's Jeff Bezos? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The villagers pour out of their rondavels, anxiously scanning the horizon for the source of the ominous noise, the whirring “whup, whup, whup, whup, whup” of incoming drone flights. The craft come in low, flying in a tight airborne echelon formation, their silhouettes sharp against the morning Sun. An older outside observer might almost be forgiven for recalling iconic video footage of those helicopter gunships sweeping across the sky, lining up for a yet another attack during the Vietnam War.

As the craft come ever closer, the villagers nervously cluster around an improvised landing zone, to village’s GPS coordinates demarcated precisely on the special marker placed in one corner of the LZ sketched out in the dirt. The craft hover in their flight pattern, turn, descend, and, one at a time, each alights for a minute on the ground, just long enough to release the latches holding the loads slung from the drones’ fuselages.

The staff members of the local clinic step forward, open each of the cases – and then check the inventory lists they had received earlier by e-mail and SMS to make sure every one of the scheduled HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral packets have arrived on schedule. Nursing sister Rejoice Mosada tells a friend, “This is so much better than relying on the delivery vans. Sometimes they came, sometimes, well…. It was very hard to have to tell our people they needed to go to that hospital in Polokwane for their tablets. It was a long, tiring journey for them, and then they had to wait and wait. Now the medical distribution centre in town packs our boxes and the company flies our supplies right to us.”

South Africa already operates the largest antiretroviral distribution program in the world, together with national testing, counselling and prevention regimens. The programs have been ramped up to become a key national priority after the deadly follies of the quackery of those beetroot and olive oil-based anti-AIDS policies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Recently, however, there have been charges that crucial medicines are not arriving on time in a growing number of the country’s clinics and regional hospitals. This leads to comment there must be better and more innovative ways to get things done. Perhaps there could be new public–private partnerships to prevent HIV-positive patient from missing their crucial medicines for weeks at a time, thereby allowing the virus to make a second stand in the patient’s body.

But unmanned drone aircraft flying towards dusty rural villages to drop off critically needed medical supplies, rather than smart bombs? Really? Actually, as luck would have it, just the other day, Amazon.com made a huge splash in the international media with an announcement it was working on a five-year development plan to deliver book orders to customers by specially designed, very high-tech drone “octocopters”.

As company founder and head Jeff Bezos told the top-rated 60 Minutes TV news show in America over the weekend, “I know this looks like science fiction, but it’s not. We can do half-hour delivery… and we can carry objects, we think, up to five pounds (2.3kg), which covers 86% of the items that we deliver. From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place.” That sounds just about like what a package of local clinic’s worth of anti-retrovirals would weigh, doesn’t it?

Of course Amazon.com isn’t actually quite ready to establish such a program in the US just yet. For one thing, Federal Aviation Agency regulations currently preclude corporate operations of drone fleets for commercial purposes inside the US, except for one company operating in Alaska.

But Amazon.com isn’t the only company that seems to be contemplating this next step in customer service. When asked about its own plans, the spokesman for UPS, a major international delivery service, said, “The commercial use of drones is an interesting technology and we’ll continue to evaluate it. UPS invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future.” Sort of corporate speak for, “yes, of course we’re looking at this but we’re not going to give away the store just yet to our competitors.” In fact, drones have actually been used in Haiti, a place where the transportation network is barely in existence, to dispatch time-sensitive medical deliveries.

And, of course, in addition to their widely observed use as weapons delivery platforms in Afghanistan and Northwest Frontier Pakistan, the US military is rumoured to be contemplating developing drones that can also deliver urgent medical supplies in difficult battlefield circumstances. This is in addition to the growing use of drones as surveillance platforms for the military – and even some local police forces. The US is not alone on this – an increasing number of other nations such as China and Israel are also active in the use of surveillance drones.

So, okay, let’s say Amazon.com (UPS or some other high-tech distribution company) needs a real test of what it can do. Let’s see, South Africa has big, wide expanses of low population density spaces. It is well mapped. And there is clearly a crushing need to get medical supplies into clinics and then into the hands of waiting people throughout the nation. What if South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi picked up the phone and reached out to Jeff Bezos and invited him to come out to this country to work with the Health Department’s AIDS programs and develop drone-based deliveries to clinics in those hard-to-reach, hard-to-service locations? At cost, and with all the risk on the company for any problems in making sure the program comes to life as advertised.

Think of the enormous global publicity for such an innovative delivery service effort for the company that makes all this work; the practical experience in working out rigorous delivery systems under difficult field conditions; and the obvious benefits to patients when they don’t have to trek all day into the nearest city for a chance to obtain their desperately needed drugs.

Now, while we’re at it, let’s finally, once and for all, solve another delivery problem that has bedevilled South Africa for years. How many headlines and investigations have there been over the persistent failure of the government to deliver textbooks – one of the basic requisites for a chance for education, after all – to all its schools and students?

Time for a story. About five years ago, the writer was helping a client, an international humanitarian relief agency, to document the dreadful results of multiple hurricanes on a string of villages in a beautiful but isolated part of another African nation. Arriving in the impact area, it quickly became obvious there were few supplies worthy of the name in those villages. Well almost nothing. The town’s one real restaurant, Le Peche, despite its name, could offer us no fish dishes the day we arrived in the town where we were based. But, as the days wore on, it became increasingly clear one could always find a reasonably chilled beer in the villages’ spaza-style shops, or a soft drink. You know, the one with the red and white stripes on the tins, with the cursive white writing.

Despite everything – war, famine, pestilence, insurrection – those two products (and maybe a couple of others) seem to get delivered in places like that, pretty much without fail, regardless, all over the continent. While textbooks probably weigh too much to be delivered by the octocopters throughout the length and breadth of South Africa (although a tablet with all the texts pre-loaded might still work), would a major beverage company pause for a New York minute before volunteering to deliver the nation’s textbooks to every hamlet in the country, while they simultaneously deliver their beverages to pubs, shebeens, spaza shops and supermarkets – if the government would only ask them to step up? With their trucks and vans emblazoned with a slogan about delivering the nation’s future, extra work would be a rounding error in their business plan.

Is it really necessary for the country to spend the new year documenting all the schools who don’t get their supplies and textbooks until the middle of the school year – or even later – before we once again have to ask if there isn’t a better way to deliver these things than via another bloated, over-expensive, badly-administered tender? Once again, think of the public relations value for a beverages company when its vans and trucks, carrying all those beverages – rolls into town, right on schedule, with “Serving the Nation” emblazoned across the sides of the vehicles. No more excuses about the overwhelming complexities of managing textbook delivery to the nation’s 23,000 schools. Surely there must be ten times, twenty times as many outlets in the country selling beverages – from shelves that are never empty. The schools should be that lucky. DM

Read more:

  • Amazon testing drones for deliveries at the BBC

  • Amazon’s drones: not so fast at the LA Times

  • UPS researching delivery drones that could compete with Amazon’s Prime Air at the Verge.com

  • Amazon drones: Obstacles to the Bezos dream at Politico.com

Photo: A drone flies over the archaeological site of Cerro Chepen as it takes pictures in Trujillo August 3, 2013. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

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