This 27-Year-Old Launches Drones That Deliver Blood to Rwanda’s Hospitals
(Bloomberg) -- In the spring of 1994, Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana’s executioners arrived. It was about two weeks after the Hutu majority-controlled government stepped up its decades-long persecution of the Tutsi minority, calling on citizens to slaughter all Tutsis. Nizeyimana’s family was Tutsi, and it didn’t take long for the killers to come knocking. Nizeyimana, who was three years old at the time, hid under the bed with his mother and two siblings. The father stepped out, probably in an attempt to convince the militia that his family wasn’t home. Nizeyimana heard them talking briefly, and then he couldn’t hear his father talking at all. Having hacked the father to death with their machetes, the men moved into the bedroom and found the rest of the family. The men swung at them, including Nizeyimana, who was struck at the top of his head. Everyone died. Everyone except him.
Nizeyimana remembers the following years only in staccato moments, like disconnected dots on a graph. At one point he was at a homeless shelter for survivors, and at another point his grandmother found him there. She took him in and remembers a studious boy but Nizeyimana remembers it differently. “I was a stubborn kid at school, and I caused a lot of trouble for my grandma,” he says. “The first couple years of school were really, really hard.”
Things changed in his teens when his uncle and chief benefactor pulled him aside one day. “He told me, ‘I can pay your school fees, I can help you grow, I can build a house for you, but I cannot be a man in your place,’” Nizeyimana recalls. So he studied hard, obtaining his associate’s degree in renewable energy engineering first, then his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering, all the while working various jobs.
The hard work paid off. Today, Nizeyimana leads a team of young people in Rwanda who launch and retrieve autonomous drones that deliver blood to remote hospitals. As such, the 27-year-old Rwandan may know more than anyone else on the planet about what it takes to run a drone delivery operation day to day. His job is the subject of the third episode of Bloomberg’s mini-documentary series Next Jobs, which profiles careers of the future.
Even as tech giants from Amazon.com Inc. to Alphabet Inc. generate buzzy headlines with their drone delivery trials, Nizeyimana’s employer Zipline International Inc. started running an actual commercial service back in 2016. Zipline, backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights including Sequoia Capital, is headquartered in California, but decided to open its first distribution center in Muhanga, west of Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Nizeyimana and his coworkers have now completed more than 8,000 flights carrying about 15,000 units of blood to 21 hospitals in Rwanda’s western region. The company’s expecting to hear from the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority any day now for approval to start serving the eastern half of the country.
Zipline’s conversations with the Rwandan government started in early 2015, when the company approached a number of African governments with an idea for delivery drones. The startup’s founders knew they wanted to do something in healthcare, but they weren’t sure what exactly to deliver. It was the Rwandan government that suggested starting out with blood—much of the country is connected by winding, dirt roads in the mountains that get washed out in the rainy seasons, making it difficult for hospitals to procure blood in emergencies. And Rwanda was willing to change its regulations to make it happen, including opening up its airspace for the company's drones. In April 2016, Zipline announced that it planned to soon start its first delivery service in Rwanda.
It was about a month later that Nizeyimana heard about Zipline, at the World Economic Forum on Africa where the California startup had a booth. Nizeyimana left the conference skeptical. Having undertaken a mostly unsuccessful drone delivery project at school, he had discovered just how difficult it was to make such a system work. He also knew corporations much larger than Zipline were struggling to make meaningful headway on the technology. But by happenstance, a few weeks later, an American company needed someone to fix its generator and a friend referred Nizeyimana for the job. When Nizeyimana showed up, the company in need happened to be Zipline, which was laying the groundwork for its first distribution center. Intrigued that the company was moving ahead, he emailed to say he wanted to apply. In September 2016, Nizeyimana became its first local hire. Today, the country’s staff of about 20 are almost all Rwandan.
Even though the drones fly autonomously, there’s a surprising amount of work that goes into running a drone delivery operation. At Zipline’s distribution center, there are two main jobs: fulfillment operators, who package the requested blood; and flight operators, which is what Nizeyimana does. When an order comes in, he assembles the plane, packs the bags of blood inside and places it onto a launcher, which catapults the drone into air. When the aircraft returns, a robotically controlled line catches the plane by its tail, after which two people disassemble the plane. It’s when things break, as they invariably do, that Nizeyimana seems most animated, hunched over the object of concern with a tool in hand. He says he falls asleep most nights thinking through the next thing he hopes to fix.
Nizeyimana today is studying for grad school in robotics, potentially overseas, because the job also made him realize how much more there is to learn. But it’s not just sheer curiosity that’s propelling him to this next stage of his life. He thinks he can better serve Rwanda if he’s better-educated and better-skilled. He says Rwanda will become the Singapore of Africa in the next decade and a half, repeating a commonly voiced aspiration in the country. It’s wildly lofty—Singapore enjoys the fifth-highest quality of life in the world, compared with Rwanda’s rank at 159th—but Nizeyimana sees it as his personal obligation to help the country get there.
It’s a lot for a 27-year-old to put on himself, and he isn’t alone. Rwanda, where the median age is 19, is full of young people like him who speak with this particular mix of extreme ambition, optimism and duty. It’s been 24 years since the genocide, and the country has come a long way: the economy, for example, has grown more than seven-fold. Yet few are standing still to celebrate. They’re impatient for the future.
Nizeyimana says he derives his drive from the sheer improbability of his survival: With an open gash on his head, in a city where there was little food and water let alone a functioning healthcare system, surrounded by people who systematically mobilized to ensure his death, he lived. “If I got another chance to live, would I want to use that chance for having a lot of beers, or buying cars? What should I use the second chance for?” he says. “Serving the community and making an impact on other people’s lives is what makes sense for me.”
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