Moving things around, and in and out of, Africa is tough. Only slightly more than half of Africans live in areas with tarred or paved roads. Reaching rural populations is a constant struggle, and even within cities, the high costs of services like DHL make couriering goods or documents difficult.
Transporting goods into Africa from overseas is also fraught with logistical difficulties. No wonder almost 25% of respondents to an Afrobarometer survey say infrastructure and transport are the major problems governments need to address.
Yet while African governments struggle to overcome their infrastructural issues, innovative tech companies across the continent are moving in to solve the problem.
'Droneports' for blood
One of the key challenges when it comes to infrastructure in Africa is reaching rural populations. Paved roads do not reach far-flung areas, to the point that people cannot be provided with mobile services or banks.
Yet this lack of access can have potentially deadly repercussions when it comes to getting vital healthcare equipment to people off the beaten track. In Rwanda, one company is employing drones to solve this problem.
California-based Zipline uses drones to deliver medicine and blood to remote areas, and has made Rwanda its first port of call.
Launched in 2014 with backing from the likes of Google Ventures and Paul Allen, the startup kicked off its operations in Rwanda in July 2016.
The company describes itself as the world's first drone delivery service, with spokesperson Justin Hamilton saying its focus is bringing critical, lifesaving medicine to the most `difficult to reach places’ around the globe.
Zipline is delivering blood to transfusion clinics across the country, overcoming the fact that during Rwanda's rainy season, many roads are impassable or non-existent. The country has one of the highest rates in the world of maternal death due to postpartum haemorrhaging, while many transfusion clinics only receive blood deliveries twice a year.
Using Zipline, blood transfusion clinics across the country can place emergency orders via SMS, which are received at Zipline's centrally-located base, which houses 20 drones.
“Each drone can fly a 150km round trip and carry 1.5kg of blood - enough to save a person's life. Zipline will be making 50 to 150 emergency flights a day to deliver blood and can fulfill orders in around 30 minutes,” Hamilton says.
Currently operating across the western half of the country, Zipline plans to expand the project to the eastern region in early 2017, before heading to other African countries.
Getting stuff around town
Logistical issues in Africa get a little more mundane than transporting life-saving blood. Yet when it comes to transporting items and documents around major cities on the continent, there are problems with cost and efficiency.
Companies like South Africa’s WumDrop, Nigeria’s KOBO and Kenya’s Sendy have adopted the Uber model to help with this, allowing users to request a courier via an app to pick up and drop off an item. They can follow the courier’s progress on the app, and make affordable payments in a streamlined manner. Couriers are also rated and reviewed by customers.
Sounds simple, but there is some serious tech behind the concept. Michelle Miller, marketing manager of Sendy, says the startup uses smartphone tracking to log unmarked addresses on a map, as well as dispatching algorithms to guarantee the closest rider to a pickup location.
“Before Sendy, if you wanted to send a package, you had a couple of options,” she says. “For big corporate offices, you could negotiate a long-term contract with a traditional courier supplier. This works for large businesses. Medium-size companies might hire, in-house, a rider and buy a motorcycle. For individuals and small businesses, you'd flip through your contacts on your phone, calling boda after boda looking for someone who was available to do a delivery.”
Sendy’s tech removes these costs and problems, making the service fully on-demand and transparent. In a country without a formal addressing system, its GPS system is also a massive development.
“Most apartments are badly marked, or not on Google Maps, or exist on Google Maps in a different location from what's true,” Miller says. “Plus, dropping a pin on a map doesn't necessarily make it easier as, in high-density neighbourhoods, choosing which of the several buildings in the area is the correct one can prove challenging and inefficient.”
KOBO co-founder Obi Ozor says coming up with the right type of technology, which businesses are willing to adopt and which drives efficiency, is key.
“Infusing the right technology can bring fluidity to logistics firms and drive down costs so that the focus now shifts to tailoring solutions that support the growth of businesses,” he says. “Once logistics companies begin to align themselves with the growth of small and medium enterprises in Africa, the industry will evolve and expand.”
Shopping and shipping from abroad
It’s not just within Africa that transportation is a problem. Millions of Africans live in the diaspora, and wish to send items home. Meanwhile, with global services like eBay and Amazon not available on the continent, those that wish to shop from international stores have no way of receiving their goods.
Enter Ghana’s Aquantuo, a peer-to-peer (P2P) platform that allows users to transport items using the spare space in the bag of an individual travelling. Users post about the item on the platform, and registered transporters can sign up to carry it.
“These transporters are Aquantuo users that have opted to carry items as they travel from one country to another, or even a business shipping large items between countries. Items posted on Aquantuo can range from small items like a cellphone to larger ones like cars,” says co-founder Clement Owusu-Donkor.
He feels the company is filling a vital gap by employing on-demand technology.
“To find genuine name brands or other everyday items on the African market is quite a daunting undertaking and, in the event you do, they are quite expensive,” says Owusu-Donkor.
“Additionally, users who already have a package in hand can rely on the inbuilt technologies on the Aquantuo platform to find travellers who can take their items from one place to the other.”
Such technology can also help more established freight forwarders maximise on their business, by using online platforms to fill unused space. Another Ghanaian company, Swiftly, is operating in this space.
Freight forwarders go through a lot of trouble to get shipments full for dispatch. They have too often had to close the box with lots of space wasted,” says co-founder Edem Dotse. “To solve this, they deal with salespeople and agents using crude methods to solicit customers.”
Swiftly solves this problem by connecting cargo firms with unused space with users needing goods transported, fixing two problems at once. Dotse says it’s inevitable that tech will become more prevalent in logistics.
“We need tech solutions to revolutionise how logistics is done in Africa to match the high level of trade and traffic the continent sees,” he says. “Africa is growing and its youthful population is bound to be a major market in the world.”
Owusu-Donkor says uptake is likely to speed up, given the predisposition of Africans to use tech when it is relevant to their lives.
“Africans are welcoming of innovative technology. Limited and unreliable infrastructure, along with highly priced products, should not get in the way of growth.”