Image Credit: Zipline
If you watched the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, then you’ve encountered a genre known as Afro-Futurism, in which predominately African-American authors use science fiction to explore black liberation in a technologically advanced future. These are the kinds of stories that spark the creative energy of the next generation of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.
For this episode, we interview Dr. Moradewun Adejunmobi about Afro-Futurism as well as specifically African science fiction and what they signal about Africa’s place in visions of the future. Then we talk to Justin Hamilton from Zipline, a drone startup in Africa that is making science fiction into science fact.
What is the power of science fiction? What is Afrofuturism?
Black (s) to the Future, Mark Derry
It’s Not Just Black Panther. Afrofuturism Is Having a Moment, written by Alex Fitzpatrick
The Afrofuturism Behind ‘Black Panther’, written by Brent Staples
The Future of Money, Building Tomorrow Podcast
Cryptocurrency vs. Censorship, Building Tomorrow Podcast
Science Fiction, Science, and Capitalism, written by Karren Edwards
00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, a show about the cool things that would be possible in a free future. If you love cinema, you probably saw 2018’s blockbuster hit, Black Panther, which was set in a fictional African land called Wakanda. Now the people of Wakanda, they enjoy futuristic tech that is light years beyond anything outside of Africa. The movie was a global hit and it popularized a literary genre called Afrofuturism that typically features works by African American authors interested in how technological progress in the future could allow people who are subjugated, oppressed and colonized to throw off their shackles. And while Afrofuturism might at times feel like escapist fantasy from the dreary racism that is all too real today, it’s vitally important because science fiction is a tool of the imagination. And it’s the imagination where progress and innovation begin.
01:03 Paul Matzko: Think back to our episode about the invention of cryptocurrency, where decades before alternative currency was invented, it was first imagined by a small group of radicals, anarchists and techno-libertarians. It was a crazy and outlandish idea until quite suddenly, it wasn’t. The stories we tell about possible futures can draw things into existence. That is the power of the imagination. That is the power of science fiction. And in this episode, we’re going to explore a particular set of science fictions, both from Africa and from African Americans and how those imaginings might go from science fiction to science fact and do so much sooner than you might realize. Wakanda might be fiction today but it may not be for much longer. That’s because right now as you listen to this, there are innovations being tested in Africa that surpass anything we’re doing in the United States. We’ll talk to a representative later from Zipline, a medical supply delivery drone startup based in Rwanda but before that, let’s talk a bit more about Afrofuturism and what it suggests about the future of innovation in Africa.
02:15 Paul Matzko: I’m here with Dr. Moradewon Adejunmobi, professor of African and African American studies at the University of California, Davis. Professor, thank you so much for coming on the show.
02:24 Moradewun Adejunmobi: You’re welcome.
02:26 Paul Matzko: Now, in layman’s terms, very basically, what is Afrofuturism and why did it particularly gain steam in the 1990s?
02:36 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Okay. The term, Afrofuturism was coined by a cultural theorist, an African American cultural theorist named Mark Dery and it tries to bring together African diasporic populations, technology and the future and some people have said that Afro… That the authors who… And filmmakers who refer to Afrofuturism use science fiction to explore the relation of science, society and race and to stake claims for people of African descent in a future global imaginary.
03:23 Paul Matzko: So it’s, I guess broadly speaking, it’s a part of the African diaspora not just African, not just African American, it’s people of African descent around the globe, is that correct?
03:35 Moradewun Adejunmobi: That is correct and I will take this opportunity to say that in terms of my own interest, I am interested specifically in African science fiction more so than Afrofuturism, though there are interesting overlaps and there are interesting conversations and debates and controversies surrounding who gets to be described as participating in Afrofuturism, whose work should be considered Afrofuturist and whose work should not.
04:06 Paul Matzko: To put that in general terms, Afrofuturism, at least as I was reading Mark Dery’s essay, Black To The Future, it really is formed around a group of mostly African American science fiction and futurist writers like Octavia Butler and others and you’re taking so there’s Afrofuturism, which has often been written by African American authors at least back several decades ago and then African science fiction but now those two kind of fields of literature are merging in some ways.
04:43 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Well, there are parts of them that are merging and there are parts of them that are drifting away and one more thing that’s interesting, of course, is that in African science fiction, some of the leading writers in recent time are writers whose parents are African but they were born in the United States or in the United Kingdom or because their parents are African, they certainly have a very direct connection to the African continent, their parents have taken them there on holidays, they may have lived there for short periods of time, they visit very regularly, so they have a much closer connection to specific areas on the African continent than might an African American writer who doesn’t have that kind of immediate and close connection to the African continent. And so, those writers have been at pains to separate themselves in various ways with the most prominent being Nnedi Okorafor, well-known author of science fiction and fantasy novels, author of Who Fears Death, Akata Warrior, Book of Phoenix, Lagoon, and so many others and most recently, in addition to having complained about Afrofuturism and having complained that African authors and African-based writers are not sufficiently represented in that term, has begun to describe herself as an Africanfuturist, as one word.
06:24 Moradewun Adejunmobi: So she is putting forward, that what she is about now, is what she calls Africanfuturism, and here is how she defines Africanfuturism, she says, it’s similar to Afrofuturism, in the way that blacks on the continent, and in the black diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history and the future, the difference is that Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point of view, as it then branches into the black diaspora. And she says, African futurism as she understands it and how she now wants to define herself is very Africa-centered. So that the future that is being imagined plays out on the African continent and in very specific African places, unlike the Wakanda of Black Panther. It’s a very specific and very recognizable African places and she gives an example to show the, to highlight the potential differences between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism and the example that she gives, she says, from the Black Panther, she says in Black Panther which is very Afrofuturist, Wakanda build its firsts outpost in Oakland, California, USA, ‘cause that’s where the movie starts, right? And she says in Africanfuturism Wakanda would build its first outpost in a neighboring African country.
07:55 Paul Matzko: That’s really interesting, actually, yeah, that’s, I suppose it makes sense that for African-American Afrofuturism writers especially if they didn’t grow up with that kind of connection that you’re talking about, traveling back and forth between the continents, frequently visiting and having relations, direct relations back on, back in Africa, it would, in a sense, Wakanda is as real or is unreal as any actual African nation to them and their lived experience, right? The difference between writing about Lagos or some other major city or place in Africa, well, it in a sense that is an unattainable distant object in a way. So that’s actually really, that’s a very interesting observation. What then, I’m actually interested about this question, which is, so here in the United States, Black Panther landed like a 600-pound stone and was a real kind of cultural phenomenon for a moment in 2018, among African-American audiences and broader audiences as well of course. How was that… I don’t know at all, I don’t even know how the movie was received in Africa, among African film going audiences, how the comic books, if they were even read at all, what has the African experience of that cultural moment been like?
09:26 Moradewun Adejunmobi: I think in on the African continent as well, there was a lot of excitement with Black Panther and it was well received, it was a popular movie. It did what African science fiction writers and the few who are trying their hand at making it something that might be called an African science film wanted to do, which is project a future world where Africans would be at the center of it, where black people would be at the center of it. And yeah, so it did that. And for that reason, it was well received, it was popular, and the fact that there were many cultural elements in Black Panther that were adopted, that were from very specific African cultures, with people speaking some of the characters speaking the Xhosa language of South Africa, for example, and so on and so forth, the clothing from different parts of Africa, the fact that that was incorporated into it also made it recognizable and not just recognizable, but something that people wanted to celebrate, to see in a blockbuster American movie to see an acknowledgement of any element of the African landscape, the African reality and the African experience, so it was well received in that sense.
11:00 Moradewun Adejunmobi: For those writers who actually do African science fiction, as I said, their main thing is now that we have Black Panther, can we all now turn to and begin to really engage with narratives of the future that are centered on the African continent?
11:19 Paul Matzko: I confess, I’m not well read in the either Afrofuturism or African science fiction. So I asked Dr. Adejunmobi if she could describe several representative examples.
11:30 Moradewun Adejunmobi: And I’ll give an example of the Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who made a short which won a couple of awards, titled Pumzi and it’s usually available for free on the internet. So, I didn’t check just before we started speaking to see if it’s still available, but it’s a short. And in Pumzi, you have a future, Kenya in the future, after what are called the water wars, and only a fraction of humanity has survived, and they live in this place where they, they live in this kind of, in this special settlement, and they cannot come out of the building because the rest of the Earth has been transformed into a nuclear wasteland and an individual scientist who lives within that community receives an unmarked package of soil and with the message that she can plant, she can take it out and she can plant something and it will grow and she violates the orders of the community to venture beyond the walls of this special sealed compartment where they all are, and she’s able to plant, take this piece of soil out and plant something and… But she gives her life in doing that. So it’s just a post-apocalyptic narrative.
13:10 Paul Matzko: The Water Wars reminds me of a Mad Max riffs on that idea with water scarcity in the post-apocalyptic setting, or Children of Men. In that case it’s someone who’s pregnant is very rare in this case, so it’s a story about fertility in an infertile, sterile wasteland. That’s really interesting. But I guess here what makes it African science fiction is that it’s set in Africa very distinctly, right?
13:38 Moradewun Adejunmobi: It’s set very distinctly in Africa, and the source of the apocalypse is not the fact that it’s in Africa, because Africa itself is often presented as this dystopian place, by definition. And you have these post-apocalyptic fictions which explore the idea of a dystopian reality and apocalyptic world, but has nothing to do with Africa, it has something to do with technology and what has happened to technology and how humans have either used or abused technology, or how humans have used or abused their own environment.
14:22 Moradewun Adejunmobi: There’s another short story, a novella, by a Nigerian called Efe Okogu, that’s his name, and his novella’s titled Proposition 23, and the story’s set in the 22nd century and the Earth is dying. And the plot unfolds in a snow-covered Lagos, it’s freezing because the climate has been completely messed up and the world’s fossil fuels have been depleted, and nuclear conflict has triggered an everlasting winter. And so only a few people survive, and the few people who survive need to be connected to something that the government has created. They need to be plugged into an electro-neurological device that’s implanted in the human body, and in order to be plugged in you have to be an obedient citizen, and if you are a disobedient citizen you’re not plugged in, and the people who are not plugged in are called the undead.
15:29 Moradewun Adejunmobi: They are unlinked from every interface and from every device and from the system of credit that operates in the snow-covered Lagos, and they have to fend for themselves. And the undead, in the end, attempt a revolution, but many of them are tortured and killed. So that’s, again, an interesting kind of narrative and it’s, again, a recognizable post-apocalyptic narrative where race doesn’t really factor in. It is technology, it is politics, it is climate change.
16:04 Paul Matzko: Is that a difference… Obviously, we’re speaking in generalities here, so I’m sure there’s always exceptions, but is there difference between African-American authored Afrofuturism and and African science fiction? The African science fiction is less interested in focusing on race and African-American science fiction is in some ways grappling still with the legacy of exclusion and racism and slavery and the like.
16:33 Moradewun Adejunmobi: The answer is yes and no. There’s a lot of African science fiction that doesn’t deal with race, because the authors of science fiction, wherever they are, are speaking to their own reality. So there is a part of Africa where race is a big question, South Africa.
16:50 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Yeah, right. Yeah.
16:52 Moradewun Adejunmobi: And the fictions that come out of South Africa in different ways often engage with the question of race, starting with that big Hollywood blockbuster that’s well-known, District 9. And there are other narratives by South African science fiction writers that deal with race in interesting ways. Race is not necessarily central, they are projecting a future world, but in that future world the haves and the have-nots and the dividing line often mimics what we know about racial relations in the contemporary time.
17:40 Paul Matzko: I mentioned Mark Dery earlier as the scholar who coined the term “Afrofuturism,” but there’s a great quote from his essay on this point: “African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees.” Isn’t that fascinating? It seems so obvious once you think about it. How else would you describe the experience of being bodily carried away by an oddly colored people that had traveled vast distances just to capture you.
18:07 Paul Matzko: The Middle Passage, or the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was alien abduction on a massive scale. And those left behind could only wonder what had happened to their abducted loved ones. Of course that would leave a mark in the African imaginary that would later be explored through science fiction. But the idea’s even broader than that. It’s not just a matter of abductees, but of alien invasion and occupation. Back to Dr. Adejunmobi.
18:36 Moradewun Adejunmobi: So I want to clarify, clearly the alien abduction theme speaks very much to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and that experience, but alien encounters in general speak to colonialism, and that’s been… So many authors are using that very familiar alien encounters theme to explore.
19:12 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Future colonialisms ought to revisit past colonialism. I’m gonna come back to it ‘cause I know I haven’t yet fully answered your question. I’m gonna return to that in a moment, but I wanted to make that clear. One example would be a short story by the Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu. And Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, was not connected to the Atlantic slave trade. So he uses the short story that he titles The Sale to explore a kind of maybe present, contemporary, and future colonialism. And in the story, which is set in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe is now being governed by a techno-scientific empire, a joint US-China corporation, which is taking over all the land in Zimbabwe piece by piece. And this techno-scientific empire is called CorpGov and it owns many countries in Africa.
20:13 Paul Matzko: That’s great.
20:14 Moradewun Adejunmobi: And the protagonist who is a Zimbabwean, he lives in Harare, which is now Zimbabwe’s capital city and has been renamed Ha City. And all the men in Zimbabwe are now forced to take testosterone suppressants and they are not allowed to have children, because the land is to be used by this new corporation that has taken over. And in the short story, the central character applies to the corporation to allow him to become a parent, but he receives a letter denying his application for parenthood and he is unable to procreate at the same time as all of the land in Zimbabwe is being taken over by this corporation. So this is like a future kind of colonialism, not the past colonialism, but there’s also an exploration of what happens to technology, the ways in which technology’s advancing, and how the advancements of technology will or will not benefit Africans, p how they’ll be cut off or they will not be cut off from the new technologies that are being developed around the world.
21:33 Paul Matzko: There’s this real tension in African science fiction between a more optimistic view of technology’s liberatory potential, and the pessimistic concern about how that same tech could be used to re-colonize or otherwise marginalize Africa once again. It’s a tension that’s not unique to African science fiction. Think, say, of the contrast between episode of Black Mirror and the three body problem. But given negative African encounters with advanced technology during the early modern period, you’d expect that tension to be particularly trenchant. I asked Dr. Ajimobi to provide us with some examples of both impulses.
22:13 Moradewun Adejunmobi: So I think one person who tends to have a more optimistic view is Nnedi Okorafor who is Nigerian American. Her parents are Nigerian but she was born and grew up in the United States, but she goes back and forth. And so in her work, she does portray technological innovation on the African continent enabling people in Africa to be able to free themselves from whatever kind of local oppression is taking place at a certain point in time. One can think of her novel Lagoon as an example, one can think of The Book of Phoenix, The Binti Trilogy: Who Fears Death. And in those instances we have technological innovation occurring either entirely on the African continent or partly on the African continent, and being used for what you might describe as revolutionary purposes, for political purposes to free people who are in some way deprived.
23:23 Moradewun Adejunmobi: So Nnedi Okorafor’s works go in that direction. For a more pessimistic view, you can think of a big novel by the Ghanaian writer Kojo Laing titled Big Bishop Roko and the Alter Gangsters. And in that novel, scientists in the global North have initiated a process of genetic mutation, and the end result of that will be a fusion of human and machine that is more machine than human, and citizens from the poorer countries are excluded from this exercise in social engineering. And so they are reduced to being merely human, while citizens in the wealthier countries of the world, the most powerful countries of the world, will become cyborgs of a kind and they will rule the world. And so the main character in this novel realizes that this is what is happening and that Africans are going to be excluded, and so he hacks into the network that is responsible for this mutation, in the hopes of interrupting this technological process of transforming humans into cyborgs, because he realizes that his own part of the world is not going to benefit from this. And, therefore, they will be more vulnerable to exploitation to a future kind of colonialism, because they remain human while the rest of the world is no longer just human anymore.
24:55 Paul Matzko: I also asked Dr. Ajimobi about whether recent African technological advances had imparted a sense of hopefulness. After all, Africa’s cellular network is in some ways more advanced than America’s. And the majority of African cellphone users use their devices for banking, payments, and other services that are only slowly being adopted in much of the developed world. Africa is leapfrogging the US in various technologies. But Dr. Ajimobi had a different and, I think, more interesting take.
25:27 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Well, there I’m afraid I’m gonna disappoint somewhat, because I think the stories thus far don’t speak a lot to hopefulness. The African science fiction narratives don’t often speak to hopefulness in a clearcut way, though they do speak to technology. And you are right, there’s a lot of technological innovation going on. And the way people interact with technology’s changing culture with the cellphones… And you’re right again, the things that happened on the African continent before they happen in the United States here. Paying with your cellphone started in a number of African countries way before it began in the United States. But because people are interacting with technology in new ways, whether it’s drones, whether it’s cell phones, whether it’s broken down…
26:35 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Africa is a major site for electronic waste. A massive site for the dumping of electronic waste. Those things are causing a new generation of young people to write about technology, to think about technology. One person who has done some reflection about this is a Ghanaian whose name is Jonathan Dotse, and he says… One of the things that he’s written on his own website, he has a website. I think it’s Afro Cyberpunk, and he said “Africa itself is science fiction. Not the science fiction of your grandfather or the Foundation of your Asimov. No, Africa lent herself to the dystopian gloom of failed states, the iron rule of corruption, cartels snaking cold fingers into the upper echelons of government, and the high-tech gangs of disillusioned youth.” And so, he goes on and he speaks about, for example, the people who engage in cyber fraud. And Ghana and Nigeria are major locations for global cyber fraud.
27:51 Paul Matzko: The Nigerian Prince. Classic scam.
27:54 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Nigerian Prince. And many of these young people who engage in the cyber fraud, some of them are graduates who couldn’t find a job, some of them never went to university, but they know everything about working a fourth hand computer and connect it to the internet. They bring together their tech savvy and their ability to resurrect every dead kind of technological device, no matter how dead it is, with some of the traditional and indigenous spiritual beliefs. They may consult with some kind of figure, an individual who says that they are able to call the spirits to bless their work. They’d sit in front of computers all night, and these guys who do this, they sit in front of computers all night because when it’s night in Nigeria, then it’s day time in the United States, and they’re targeting victims in the United States. And they’re working on three or four computers at the same time, each individual carrying on several conversations with different people and using different identities at the same time.
29:17 Moradewun Adejunmobi: So, there was this just engagement with technology and another scholar Brian Larkin who works at… He’s at Columbia University has said that “In trying to figure out how Africans are interacting with technology today, we need to think not only of when technology is working as it should but when technology fails, which it often does. You know, the power goes out, the computer just shuts down because it hasn’t been updated. Various things that are supposed to happen don’t happen when they’re supposed to happen, and people at the same time are still interacting. They have this interface with technology and all of this is feeding into the kinds of stories that people are writing. And I think it’s because people are much more… Have a greater daily experience of the failure of technology. There’s much more skepticism about what the new technologies will bring in the science fiction narratives.
30:20 Paul Matzko: Interesting. Well, it’s a deeply… The way you framed our Nigerian Prince email scammers… That very cyberpunk… I mean, in a sense, they’re hacking consumers in another country. I can see why that would appeal to our Ghanaian author specializing in cyberpunk stories, ‘cause that’s very punk.
30:44 Moradewun Adejunmobi: Right. They’re hacking into systems elsewhere in the world. They also understand that they themselves… You’re familiar with the Nigerian Prince narrative, they understand that they themselves are positioned in a certain way, globally, so that the individuals who are participating in this fraud, it’s called the 419 in Nigeria, going by the criminal code, who participate in it. Even if they’re not completely down and out, they know how to write a story that says I’m completely down and out. I’ve got nothing. My parents were killed in a civil war. They know all the tropes that are used to represent Africa in the global imaginary, and they draw on all of them.
31:44 Paul Matzko: That’s cool.
31:45 Moradewun Adejunmobi: You know?
31:47 Paul Matzko: Yeah.
31:48 Moradewun Adejunmobi: My parents were murdered. My mother was raped. My father had HIV. Every Hard Knock story they can come up with. They are able to draw on all that to create fictional personas for themselves that they deploy in trying to lure unsuspecting victims into their net.
32:14 Paul Matzko: I love this reframing of computer scammers as a community of cyberpunk hackers who despite often having a lack of formal training, make up for it with hustle and wit. There they sit surrounded by the technological de-traders of the West scraping for a living, by whatever means they can find. Now, that’s really punk. But the future of African technological innovation isn’t relying on Nigerian prince scams and hacked together systems. There are startups in Africa doing fascinating work. One such company is Zipline, a flying drone delivery service for life-saving medical supplies that is years in advance of anything being done in the United States. So I asked Justin Hamilton, the head of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Zipline to explain what the company is up to. Welcome to the show, Justin.
33:06 Justin Hamilton: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
33:09 Paul Matzko: So in very basic terms, what does Zipline do?
33:13 Justin Hamilton: So Zipline is the world’s first and largest drone delivery operation. We make instant deliveries of critical and life-saving products to people in need. We began in October 2016 in Rwanda delivering blood to transfusion clinics in hospitals in the western part of the country. We’ve since expanded to establish a second base, bringing all 11 million citizens in Rwanda within a 30-minute flight of now over 100 different life-saving and critical medicines and medical products, vaccines, rabies anti-venom, you name it. Since then, we expanded to Ghana where we established four distribution centers. Each one of these distribution centers, so picture it’s a combination medical fulfillment warehouse and drone airport. So it’s as if somebody merged Boeing with UPS, a aerospace company and a fulfillment and logistics business. And each one of these things can serve about an area of around 8000 square miles, so many, many millions of people. We can reach many millions of people from one distribution center.
34:38 Paul Matzko: So, walk us through a delivery point to point. We have a, let’s say, a rural clinic, they need a rare blood type, they don’t have in stock, what do they do to get in contact with Zipline?
34:48 Justin Hamilton: So a doctor would send us a message over text or WhatsApp which is very commonly used around the world, or give us a call and make a request. Our fulfillment operators would take whatever blood or medical product was being ordered from our warehouse, load it to the… Give it to the flight operators who’d load it up in a box with a parachute, put the box onto the drone. The drone will be placed on the launcher, we’d go through the pre-flight process much of which has been automated, thanks to technologies like computer vision and things like that. We launch that plane into the sky. It’s really sort of slingshotted so it achieves speed very quickly. It goes from zero to 60 in about a fraction of a second. And it flies a pre-programmed… It flies autonomously on a pre-programmed route to the hospital. It usually arrives about 30 to 40 minutes or so depending on how far away the hospital is. We serve an area of about 8000 square miles, so we can fly… Our service area is about 8000 square miles, so our drones are capable of flying 100 miles round trip per each delivery.
36:08 Justin Hamilton: So as soon as the plane makes… The drone rather makes it out to the hospital, the bay doors open up. The package and the parachute are released. They float gently down to the front steps of the hospital. And then the hospital staff will come out, retrieve the blood, test it very quickly to make sure that we’ve delivered the correct blood type and that it’s safe for transfusion. And then they would take it straight into the operating room and transfuse the patient.
36:38 Paul Matzko: I’ve heard the founder compare the process to some match between an aircraft carrier and a bouncy castle. So what does the recovery process look like?
36:47 Justin Hamilton: Yeah. In the first iteration of our system, we did use… We did use a bouncy castle. Now, our system is higher-up off the ground so that when the plane comes in and the tail hook, the three-centimeter long tail hook catches the wire, it then hangs almost like a bungee diver or a bungee jump. It stops on a dime, swings down and almost looks like a trophy fish hanging, waiting for somebody to come and recover it. But it does allow us to do both take-offs and landings from a very small space compared to say, what you might require to fly commercially with longer range aircraft with a landing strip and things like that. So, we’re able to efficiently use a very, very small plot of land to conduct all of our operations.
37:53 Paul Matzko: So as the delivery… It’s dropped with a parachute. There’s something of a similar problem where there could be a gust of wind, something blows the delivery off-site, how do you make that parachuted item land on the target every time?
38:13 Justin Hamilton: So, our aircraft are able to dynamically adjust depending on wind and weather conditions. All of the routes that the plane flies are autonomous and pre-programmed but does have the ability to make certain amount of decisions on its own in-flight? The aircraft does that is. And so, if, for instance, the aircraft determines that on the approach into the hospital that the wind conditions from the east are not optimal, it will instead change course and come in from the west. So, our system does have the ability to make those kinds of adjustments to ensure that the package gets to where it needs to go safely and effectively.
39:00 Paul Matzko: What is the kind of failure rate, then? How often have you had your drone, because of weather, crashed or had delivery fail? What’s that looked like?
39:12 Justin Hamilton: Let’s just back it up a little bit and give you some of the macro picture. We have flown over one million miles so far across three continents and have made more than 26,000 deliveries. About a third of those have been in emergency situations where someone’s life was on the line. But we know that if you’re going to build a system like this, it’s critical that you bake in safety to every part of the entire system. Of the aircraft, of the logistics, the fulfillment, you name it. So, what we’ve done is a number of different things. Number one, as I had mentioned before on the pre-flight process, we use computer vision to automate most of the check, so the plane will not take off. It will not allow anyone to launch it until our system registers that it’s been fully pre-flighted to detect any kind of anomalies or errors or things that could jeopardize its ability to successfully fly its life-saving mission.
40:34 Justin Hamilton: At the point that the plane is in the air and flying, we’ve built redundant systems into many of the key aspects of the flight system itself. So, the plane has two propellers, two engines. If one fails, the other is strong enough to keep it flying. We have multiple control surfaces on the plane so that if the control surfaces on one wing fail, the same surfaces on the other wing can take it home. We have back-up power systems, back up navigation systems, back up communication systems. If all of those things fail, then we have a built-in parachute landing system. So in the event of… For instance, if air traffic control tells us that we need to ground the aircraft immediately because they have a plane in the sky that’s not responding or some other kind of emergency or if we experience sudden inclement weather, a freak storm that comes through that nobody, just nobody was expecting, the aircraft can autonomously decide to pull its chute or we can command the aircraft to pull is chute and glide down to the ground and gently land right where it is.
42:00 Paul Matzko: Let’s back up for a second. We’re in East Africa, it’s Rwanda, it’s Ghana, Tanzania, you know the countries that you’re operating in, what are the unique difficulties that medical delivery faces in those countries versus a place like the United States?
42:20 Justin Hamilton: So as you mentioned, we’re operating in a couple different countries in Africa. We’ve also announced plans to expand our efforts to India and to the Philippines. And we’ve also been doing work with the US Department of Defense to help them really rethink and revolutionize the way we do battlefield medicine and other critical logistics And we plan to expand to the United States later on this year. There are similar challenges and different challenges, I think, in each of these places. In many parts of the developing world, you have infrastructure issues which prevent you from really effectively getting what you need, where it needs to be. You have medical stock out issues where… And this is all over the world where essentially, if you’re in a big city, your ability to get access to the medicine and the care that you need is much, much different, or becomes much, much more difficult rather the further you get outside of a major metropolitan area. That’s true everywhere. I think the kinds of challenges we’re seeing in the United States are different. In a lot of places, there are access challenges, but there are also ways in which drone delivery can help change the way we deliver healthcare.
44:06 Justin Hamilton: For instance, there’re big movements in the United States around pushing care closer to home. Major, major healthcare providers are taking a good hard look at a concept that essentially says, “It’s potentially more cost-effective and more care-effective to treat you in your home than it is to admit you into the hospital.” If they can give you telemedicine, if they can give you on-demand access to medicines and the resources that you need in addition to home healthcare providers and things like that, some data show that outcomes have improved doing it that way versus admitting people into the hospital for long stays. There are chronic care patients around the country who are reliant on very regular deliveries of very, very expensive medications, sometimes many thousands of dollars worth of medications that they have to receive at their home or that they have to go out of their way to find at some specialty pharmacy. That’s very disruptive to their lives like it’s hard to have, to hold down a regular job with a regular schedule when you’re building so much of your life around the best way to get access to the medicine you need to stay healthy. So there are ways that instant drone delivery can help solve those access challenges as well.
45:42 Paul Matzko: It strikes me that you know medical supplies in terms of like starting with the hard and working towards the easier use case. It strikes me that Zipline’s also doing that with what you’re delivering. I mean blood delivery, medical supplies those are particularly hard cargo and as much as they have short expiration dates, they need to be refrigerated I mean it’s not just like ordering Postmates, so maybe you can describe for me some of what the founders thinking was, what the inspiration was was why medical supplies first?
46:18 Justin Hamilton: Yeah, blood is among the most delicate products that requires great, great care when delivering. There’s 20 to 30 different, you know between blood types, blood products, reagents, you name it there are multiple different types of products you have to have on hand, and our goal was essentially to do for medicine what Toyota did for auto manufacturing, right. It’s just in-time delivery. Instead of people guesstimating how, usually the hospital you run into two problems you either don’t have what you need or you don’t need what you have. The first instance leads to stock-outs, lack of access for patients and in many cases death. The other instance don’t need what you have leads to high levels of waste and other kinds of costs in the system. If you live in the developed world, we’ve baked in major places 100% uptime, 100% access in a lot of places by just factoring in the very, very high cost of waste. We just accept that we’re not gonna use all the blood we have and a lot of it is just gonna go, is just gonna spoil. If you live in a developing world country you don’t have that luxury. So we really wanted to focus on a very, very urgent high need medical product that could immediately help to save lives and at the same time allow us to build a robust system that can truly evolve into essentially the first logistics system on the planet that could help serve all people equally.
48:14 Paul Matzko: Now the program as I was reading about it, it sounds like there was some real vision from the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame signed the contract with you all very early on and Rwanda has a record of being very open to innovation, you know the emerging tech hub in Africa. In your own experience and Zipline’s experience with Rwanda and East Africa in general, where does that sense of openness and desire for innovation, like what explains that this particular moment in Rwanda?
48:50 Justin Hamilton: Well, Rwanda has been an extraordinary partner throughout this process and I think that the results show that. I mean they’ve essentially established the playbook for every other country in the world that wants to do this kind of work. In fact, the World Economic Forum partnered with Rwanda to develop model regulations that other countries who wanted to get into drone delivery could use to build their own systems so that they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. So it’s obviously very meaningful to have the commitment from, when the President of the country comes forward and says, “We need to do this,” the rest of the government came together and built an incredible partnership with us to make sure that we could bring this system to help serve the Rwandan people, so it’s been an honor to work with them.
49:53 Paul Matzko: Meanwhile in the US the Federal Aviation Administration still hasn’t approved final rules for non-line of sight drone deployment outside of a few pilot projects. They’re just too afraid of any downside risk whatsoever and so have been stifling drone development much of which has gone offshore to places like Rwanda and Switzerland, places with more pro-innovation regulatory authorities. Here is where we can affirm the importance of the stories that we tell, so often Western science-fiction emphasizes the risk and disruption that tech could foment to the exclusion of the potential upsides and when we fear tech rather than imagining its promise it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The stories that we tell truly matter and in some ways Africa is telling better stories right now than we are. I also asked Justin about how past innovation and infrastructure development in Rwanda and Africa more generally had made it possible for Zipline to roll out its drone tech so easily.
50:55 Justin Hamilton: Absolutely, when I talked about the redundant communication systems and navigation systems we use on our drone, we’re using both radio and cellular connection. But as you point out, in Rwanda, they, years ago, never took the time to lay down border-to-border nationwide phone lines, which created the opportunity for them to, in one fell swoop, do nationwide 3G. There are places where, if I’m in the major western hotel chain in Rwanda, I will flip off the Wi-Fi on my phone because the nation-wide 3G will give me better coverage. So it’s pretty phenomenal. And the innovations go beyond that. I know that this isn’t necessarily the topic of the talk, but from mobile banking and payments to you name it, Africa has really become one of the most innovative places in the world right now, because they have both the need and the capacity to move very fast in a lot of different directions.
52:18 Justin Hamilton: And drone delivery is one of them. Rwanda was first. And by virtue of that, not only are they showing everybody else what’s possible, but countries in Africa right now are leading the world in autonomous drone delivery. That’s one of the stories that we love, is that some of the biggest, most well-known technology companies in the world have been trying for years to figure out how to do this. But the most cutting-edge roboticists and autonomous flight engineers and things like that, they’re not in Seattle, they’re not in San Francisco, they work in Africa. So it’s a very cool story about how to build up the workforce of the 21st century, but it’s also one that we very much want to bring back home. We’ve developed this technology in the United States. We’ve worked very, very hard to build a robust system that we think can positively impact people’s lives. So we really, really look forward to launching in the United States very soon because we think it could have a very positive impact.
53:31 Paul Matzko: Let’s hope that we in the West will learn to imitate Africa when it comes to openness to innovation. I’ll end by describing some videos I’ve seen of Zipline’s launches. As the drones are literally catapulted into the sky, the fence around the launch site is lined with children of all ages, from toddlers through teenagers. They cheer each successful launch. Those children are getting a vision of the future. Who knows which of them, as a result, will one day be inspired to be part of the next generation of engineers, researchers, and programmers. They face challenges, certainly, but they have something that is all too often lost in the fat and happy developed world; a sense of wonder and the willingness to imagine that the future is unlimited. It is they who could make African science fiction into African science fact. That’s all for today. Until next week. Be well.
54:30 Paul Matzko: Thanks for listening. Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Building Tomorrow, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.