PROMOTED CONTENT: Boehringer Ingelheim: Soaring drones: delivering a milestone in tackling healthcare disparities

PROMOTED CONTENT: Boehringer Ingelheim: Soaring drones: delivering a milestone in tackling healthcare disparities

Addressing global healthcare disparities often requires collaborative innovation on the ground. Particularly in many underserved communities, where human and animal health are closely interdependent. To tackle challenges such as “last-mile” gaps in therapy delivery, innovative solutions like aerial drones and solar-powered vaccine refrigerators are among new solutions achieving tangible results

Achieving health equity is an ultimate goal in global health care. It aims to ensure that each of us has a fair chance to reach our full potential. Yet, despite progress over the past few decades, a significant proportion of our global population still struggles to overcome healthcare disparities.

The many obstacles require tailored solutions. This is particularly true for many rural communities, where the challenges are twofold: taking care of human health, but also ensuring adequate care for animal health. In many of these remote and underserved communities, these factors are interconnected, as smallholder farmers’ health and livelihoods are often dependent on just a few animals. 

Too often there is a “last-mile” delivery gap — the final critical miles beyond distribution systems, which can prevent access to veterinary care, vaccines and other animal health products to farmers in remote areas. By closing this gap, we can help transform their lives and brighten the prospects of future generations. Moreover, we have learned that supporting farmers can bring benefits beyond those individuals and their families. In rural areas, farmers often take on multiple roles within their communities. And so, providing more stable incomes for farmers can improve quality of life within a community in multifaceted ways.

Scaling innovation through collaboration

At Boehringer Ingelheim, our human pharma and animal health businesses are dedicated to the ambition to create value in areas of unmet medical need and enabling more equitable healthcare solutions along our value chain. We are driven by a firm commitment to innovation. And while we aim to lead by example, we understand that real transformative change hinges on the collective power enabled by the collaboration of all. That includes healthcare providers, governments, patients, caregivers, livestock and pet owners, consumers and, of course, ourselves. 

Our strategy Sustainable Development – For Generations incorporates three pillars: More Health, More Potential and More Green. The strategy aims to holistically address health equity, as well as the interdependence of human, animal and environmental health, in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

By 2030 we aim to positively impact the lives of 50 million people in underserved communities around the world. Our goal is to harness the power of social innovation to tackle these challenges and create solutions that have sustainable impact. We do this by connecting complementary initiatives across the continuum. Our long-term initiative Making More Health – MMH – focuses on partnering with a global network of innovative social entrepreneurs and collaborating with underserved communities. In other initiatives we use complementary approaches, including funding and supporting social enterprises. We are co-creating with our employees and like-minded stakeholders across the entire continuum with the goal of enabling an ecosystem of impact. 

Adopting the power of drones

Most recently, we have begun leveraging our ecosystem and collaborating with partners to use drone technology to help close the last-mile gap for more efficient and cost-effective vaccine delivery. 

In Africa’s expanding poultry industry, vaccines protect animal and human health, which in turn supports food safety and security. Improving poultry immunity, health and productivity are critical to address to ensure the industry’s continued success and the health of the communities the industry supports.1  

Another healthcare challenge is rabies, a viral disease present in over 150 countries, predominantly in Africa and Asia. Rabies results in tens of thousands of human deaths annually, 40% of which are children and 99% caused by dog bites.2 

Those deaths are preventable through animal vaccines. A key challenge, though, is finding ways to securely transport and continuously cool vaccine doses, to ensure they are readily accessible and effective, even in remote communities. 

In 2022, Boehringer Ingelheim IMETA – the company’s regional operating unit serving India, the Middle East, Turkey and Africa – identified a solution with Zipline, a company specialising in on-demand drone delivery, and assembled a cross-functional team. To optimise the vaccine drone project’s effectiveness, we integrated it into our sustainable development ecosystem of local communities, NGOs, social businesses and entrepreneurs. Key to success is on-site understanding through local partners who recognise the potential benefits and can leverage the necessary infrastructure on the ground. 

One partner for the initial drone delivery vaccine project was Cowtribe, a last-mile veterinary delivery social start-up in Ghana, which employs technology to help coordinate deliveries of veterinary vaccines and other animal health products to rural and underserved communities. Through its logistics platform based on demand optimisation, Cowtribe can dramatically reduce costs for the farmer. Boehringer Ingelheim has supported Cowtribe since 2019, and last year made the Ghanaian company the first recipient of a grant from our social impact fund, Boehringer Ingelheim Social Engagement, which provides investment and non-financial support to further scale and expand the impact of entrepreneurial businesses. 

Building on this trusted partnership and their technology to reach smallholder farmers and agrovets across Ghana, Cowtribe in the first half of 2023 conducted 292 drone flights together with Zipline to distribute 1.4 million poultry vaccine doses to nearly 5,000 rural smallholders. The flights reduced vaccine costs considerably, proving the effectiveness of a new distribution system with the potential to close the crucial last-mile delivery gap. 

Collaboration and innovation enable a sustainable impact

In July 2023, the next milestone was an anti-rabies vaccine campaign in Kenya, based on the learnings captured from the proof of concept implemented in Ghana through the collaboration between Cowtribe and Zipline. The project is in partnership with two local non-governmental organisations and their communities in Bungoma County, which Boehringer Ingelheim has supported since 2019. 

One of the NGOs, Core Health and Wealth International, is partnering with MMH to help transform healthcare delivery to underserved rural communities across western Kenya. CHW receives additional support from the More Green team to improve local environmental sustainability. For example, in Kenya’s Bungoma County, solar-powered water towers were constructed to create better access to safe, clean drinking water for the 1.3 million residents for whom the nearest water source, on average, is 1.5 kilometres away. 

CHW played a crucial role in the anti-rabies vaccination campaign through its extensive connections to hospitals and health facilities across the country. Moreover, the NGO provided necessary medical infrastructure to ensure efficient distribution of the vaccine doses. 

These efforts were complemented by a second local NGO, GAASPP (Golden Age and Albinism Support and Protection Program), a regional community organisation in western Kenya. GAASPP is dedicated to providing a platform and partnership for the vulnerable elderly, as well as marginalised individuals with albinism. With a focus on empowering solutions, GAASPP assists the most vulnerable by cultivating champions from marginalised communities to represent and support them. 

Making use of a dedicated agrovet on site, GAASPP significantly mobilised surrounding communities to bring their dogs for vaccination to their community centre in Webuye and streamlined the administration of drone-delivered vaccines. GAASPP and the on-site agrovet will continue to provide animal health products for the local communities. And thanks to solar panels financed by the More Green fund, which supports environmental sustainability projects in line with our corporate 2030 commitments, the storage and refrigeration of these vaccines will have a minimal environmental footprint.

Another partner ensuring the success of the vaccination program in Kenya is Drop Access, a social start-up that developed VacciBox, a portable solar-powered refrigerator that makes possible the delivery of vaccines to remote areas. This became another successful component in the campaign. Too often, the problem is not a lack of vaccines, but vaccines that are spoiled by lack of refrigeration. Supported by Boehringer Ingelheim since early 2023, this campaign became another proof point for VacciBox, which is capable of storing up to 3,000 vaccine doses and running for 36 hours on battery. 

In a single day, an impressive tally of almost 2,000 dogs were vaccinated at eight different sites across Kakamega and Bungoma Counties. Over the next six months, the next step will involve distributing an additional 10,000 doses throughout Kenya’s
Lake Region.

We firmly believe that creating more sustainable, equitable solutions to interconnected human and animal healthcare challenges in underserved communities requires a holistic approach – innovation, collaboration and enabling an ecosystem of impact.