BALI, Indonesia -- In late 2014, a group of public health experts and philanthropists were grappling with the problem of how to improve contraception access for women in the most remote, hard-to-reach villages in rural Africa, where a flood can shut down the roads for days and cut off medical supply chains. It occurred to them to borrow an idea from Amazon: Unmanned delivery drones.
"We thought, 'Hang on a minute. We can use this for something else!'" said Kanyanta Sunkutu, a South African public health specialist with the United Nations Population Fund.
The idea grew into a successful pilot program called Dr. One, which has for months been successfully flying birth control, condoms and other medical supplies to rural areas of Ghana on 5-foot-wide drones. The pilot program, which is jointly funded by UNFPA and the Dutch government, is now expanding into six other African countries in hopes of revolutionizing women's health and family planning across the continent. The drone operator simply packs the vehicle with contraception and medical supplies from a warehouse in an urban area and pilots it over to places that are difficult to access by car. There, a local health worker meets the drone and picks up the supplies.
"Delivery to the rural areas used to take two days," Sunkutu said at the International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia. "It will now take 30 minutes."
Access to birth control is a massive problem in Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, where fewer than 20 percent of women are using modern contraceptives. The World Health Organization estimates that 225 million women in developing countries around the world would like to delay or stop childbearing, but lack reliable birth control methods. The lack of access leads to exceedingly high rates of unintended pregnancy in these areas, which prevents women and girls from finishing school or becoming employed. And roughly 47,000 women a year die of complications from unsafe abortions.
The idea of using drones to improve reproductive health options is not a new one. In June, a Dutch organization called Women on Waves used a drone to fly medically approved abortion-inducing pills from Germany to Poland. The purpose of the flight was to raise awareness of Poland's restrictive abortion laws. But so far, Project Last Mile is the first to develop a sustainable, long-term program for contraception delivery by drones.
Sunkutu said he expected the pilot program in Ghana to encounter significant obstacles. He was worried that residents receiving the shipments would associate the contraception drones with war drones. As a result, UNFPA and its partners exclusively refer to the tiny planes as "unmanned aerial vehicles" in their program materials. "We don't want that link between war and what we are doing," Sunkutu told The Huffington Post in an interview. "But the resistance we thought we would get has not been there."
The pilot program in Ghana has been so successful and cost-efficient -- each flight costs only $15 -- that the governments of several countries have offered to take over the program and pay for it themselves. Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique have all expressed interest in using the drones for family planning. Sunkutu hopes that at some point in the future, the vehicles will revolutionize many other areas of life in rural Africa.
"They can deliver ballots after elections, or exams for school," he said. It becomes a logistics management solution for hard-to-reach areas. We're going to use family planning as an entry and make it sustainable."
This story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Coca-Cola and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are contributing funds to the drone program. They are not involved.