A Few Months Starting a Nest in Muhanga, Rwanda

Between mid July and Christmas this year I spent almost three months in Muhanga, Rwanda on three separate trips of 3-4 weeks. The overarching goal for my time in Muhanga has been to start our first Zipline Distribution Center (or in internally lingo, our first “Nest”).
Its been hard being away from Amanda and the rest of my friends and family this much. Traveling about half the time away from home is certainly not sustainable for either Amanda or I. She has been incredibly supportive (as always) throughout the challenges and we have made sacrifices as a family to help achieve Zipline’s goals. Thankfully, we know even more that we have a solid support network we couldn’t be more grateful for.

Even though I only took one day off to do something fun in my 11 weeks in Rwanda, I feel like I understand the country and culture fairly well mainly thanks to the 18 Rwandese staff we have hired full time so far and hundreds of part-time contractors. I not only worked closely with this team, I lived with 7 of them in our first company house in Rwanda.

The Legacy of the Genocide

Rwanda is a peaceful and accepting country as the horrors of racism and violence are still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Rwandans are hard, tough people. The two locals I became closest with and also the only people I spoke in detail about the genocide about, Abdoul and Placide, both lost their entire families in the genocide. Abdoul was 3 years old and was left for dead when his older sisters and parents were slain in their home. He has a scar on his head from a machete mark left before his uncle found him in their home as the only survivor and then raised him as his own son from then on.

Current Political Situation

President Paul Kagame is a benevolent dictator. He got “elected” by 98% in the last election and recently changed the constitution to remove the term cap for presidents so he could continue to run for president. Two concerns I heard repeatedly from our local team behind closed doors:
1) There is no freedom of speech, you can’t say negative things about the government or else bad things happen. This didn’t explicitly bother everyone on our team, many just stated this like a fact without opinion: “we don’t have the right to express our opinion about the government”
2) The government has their hand in many “private” businesses. For example, the government will see someone starting to become successful in an industry, then they will approach them and make an “investment” to buy a bug part of the company. Now the government will use regulation and pressure to close down any competition to make sure this business is very successful.

Economic Divide

There is a big economic divide. If you just spent time in the capital of Kigali you would think the country was doing quite well. It’s clean, most people seem to have jobs and are busy during the day. However, out in the more remote areas many people aren’t wearing shoes, stand around all day without any work and have small gardens or goats to feed their hungry family and survive. Rwanda is one of the natural resource poorest countries in Africa. There isn’t much money or many jobs to go around.

This is a picture of our car crossing a bridge on our way out to a hospital we deliver blood to. You can imagine our Zip flying in a straight line at 60 mph gets there much faster than a car could on these roads.

Welcoming Culture

I didn’t get any negative attention being a Muzungu (what they call non-black foreigners) in Rwanda. In some cases it was because they saw me as a potential walking wallet, but in the majority of cases locals were just happy to see a Muzungu.

Another Rwandan I got to know well is the head of Rwanda’s Air Traffic Control, Kizito. He told me every time he sees white people in Rwanda it makes him proud of the progress his country is making.

I went on a lot of jogs through the rural village near the Nest in the outskirts of Muhanga. Three cute little kids about 2-4 years old lived a block or so down the road I lived on. Every time I went on a jog they would see me coming, run out onto the road with a huge smile and arms wide open and give me a hug – both on my way out and my way back. Honestly, this was probably my favorite part apart being Rwanda :)

A handful of other times on those runs, kids would just start running with me. Typically just a small group, but one time I ran by a school at recess when there were about 40 kids playing touch rugby. When I ran by the game stopped and I had a 40 kid support group on my run for probably two blocks before they turned back to school.

My Three Trips

Each trip had a different specific goal for me and really were very different experiences.

Trip 1 | Setting up infrastructure

The goal here was to go from empty leveled gravel pad and 17 crates going through customs to a fully setup Nest including:
– Getting a road from the main road to our gravel pad big trucks could drive on to deliver our equipment
– Weather protection: Big circus type tent we brought and three modified shipping containers we sourced from Kenya
– Getting water, internet, power on site
– Power system setup with generator and UPS (uninterruptible power supply) so we can operate without grid power
– Launchers
– Lightning protection towers, grounding rods, and copper cabling
– Two recovery systems to catch the planes out of the air
– Beacon tower and electronics setup to communicate with planes
– All the ground support equipment we use with planes including storage racks, preflight check stands, etc

Also, getting our living conditions livable. We arrived to a house with beds but no blankets, no internet, no backup power so power was on about 1/2 the time, no hot water and water only available about 1/3 of the time as there is one tank for the village that fills at night and when it runs dry for the day it’s dry.

This is our first crew that got to Rwanda with the shipment. We are trying to figure out where to put things and how to properly build a Nest. It was pretty rushed hitting out shipment deadline, so not nearly as much thought went into this before we arrived as should have.
How do you unload these crates with about 20 dudes that don’t speak your language and a tractor? That’s what we’re trying to figure out too. Some of these crates weighed over 4000 pounds. It was stressful, but it worked out!

chaos      setup

Trip 2 | Getting to first delivery

My second trip was spent getting us to and through our first couple dozen flights. For me, this was primarily:
1) Driving our relationship with the RCAA (Rwanda Civial Aviation Authority, like our FAA) to jump through the right hoops to have them let us start flying first within line of sight and then beyond line of sight.
2) Debugging issues with our newly setup ground equipment and reassembled planes getting everything working smoothly for first flights
3) Surveying the area around the Nest, the transit routes to our first two hospitals, and surveying obstacles at the hospitals after talking with the doctors about where they wanted the blood to land

This trip was the hardest on me personally. I was stretched very thin, didn’t sleep, eat or exercise properly, spent a lot of time dealing with regulators which I don’t like doing, and the rest of our US team was pretty burned out so morale was poor. When I left I felt the most emotionally and physically drained I ever have. I’ll never forget how it felt to have Amanda waiting for me at the arrivals gate at SFO though :)


This is the crew that made our launch event go off seemlessly (well this solid crew and some luck :)
That’s President Paul Kigame (known as His Excellency in Rwanda) standing next to Keller (our CEO) at our launch event, watching a plane land

Trip 3 | Getting the Nest operational without US-based engineers

My third and hopefully last trip for a while was mainly spent training and figuring out how to handle unique operational cases around blood ordering, handling, and delivery. We have a lot of experience flying planes, but very little experience handling customer service, time-critical orders, and blood.

I led training for our COO (Will, head of operations) and second in command in the operations team (Nick) to be “Nest leads” to know how to run a nest basically. I led training for one Rwandan (Abdoul) and one US based technician (Jon) to be “Technical leads” for the nest. That basically means they need to know how to fix most things when they break and communicate well with our CA engineering team when it’s a new technical problem that requires support.

Our 4 person flight operations team had already been heavily trained by mainly the team in Rwanda before me, but we definitely spent a lot of time finishing training for them to know how to make the planes fly safely.

Every time the plane flies over the town out beyond line of sight, I get a little freaked out.

Teamwork and my last day

Most of the work I mention above I led but had the incredible support of not only the US and Rwandan team in country but also a team of engineers back in California that I woke up frequently during the middle of the night for help.

On my last day we fulfilled an order to Kabgayi hospital of three units of children’s red blood cells. That made the struggle and sacrifice worth while.

So… We Went to Morocco! (and made it back to the EU)

Yep, that’s right! We touched another continent – Africa!

And it was AMAZING! Morocco was such a unique experience, very different from all of the other countries we’ve visited. The number one thing I have to say about Morocco is that the people are SO INCREDIBLY FRIENDLY! On one of our trains we had complete strangers teach us how to speak some arabic and even taught us how to write a few words in arabic – man was that interesting, as they write right to left. We also had Moroccans share tangerines with us on the train, invite us to a home-cooked meal for dinner, meet back up with us to show us the best restaurant around and order the best food for us, help us get taxis going the right direction at local’s rates, and more! They were all so welcoming and kept saying “Thank you for coming to Morroco, welcome!”.

Their friendliness was so foreign that several times we didn’t realize someone was trying to help us or say hi. Coming from SF where the only random people that talk to you are either asking for money, saying something inappropriate or just jibberish – I feel ingrained to ignore shouts from strangers. But here in Morocco, it was just people genuinely trying to tell us we are going the wrong direction; or saying “Hi, welcome to my country, I hope you like it!”; or “Let me show you where your house is!”. Were their people trying to sell us stuff? Yes, definitely, but they too were friendly, happy, and when you said no (for the most part) they left you alone.

Eric and I  spent 4 days in Morocco, with almost all of the time spent in Fés – an awesome old city know for its leather, ceramics, metal work, rugs, and other crafts.  We were able to see a lot in the 4 days we were there!

We stayed at Dar el Ma, a typical Moroccan Riad (house) and we felt like kings! We had the whole place to ourselves and the house was huge, beautiful, and full of cool nooks and crannies. Check out this video tour of our Riad!

We stayed in the medina of Fés – which is the old town. It’s a part of the city that is only walkable, no cars allowed, and is surrounded by an old ancient wall. The streets are TINY, dense, and confusing. But it didn’t matter that we were always lost, because there was so much to look at! Stall after stall after stall of markets, fresh food, crafts…etc. We were able to see a working tannery, got an exclusive tour and showing of a rug factory (they thought we were going to buy one of their rugs and showed us and explained all the different styles… sorry guys we don’t even have a home right now! haha), and devoured some of the best food yet! A $1 pita jam-packed with stuffed camel spleen and veggies anyone? 50 cents for a kg of tangerines? 60 cents for a honey filled Msemen? Traditional mint tea for $1 in a cool cafe? I’ll take it! Our favorite dish? By far the tagine kefta from Thami’s Restaurant, SOOO GOOD!

We had an amazing time and would recommend a trip to Morocco to anyone! The food was delicious, the culture interesting (see next blog post about that :) ), the people great, and it was SO cheap! Here are a few more pictures from our time in Morocco, each with a little description…

A look down into one of the three tanneries in Fes. Making the leather is quite an involved process that takes about 3 months. My favorite step? They soak the animal skins in pigeon poop for 3 days because the acid softens the leather!! Don’t worry, they then vigorously wash the skins in water and cedar wood chips to rid of the smell :)
This is the University of al-Qarawiyyin. It was the first university in the world! Now it’s the biggest mosque in Fés.
We went to a rug factory and the owner showed us rug after rug after rug. We learned about the different styles and methods used to create the rugs.
We went to a rug factory and the owner showed us rug after rug after rug. We learned about the different styles and methods used to create the rugs.
Eric chillin' on our roof terrace, check out those Moroccan slippers!
Eric chillin’ on our roof terrace, check out those Moroccan slippers!
A classic example of the small streets in the medina.
A classic example of the small streets in the medina.
Fresh chicken or lamb anyone??
Fresh chicken or lamb anyone??
So many teas and spices at many of the shops lining the medina!
So many teas and spices at many of the shops lining the medina!
Tagine kefta! SOOOO GOOOD!! Thank you Thami's Restaurant!
Tagine kefta! SOOOO GOOOD!! Thank you Thami’s Restaurant!
The living room of our sweet Moroccan house! We would sit here for breakfast or do some computer work.
The living room of our sweet Moroccan house! We would sit here for breakfast or do some computer work.
A reading nook in our house!
A reading nook in our house! Yes, those are golden pillows.
Our room in the Morrocan Riad – Dar el Mar! PS we got lost so many times trying to find our house haha