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.
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.
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
– 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.
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 :)
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.
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.