The outbreak of the coronavirus early this year created a conventional challenge for the global community – a viral pandemic affecting millions of people. However, UNDP saw this as an important moment to look for unconventional approaches and technologies to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Rwanda. The UNDP Accelerator Lab partnered with the Ministry of ICT and Innovation to acquire and deploy five smart anti-epidemic robots for use in two COVID-19 treatment centers and at the Kigali International Airport. The robots will support detection of COVID-19 cases including among returning citizens, test patients, and provide other services in the hospitals.
The initiative, a first of its kind for UNDP, is a risk mitigation measure to support the national COVID-19 response efforts, especially at a time when there is an increased number of COVID-19 positive patients, and a stretched health system. Designed with various advanced features, the robots will support doctors and nurses at the designated treatment centers and, in the future, at boarder points and other screening sites in Kigali and other provinces. Among other capabilities, the robots have the capacity to screen between 50 to 150 people per minute, deliver food and medication to patient rooms, capture data (video & audio), and notify officers on duty about detected abnormalities for timely response and case management. Such features are expected to increase timeliness and efficiency in the fight against COVID-19 and reduce exposure of health workers to possible Covid-19 infection.
The robots were acquired through ZoraBots Africa Ltd from their parent company ZoraBots in Brussels, Belgium, and given contextualized Rwandan names that represent the spirit of the nation that emerged from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. With names such as Urumuri (light), Ingabo (shield), and Ikizere (hope), the robots represent hope and the promise of a better future ahead.
According to the UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Stephen Rodriques, COVID-19 presents a huge, complex challenge that requires us to think differently, search for new solutions, and use every available resource (financial & human) to stop its spread. In 2019 UNDP Rwanda established its Accelerator Lab (AccLab) – a small team of national experts with unique skills – to work inside the country office and help search for and support development innovations and solutions. Rwanda is well known for its appetite for innovation, and a history of developing home grown solutions to complex development challenges.
Experience has shown that a few countries, notably in Asia, have used similar technologies to help flatten the Covid-19 curve. Initial simulations carried out during training of technicians, nurses and doctors that will use the robots also showed tremendous potential for the technology.
We recognize that the current number of robots is not enough to serve the needs in all the critical locations identified by the Government. More resources and partnerships are needed to support and scale the initiative. It should also be noted that the small number of robots will be be used in the highest risk Covid treatment locations supporting the doctors and nurses while minimizing their exposure to possible infection. There will be no loss of jobs. Instead, local Rwandans have gained jobs and have been trained to service and maintain the robots.
The ground is set for experimentation, and we are looking forward to seeing how the lessons and information garnered from this experiment will inform further responses to this and future emergencies. For now, we hope this experiment with a new way of working will contribute meaningfully to efforts to save lives and allow Rwandans and residents alike to resume their normal activities and adjust to the new normal.