Innovator Spotlight: Drop Access

An interview with Drop Access Co-founder and CEO, Norah Magero


Correcion Drop access

Can you tell us about your innovation? What problem are you solving? What solution are you offering? What populations are you serving? 

VacciBox is a portable, solar, IoT-enabled refrigerator designed to provide equitable access to vaccines and other healthcare services that require temperature control, which can be difficult to transport to hard-to-reach areas. We designed this to be affordable and accessible for all communities and are targeting rural populations in Kenya that are off-grid and/or remote. 

When we started engineering this solution, we had to consider the reasons why people can't access these medical services. Some are situated in places far away from the nearest facility, while others are completely cut off from developed centers. Many are affected by limited access to electricity. We sat down with communities to discuss what they lack when it comes to healthcare services. We decided that VacciBox should be solar powered to address the energy access gaps, ensuring it is able to operate whether that area is connected to the power grid or not. It’s also able to be mounted on various forms of transport, including bicycles, motorbikes, boats, or other wheeled vehicles. 

When I first moved into a rural community myself, I was oblivious, so deaf to what these challenges actually mean and what they can escalate to. Something as simple as a child missing a vaccine can mean a whole community languishes in poverty. If a child gets a placebo, it means they do not get to live a fruitful life and become a productive adult in the community. This is quite unfair and doesn't make sense, given there is so much research and development in healthcare services. We are trying to bridge that last mile access to ensure they get the same chance as any person living anywhere. 

Innovator Spotlight

What is a recent example of progress? What are you currently celebrating?

Our biggest recent win is the fact that we were able to deliver a working prototype in the field and to make this fridge locally in Kenya. As engineers, we want this solution to be easy to make and affordable. We have been able to deliver working prototypes to healthcare facilities that have agreed to pilot them. That's a win for us because normally the mentality is that technologies that come from the west are better, so it can be very hard to roll out things that have been made here in Kenya. However, we have seen communities wanting to work with us. 

When we rolled out these fridges in health communities, they weren't the perfect. They had so many issues, but they were working. Other organizations saw what we were trying to achieve, and came in to support us, promising to help us develop the next iteration. They offered to bring expertise to help us think through the fridge so that we build a robust product. An international development organization has actually said they are going to purchase a few fridges and distribute them within the Kenyan space. That means so much to us because it proves we have validated our product. It is needed, it's relevant, it's fixing an existing challenge, and we are on the right course. 

By understanding the challenges and the medical needs of the people living in the off-grid areas of the continent, a committed and entrepreneurial team at Drop Access brings to market VacciBox, a smart, locally manufactured, portable, and solar powered refrigerator that bridges the cold-chain gap of medical products and assist in data collection. 

– Amadi Growman, Investment Analyst, Villgro Africa

What are the primary challenges you’re currently facing?

There’s a big difference between having a dream to develop an innovation, being excited and inspired and then actually getting to work and realizing it’s not that easy. There are so many barriers to delivering these fridges in the field. For example, we have an organization that has committed to buy our fridges, but we are having delivery issues because we don’t have a workshop or assembly plant that can produce them within the acceptable international standards. We have to outsource each and every component, which takes so much time and effort and is much more expensive. Because Kenya is not developed to manufacture these technologies locally, there isn't much regulation or support within the country to find an appropriate workshop space, which is derailing our traction and pace. So balancing how fast we can provide these technologies that support medical services and also meeting the regulatory requirement is one of our biggest challenges right now.

Over the course of developing your innovation, what is something you have learned that might help other innovators?

When my team and I started developing and designing this fridge alongside the communities, we thought it through as engineers. We were thinking of how the solution was going to look, how VacciBox was going to function, and so on. We managed to build a product that works, but we soon learned that was not enough. You have to consider what the community wants, how they're going to use it, and who is going to pay for it in order to turn it into a viable business. We put those things at the back of our minds and never really thought of this when we started the product development. 

I tell other innovators is that it’s good they are excited about this innovation and that they have a plan of how to build it, but they also have to think of how they’re going to distribute and supply it, maintain the quality standards, as well as ensure that it's affordable and that people are willing to pay for it. Think about the economics and the market, beyond engineering, because there's a risk of over-engineering a product to the point where it actually stops having a product-market fit, cancelling out the reason you were bringing this innovation to the market in the first place. Those who already have working prototypes should test them out as fast as possible in the field to ensure they are working appropriately and are meeting the needs of the communities they intend to serve. Finally, ask yourself, is there a possibility of scaling the production and manufacturing? All these things have to be considered to build a viable business and the faster you can meet these milestones, the faster you can progress. 

How has Villgro impacted your growth? 

We came into Villgro’s incubation program at a point where we were quite confused and disorganized on the next steps to take. Villgro took a chance with us, trusted us and our passion and also trusted the innovation, our first VacciBox prototype. They offered to work with us to give technical and financial support to build the next iteration. Being in this industry, especially within the African space, that means a lot because there are so many of us who are trying to get the attention of various organizations to trust our work and support us. 

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More than just financing, Villgro also brings in technical support and expertise to help us build our product. It means everything for an innovator. Villgro gave us the focus to transition from the first iteration and now we're building the second iteration. Beyond the technical engineering support, Villgro has helped us have a viable business case within the African space. They gave us a stepping stone to move onto the next step, transitioning us from just engineers and now into entrepreneurs.

I can’t mention all the ways Villgro has supported us, but when I look at the kind of relationship we have with Villgro, I describe it as they're holding our hand in moments where potentially we could feel inferior in the field because of the existing competitors who don’t want us to thrive in this space. Villgro gives us that support and surety that if we give it a bit of time and a bit of effort, our product will be ready to hit the market. That is the most important support that a very young startup needs.