The Drones are Coming

It had to happen, sooner or later: last week Amazon made their first delivery by drone. They’ve been testing the potential of autonomous rotorcraft for more than three years, so it was about time that they started making flying deliveries – it’s something that Santa Claus has been doing since 1821, after all. Let’s be clear, though: the Amazon customer in question lived close to the fulfilment centre, in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. He’s one of exactly two customers who are currently eligible for the service, although Amazon plan to roll the ‘Prime Air’ service out to “dozens” of customers in the future.

They’re wise to experiment in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, where there’s precious little in the way of geography to challenge the algorithm that steers the drone, and relatively few people around who might sue if a drone and its 2.7kg payload fell on them.

Amazon Prime Air drone

Amazon Prime Air – coming soon, to a back garden near you?

As a proof of concept, consider it a genuine milestone. People can now receive manna (well, popcorn) from the heavens. In daylight. When winds are low. When it isn’t raining. Or snowy, or icy, or foggy. Assuming, furthermore, that you don’t live in a place where a cable such as a telephone wire passes over your garden. I suppose that trees and birds might pose a problem, too – not to mention thieves who could try to bring down a drone as a kind of ‘lucky dip’ at its unknown contents.

Avoiding the perils and complexities of aerial navigation, but perhaps more at risk of theft, is the (apparently nameless) robot demonstrated last year by Starship Technologies – a company set up by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. It operates at street level, toiling along at four miles an hour with up to 18kg of packages on board. It’s not intended to make long-distance deliveries, but to cover the final mile after a ‘portable warehouse’ is stocked up and then parked in your neighbourhood… for a claimed $1 per delivery (which is to say around a fifteenth of the cost of a person in a van).

Unlike the Amazon drone, which drops off its package and immediately heads home, Starship Technologies appear to have designed their drone as a mobile box that opens when it meets the designated recipient. Not so great if you’re not home: the robot doesn’t appear to have a mechanism that would allow it to offload its cargo at your premises.

That a package might be left unattended in my garden is nothing new: the delivery drivers that come to my house already leave my goods in a variety of random places, including the doorstep, any of three wheelie-bins, my neighbour’s garage, my son’s sandpit, and on or under the garden furniture. What happens in high density urban areas, though?

One suggestion is that we should all have a giant mailbox for parcels. Hippo Dropbox, for example: a secure box at your address where a delivery driver places the package inside, and the door locks as soon as it’s closed. (A barcode on the inside of the door can be scanned, this constituting a signature where required.) That’s a neat idea, except that at this time of year I’m sometimes getting five parcel deliveries a day – some of them surprise gifts. I foresee the first driver of the day using the Hippo box, secure in the knowledge that he’s done the right thing… but this leaves the box locked. The high-value item that arrives next can’t go in the box, per the delivery instructions, and the barcode can’t be scanned in lieu of a signature. That item must go back to the depot, journey wasted, perhaps several days running.

While logistics textbooks often discuss the ‘final mile’, it appears that the final few metres might be the toughest of all to crack.

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

One problem that the flying drone must overcome is that a map reference alone does not identify a household, because in many cases people share a building. Where do you drop a parcel, when your customers live in high-rise flats? Bizarrely, if the future is delivery by air, we would be entering a time where the logistics of home shopping become simpler for those in rural areas – but that’s no good because over 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas (according to a 2014 report from the UN, with a rise to 66% by 2050 anticipated).

I’m not anti-drone as such, and using them to deliver packages is probably a better application than bouncing one off the Flying Scotsman, but there are practicalities to consider.

What’s the environmental impact of a drone? It’s clearly going to consume a lot of electricity because those quad-rotor aircraft expend most of their energy simply in staying up, with forward motion being a relatively minor component of the vector. Maybe you can install a solar farm, or claim your electricity comes on a green tariff such as nuclear. Well, maybe… but electricity is a commodity and when you’re using ‘green’ energy for one thing, it means somebody elsewhere is having their needs met with fossil fuels, so I don’t buy that. There’s also the question of noise, and some people might raise safety concerns. Not an issue while the drones are being used experimentally (or as a marketing gimmick), but what if there were thousands of the things buzzing about?

A question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we really need to receive things in such a hurry? Many businesses are still grappling with the implications of next-day delivery, and those who have made that particular leap have in some cases moved on to same-day delivery. Delivery within two hours. Delivery within the hour. And now… what?

I’m concerned because it makes me think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where developmental psychologists assess the maturity of a child based on his or her ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward. Children who can’t resist the temptation to have it now are scientifically proven to be more prone to impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, they’re more likely to abuse drugs and other substances, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to be overweight. And now we’re designing logistics systems to respond to the demand for instant gratification. We’re rewarding and reinforcing the idea that clicking the button delivers satisfaction… even though we know that there’s this thing called climate change, that it’s man-made and that it’s accelerating. You can have it now, or you can be ‘green’. Which will you choose?

What a curious age we live in!

On a more worthy note, experiments in Malawi have seen a drone used to transport blood samples to a clinic where HIV testing can be performed. In a country where the roads are bad, sending blood samples via motorcycle courier is expensive, so batching together a large number of samples is the norm. This can result in dangerous delays, with UNICEF reporting that it can take as long as eleven days for blood samples to reach a laboratory. Matternet believe that their drones could be the answer.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Infrastructure of a Former Empire

There’s an interesting piece on the BBC News website today about the MV Ilala, a ship that’s been plying the waters of Lake Malawi for 65 years. She’s described as a ‘rusting lifeline’, and the only way of reaching some settlements. This isn’t merely a passenger service, as the ship can carry up to 90 tonnes of cargo as well.

MV Ilala was constructed by Yarrow Shipbuilders, back when describing something as Clydebuilt was a guarantee of quality. No sooner had she been completed than she was broken down into pieces and brought in overland: if the idea of a ship reaching a large African lake in this way makes you think of Humphrey Bogart’s adversary in ‘The African Queen’, you’re not far wrong… although that story is set on a different lake. (There was a brief naval action on Lake Malawi: the first of the First World War… but a single shot decided it.)

The BBC described the Ilala as facing an uncertain future back in 2008. She is a single-bottom type, and therefore not compliant with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. (As far as SOLAS is concerned, Lake Malawi is ‘at sea’…) More than seven years on the Ilala is still in service, but showing further signs of long usage.

MV Ilala

On a freshwater lake, time has taken its toll all the same [BBC News]

MV Ilala

MV Ilala, docked and unloading [Photo:]

When maintenance is required some of the Ilala’s duties can be performed by the MV Chilembwe (launched in 2014) although that is a considerably smaller vessel. The MV Mtendere (in service from 1980) used to stand in, but is currently in storage, with plans to break her up. The other grand old lady of Lake Malawi, launched in 1901 and generally acknowledged as the oldest ship still afloat in Africa, is the MV Chauncy Maples, undergoing conversion to a floating medical clinic. The small Tanzanian ferries MV Songea and MV Iringa (each launched 1974) also operate on the lake, but have their own itineraries. Thus, maritime transport on Lake Malawi appears to offer a very fragile lifeline indeed.

In this decaying infrastructure I see parallels with the end of an earlier empire: when the Romans left Britain around 410 AD, they left behind a road network that continued to define the landscape. For well over a thousand years, no better roads were built. We lacked the skills, the political will or perhaps just the money to significantly improve our infrastructure. Instead, people just had to make do, while the roads crumbled.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the Malawian government, nor any of the nations that border the lake… but it poses real challenges for those who depend upon such services. Although I go to Malawi once or twice a year, I’ve never seen the MV Ilala. Perhaps I never will, now.

If the ‘rusting lifeline’ can’t be sustained, she’ll still be in good company. I come from a country that used to offer supersonic passenger flights, but stopped – and the only country ever to have abandoned a successful space launch capability*. The Americans don’t fly the Space Shuttle anymore, either. Is this the ‘new normal’? Must we concede that our forefathers could do things that we can’t? I think that in some cases this might be so. Opportunities are fewer, now, with materials more scarce and constraints more abundant. One of the greatest challenges must surely be providing for a nation with a growing population: there were 2.75 million Malawians when the MV Ilala was first launched, and 3.79 million by the time Malawi obtained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The 2015 population figure was 16.79 million, and projections suggest 30 million by 2035.

Already there is news of food shortages, and I doubt one old steamer more or less is going to resolve matters.


[*] In 1971, the British Black Arrow launcher put a single satellite into low Earth orbit: the last hurrah of a programme that had already been cancelled. The satellite was called Prospero, after the sorcerer in Shakespeare’s Tempest who chooses to give up his powers.

Peg Doubt

In early May 2012, a decision was taken to end the practice of pegging the Malawian Kwacha to the US dollar, instead allowing the exchange rate to be determined in the foreign exchange market. There were some good reasons for abandoning the currency peg – not least because it was a precondition for international aid payments – but what supply chain effects would the new floating currency have?

When you adopt a floating currency, a reasonable supposition is that it will actually float. Bobbing up and down between known limits is acceptable behaviour for a floating currency: sinking like a stone, less so.

Origami boat made out of Euro banknotes

A floating currency?

By the time the new president (Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda) ended the currency peg, the Kwacha was substantially overvalued. Imports were growing faster than exports, and even while the peg was in place there was a thriving black market in foreign exchange. Downward pressure on the Kwacha was made worse by what economists call depreciation: a fall in the unofficial value of the currency.

On May 7th, the pegged rate of 165 Kwacha to the US dollar ended, and the rate slipped at once to more than 250. This led to panic-buying – and why not, when imported goods are seen to become more expensive overnight? As hard-working and inventive as the Malawians may be, there’s simply no way for an agrarian economy to react quickly to the price of virtually all manufactured goods going up by a third, or more.

BBC News of panic buying as the Kwacha is devalued

May 7th, 2012: Devaluation begins [BBC News]

In October of that year, Malawi Institute of Management asked us to organise a seminar discussing the implications for the supply chain. Understanding these economic issues wasn’t an easy task, given that I was (a) visiting the country for the first time, and (b) a manufacturing engineer, not an economist. Still, I reasoned that a seminar is all about listening, not telling. We had a marquee full of supply chain professionals, and a couple of hours to put the world to rights. (Or at least, the economy of one small nation.)

The seminar involved a number of activities, the first of which was listing the advantages and disadvantages of having a floating currency… but it seemed that the audience were still smarting from the sudden removal of the currency peg: they had nothing good to say about the floating currency. (Bear in mind that anybody who had savings in the bank will have seen them reduced in value, and businesses that had liabilities expressed in US dollars would be finding it desperately hard to service their debts.)

Economic theory says that a currency peg is good in that it increases investor confidence and imposes price discipline (at least until the point when the government ends the practice) but the disadvantage of a fixed exchange rate is that it requires vast stocks of foreign exchange. Basically, the core job of the central bank is to maintain the currency peg: there is limited freedom to address domestic economic priorities. Also, when the International Monetary Fund suspends a major aid programme, suggesting that liberalisation of the foreign exchange market would unlock donor cash… that’s a powerful argument in favour of the floating currency.

So, on May 7th 2012, everything changed. At our seminar, we learned from the delegates exactly what the changes meant for supply chain professionals…

The Difficulty of Budgeting

Budgeting was reported to have become virtually impossible. For example, the budget for a government department had to be planned such that payments could be released throughout the year, but exchange rate changes meant that any sum set aside for purchases in subsequent quarters was likely to be inadequate. This tended to force managers to be reactive, rather than proactive. Long-term plans involving cash flows have very limited value during a time of high inflation, the delegates said.

Procurement Complexity

This was reported to be particularly difficult, since a request for quotation was likely to produce a time-limited offer, often being valid for as little as 24 hours, because suppliers were equally inconvenienced by variable exchange rates. Where an organisation’s purchasing procedures require that three quotes are obtained it was virtually impossible to get all three within the same 24-hour period, and impossible to compare them thereafter, since one or more would have expired… at which point the quotation process had to begin again.

Transportation Difficulties

Delegates reported logistics to be tremendously more complicated as a result of scarce supplies of petrol, and in particular diesel. (Fuel was also reported to be a problem for the construction industry.) This is not merely an issue of high price, but one of availability, with fuel at times not being available at all… or of those who have fuel choosing not to sell it, since they seemed not to want the Kwacha that they would obtain in return. Transportation difficulties were thus compounded by increasing prices in the global market, reduced local buying power, and panic buying. The result – reduced transportation capability – further impacted upon trade, and thus harmed the economy.

Warehousing Issues

This was frequently mentioned by delegates, in the context of preferring to stockpile raw materials or supplies in order to offset price increases by buying early, and in bulk. Some delegates mentioned the danger of spoilage rates increasing as a result of inventory levels being increased, however.

Inability to Save

It was felt to be very difficult for families to set money aside to deal with price fluctuations (for example, by buying in bulk), at a time when any unspent money was liable to be reduced in value if it wasn’t spent immediately. This “living in the now” made major purchases harder to save up for, and was consequently bad for the nation.

Falling Incomes

Some delegates discussed industrial unrest caused by increased wage demands resulting from devaluation. After all, if you only get to renegotiate your salary once a year or so, how do you know how much to ask for?

The Situation Today

The slide of the Kwacha continues. As an occasional visitor, I notice it in things like a laundry list that has a sticker on it, replacing the printed prices with updated ones… and a heftier price for a bottle of Carlsberg ‘Green’.

Value of the Malawian Kwacha over the last 5 years

MWK/USD exchange rate over the last five years []

It’s not hyper-inflation of the kind that some nations have demonstrated: you don’t need a shoebox full of banknotes to pay for lunch, as was the case in Zimbabwe recently. Demonetization of the Zimbabwean dollar came to an end in September this year, at an exchange rate of 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to US$1… which at least has the virtue of being educational: I learned how many zeroes there are in a quadrillion. (If you’re interested, a quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000.)

Sweeping up unwanted currency

The Hungarian Pengö performed even worse than the Zimbabwean Dollar, and by 1946 they were nothing but litter.

Wherever it is found, though, a softening currency is a headache for supply chain professionals, and a burden for families… and I don’t have many answers to offer. “Export or Die” might have been the advice of the British Ministry of Information, back in 1946… but what do you do when your principal export is the increasingly unfashionable tobacco?

We shall see.

It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…


Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?



Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Malawi Shows a Way Forward in Adaptation to Climate Change

Once in a while, I encounter the opinion that concern for the environment is a “full stomach phenomenon”: that only people who have enough to eat can afford to care about the natural world, and In some instances it’s true. For example, I’ve seen evidence of people illegally using mosquito nets for fishing: if you’re hungry, it’s a way to obtain a meal… but the use of such a fine mesh means that you’re taking not just the mature fish, but everything. In effect, you’re borrowing against the future food supply, and that never ends well.

At some point, I’ll have to do a post about ecologist Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. The idea of sustainability as a “full stomach phenomenon” really is a tragedy, because the people most at risk from environmental degradation due to pollution, over-fishing, climate change and the like… are inevitably the poor.

An article that appeared recently in the Face of Malawi was very encouraging: not describing some top-down initiative from policymakers, but progress achieved through the Farm Radio Trust. (I’ve written before about the importance of radio for isolated communities…) Radio listener clubs were established, such that family farmers could be informed about climate change, mitigation strategies and the use of compost manure. Radio station staff were trained on climate-smart agriculture, and throughout the radio series, feedback was sought from listeners, in the form of SMS messages and participation in opinion polls. An integrated solution involving outreach workers, broadcast radio and the communities themselves has resulted in a considerable uptake of improved farming practices, shaped by the people who know the local situation best. This is the way it has to be, if initiatives are to be sustained in the long-term.

The premise of the article is that an anticipated human population of nine billion by 2050 will require that food production increases by 70%. Without action of the kind described, even maintaining existing levels of production will be difficult, due to ongoing environmental degradation, but the Face of Malawi article describes an affordable and above all practical way to integrate ten millennia of accumulated agricultural knowledge, a century of radio, and somewhat less than a decade of cellphones in the remoter parts of Malawi – with considerable effect.

The Farm Radio Trust is involved in a whole range of initiatives, such as ‘Integrated Soil Fertility Management’, and ‘Radio for Farmer Value Chain Development’, the latter seeking to enhance farmers’ understanding of the value chain in which they operate, particularly for groundnuts, such that improved communication will make the whole more effective. I’d expect to see a greater share of the value-add for growers, in the future.

Clever stuff.