Drones, sun – and a strong will – elevate Rwanda’s health care

This is part of CNET’s Road Trip 2017 summer series “The Smartest Stuff,” about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter.

At one time, the only way to get from Kintobo to the hospital was by foot. The small village lies 7,700 feet up a steep, green mountain in Rwanda’s remote Western Province.

People suffering from tropical illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis trekked two hours down the mountain slope to reach the closest doctors. Parents toted sick children on their backs using wide sashes cinched around their waists. And anyone seriously hurt or in labor had to be carried in a hammock tied to two logs — shouldered by two people in front, two in back — as the person inside swayed back and forth with each step along the mountain’s muddy trails.

“Imagine how this population was suffering trying to go down to the health facilities,” says Bertin Gakombe, a lanky Rwandan with a toothy smile, who’s program manager for the nonprofit organization Health Builders. “It wasn’t easy.”

In rural Rwanda, people don’t measure distance in miles or kilometers. They measure it by how long it takes to walk somewhere.

Four years later, the people of Kintobo no longer need to walk down the mountain to get medical care. A state-of-the-art health center now serves Kintobo’s more than 17,000 residents. Its clean, modern design is laid out for easy navigation. Patients arrive at the check-in counter, circle through to a waiting area and then pass along to consultation rooms.

A young girl waits at the Kintobo health center.

James Martin/CNET

We’re in Kintobo on an overcast day in July while two dozen people wait to be seen. Babies cry, people cough. A small girl in a green dress sits quietly on a wooden bench, eyes wide, legs dangling. In a separate hospitalization area that can accommodate people for more than 72 hours, a teenage boy is wrapped in a blanket, sleeping. A mosquito net hangs above his head. In the maternity ward, a young woman in labor sits on the floor moaning.

“Struggling much has taught us how to speed up our thinking and development in order to recover from the past,” Gakombe says. Health Builders — which designs heath management systems, constructs medical facilities and installs small-scale solar systems — built the center at the Rwandan government’s request.

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