Drone usage in Africa has been restricted by tight government regulations, amid concerns that they could be a threat to security and privacy. About four years ago, the Kenyan government refused to authorise a drone delivery service precisely because of these concerns. However, several countries have started to break this trend by embracing drones as innovative humanitarian devices which can provide supplies and services to isolated rural areas. This includes delivering medical supplies and providing highly detailed agricultural information to support farmers.
In October 2016, Rwanda launched the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in collaboration with US company Zipline. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are programmed to fly automatically around the country, and drop aid packages attached to parachutes. These air deliveries can be made much faster than deliveries by land. The delivery of medical supplies has been reduced to minutes rather than hours. Whereas commercial drone deliveries are restricted in the United States and Europe due to aviation regulations, the large quantities of land away from flight paths make certain parts of Africa ideal for these deliveries.
Following the success of the project in Rwanda, Tanzania is also set to launch a drone delivery network in early 2018, as a way of transporting blood and medicine to victims of accidents and malaria. Zipline is planning to make 2,000 deliveries a day, to over 1,000 healthcare facilities across Tanzania.
In June 2017, the Malawian government and UNICEF launched the first drone testing corridor in Africa to develop drones to deliver supplies and services to rural communities more effectively. The test site is at Kasungu Aerodrome, in central Malawi, and it has been opened up to a series of public and private-sector partners. UNICEF says that the project was launched after a successful delivery of dried blood for early infant diagnosis of HIV.
In areas where poor road conditions can delay the delivery of medical supplies, drones can be the difference between life and death in emergencies. Chris Chapo, a health worker in a village in rural Malawi, usually travels by bicycle to collect supplies from a hospital 10km away, taking almost two hours each way. The drone could make the journey in just 15 minutes.
The drone delivery service does continue to face significant challenges, including problems with battery life and difficulty coping with frequent power cuts in rural areas. Drones can also be expensive, with costs reaching US$800 each. Nevertheless, it is worth taking into account that building better roads to these isolated communities is far from inexpensive. There is also a high humanitarian cost if medical supplies do not reach their destination on time.
Drones have also become a way of boosting agricultural productivity. Agricultural drones are on the rise among crop farmers in Europe and the United States, with French company Airinov working with thousands of farmers in France. These drones use a special sensor to record large amounts of data with a high degree of accuracy to support farmers, allowing them to detect weeds or diseased crops, check irrigation, and gauge how much fertiliser they need to use. While this technology has yet to take off in sub-Saharan Africa, Joshua Ayinbora, a plantation-owner near Accra, Ghana, uses a drone to help him hit growth targets, explaining that “precision agriculture is vital to minimising risks and maximising yields.”
Airinov’s Head of International Affairs, Hamza Rkha Chaham, explains that Airinov currently focuses on reducing fertiliser use for environmental and cost-saving reasons, a model largely unsuited to sub-Saharan Africa. He clarifies that “in Europe, our drones are used for optimisation. But it’s a different story in Africa where the focus has to be on development.”
Giacomo Rambaldi, Programme Coordinator for the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) – an international development organisation founded in 1983 by countries across the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU) – explains that there is “huge potential” for agricultural drones in Africa. CTA has launched a project in partnership with Airinov to train several African experts in the hope that they will bring drone-based farming applications to their countries.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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