Expert Speak India with Africa
Published on Jun 12, 2019
Ushering drones for development technology in Africa

In recent years, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are increasingly being developed and used for commercial purposes. These emerging technologies are changing the way we live. Drones aren’t just used for surveillance or as weaponized tools for the military; in the developing world, especially on the African continent, they are used to transform urban and rural infrastructure and agricultural productivity.

The lack of infrastructure, roads, and public transportation system poses immense challenge to development in Africa. In order to sustain its current level of development, Africa would need to spend around $75 billion more each year on infrastructure, operations, and maintenance. Investing in drone technology could help meet the region’s needs more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Drones have many applications in Africa: They are used to monitor the movement of displaced vulnerable populations, carrying out search and rescue missions in disaster-risk zones, deliver emergency medical cargo supplies to remote communities, map and survey rural land, agriculture and wildlife conservation. All these methods allow drone technology to improve the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people.

Below are some of the most interesting examples of drone technology use in African countries:

Zipline: In October 2016, Zipline – a San Francisco-based robotics company – was launched in Rwanda. Their drones delivered and provided doctors with instant access to vaccines and blood donations every day. Its rapid response time and ability to deliver even the rarest blood types have helped Rwanda to make massive strides in reducing maternal mortality rates. Zipline has evolved into an on-demand drone delivery program on a national scale. Also, in April this year, Zipline opened its first distribution center in Ghana. The company has been contracted by Government of Ghana to make 600 deliveries a day – 150 each from its proposed four distribution centers – for a period of four years at a cost of $12.5 million during that period.

The Zipline program has massively improved the healthcare sector by delivering medical supplies to remote areas, and is now looking to expand its operations in Nigeria and Tanzania.

Fighting desertification in Sudan: Following decades of drought and deforestation, millions of hectares of Sudan’s semi-arid desert have turned to desert. Around seventy percent of Sudan’s agricultural land is under threat of desertification. Without any intervention, parts of the conflict-ridden country could become uninhabitable as a result of climate change. In response, two Sudanese inventors – Mohammad Alhatim Ahmed Ibrahim and Hatem Mubarak Hassan – have spent years building Sudan’s first flying robot farmer – a drone that can plant trees, increase harvests and reduce crop damage. The drone’s main function is to plant the seeds of Acacia trees from the sky because its roots can stop the movement of sand. The drone also does remote agricultural sensing, which is a way of conducting plant health assessment.

Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor: In June 2017, in partnership with UNICEF, the Government of Malawi launched an air corridor to test the potential humanitarian uses of drones. The corridor is Africa, and one of the world’s first initiatives that use drones with a humanitarian and development focus. The corridor is a 40 kilometer radius (80 kilometer diameter) and is centered in the Kasungu Aerodrome area in central Malawi. The test corridor facilitates testing in three main areas: generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crisis like floods and earthquakes; exploring the possibility of drones to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrains; and delivering medical supplies like vaccines.

Combating Tsetse flies in Ethiopia: An interesting way of reducing the spread of tsetse flies and preventing the spread of trypanosomiasis in agrarian regions has been developed by the Spanish company Embention. Trypanosomiasis – or commonly known as sleeping sickness – is transmitted by tsetse flies causing sensory disturbances and poor coordination in humans. Through seeding of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), sterile male flies are released into the native population, after which they mate with non-sterile flies, producing no offspring and consequently lowering the tsetse fly population. The drones are being tested in Ethiopia where this sickness affects 200 square kilometers of fertile lands.

Surveying port facilities in Morocco: Drones are being used to survey Casablanca port facilities and monitor ongoing construction as a way of ensuring contractors meet their deadlines. Port officials monitor the high definition images which are captured by air-borne sensors and subsequently seek information or launches investigations about the progress of ongoing constructions.

Dr. One: Another interesting pilot program which has been conducted in Ghana is called Dr. One: this initiative is jointly funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and the Dutch government. The program aims to revolutionize women’s health and family planning across the continent. Access to birth control is a massive problem in Africa which has resulted in very high rates of unintended pregnancies. With the help of drones, Dr. One has been able to successfully fly and deliver birth control, condoms, and other medical supplies to rural areas of Ghana. Its systems are capable of taking off and landing vertically – and do not require a runway infrastructure. They can also fly like a fixed-wing, thereby covering large distances. While the program is yet to witness large-scale success, numerous African countries like Tanzania, Mozambique, and Rwanda having expressed interest in the program.

What lies ahead?

While drones have great potential to impact all segments of the African population, a lot of work still needs to be done for the technology’s potential to fully manifest. As of July 2017, as per an African Union and NEPAD report, only 14 African countries have published dedicated UAV regulations, which represents 26 % of the total number of countries in Africa. However, these regulations are often very restrictive and have exorbitant licensing fees, driving local startups and operators out of the market. If drone technology is going to change Africa, Africans have to be able to enter businesses using technology and profit.

Privacy is also a major concern. Flying drones with cameras, sensors, and scanners can increase nefarious uses of this technology. Therefore, transparency in the development and use of technology is a priority.

It is clear than drones offer many solutions for the African continent and can play an important role in realizing African Union’s Agenda 2063 to create a united, prosperous, and self-reliant Africa. But, as with any technology, there are also challenges which need to be overcome to leverage its full potential. Policymakers needs to ensure that these hurdles are met and that all stakeholders are engaged in every step of the process. Establishing more public-private partnerships, investing more in Research and Development and strengthening intellectual property legislation will go a long way in realizing the true potential and positive impact of drone technologies in Africa.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

Read More +