Could drone technology help Africa overcome developmental challenges?

As their use across the continent becomes more prevalent, Paul Adepoju examines the potential of drones in Africa. Drones began to get more attention in Africa when news platforms across the world started talking about the exploits of US drones in the fight against terrorism. As recently as March, it was reported that more than 150 al-Shabaab […]


As their use across the continent becomes more prevalent, Paul Adepoju examines the potential of drones in Africa.

Drones began to get more attention in Africa when news platforms across the world started talking about the exploits of US drones in the fight against terrorism. As recently as March, it was reported that more than 150 al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda terrorists had been killed by drone attacks.

With drones, the military is able to reduce the number of soldiers sent to battlefields. This in turn reduces the high body counts that would have been reported in the increasing number of anti-terrorism operations and wars in different parts of the world. With several of these in Africa, it comes as no surprise that drones are being deployed to destroy targets on the continent.

There are several US drone bases in Africa, with Djibouti regarded as the hub. Other bases include Arba Minch Airport in Ethiopia, Ouagadougou Airport in Burkina Faso, Niamey in Niger, Nzara in South Sudan, Entebbe in Uganda, Manda Bay in Kenya and St Victoria in the Seychelles. The US government has several other classified drone bases in various parts of Africa.

African governments have not been able to pursue military drone projects of their own because of the high costs. However, the continent is gradually embracing drones in solving other problems. One of such is in the fight against HIV, especially in rural areas.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, UNICEF and the Malawian government are using drones supplied by a US firm, Matternet, to help thousands of children living with HIV. The experimental drone-enabled high-speed delivery system for HIV diagnosis began this year. The numerous barriers the drones can help the country’s healthcare providers and volunteers overcome are big enough to make the investment worthwhile.

In a test flight, a drone was able to transport blood samples 10km from a rural clinic to the laboratory of Kamuzu Central Hospital in just 10 minutes. This shows the potential of the technology to drastically shorten the time spent waiting for results.

“As far as HIV testing is concerned, it is always good to do the counselling, testing and result delivery as soon as possible, before it gets too late and difficult to track the patient. But with the problem of bad roads, insufficient professionals, poorly equipped facilities and the rest, several African countries seem to be in dire need of these drones being tested in Malawi. I believe they will provide a short-term solution that would bridge the divide in healthcare access,” says Chibuike Alagboso, a Nigerian medical scientist and health volunteer.

A similar drone project called Red Line is underway in Rwanda, where the goal is to deploy drones to distribute medical supplies to remote areas. The drones will deliver blood bags for emergency blood transfusion. The project, according to Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, is in line with the government-approved Smart Rwanda Master Plan 2020. Other components of the plan include the droneport from which large cargo drones will take off to destinations in various parts of the country.

Continent-wide awakening

“Across Africa, there seems to be an awakening to the importance and potentials of drones especially in the health sector,” says Dr Adepoju Victoria, a house officer at Babcock University Teaching Hospital, Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria.

According to her, the rising number of drones and drone companies across the continent suggest there is also a potential market in Africa beyond just helping to solve some of the continent’s popular health challenges.

“Just the other day I read about the medical drone network for Sierra Leone. I have also read of similar initiatives in other sectors including entertainment, exploration, photography and several others in other countries. The future is so bright for drones in Africa,” she said.

In Nigeria, online shopping platform Yudala last year pulled off what it described as Nigeria’s – and Africa’s – first e-commerce drone delivery. When asked whether the country and indeed Africa is really ready for drones, Yudala’s marketing manager, Afam Anyika, said the best way to know the readiness of the continent for drones would be to push the boundaries.

“Truth is, most innovations and inventions were not products of serendipity but outcomes of carefully planned and rigorous, often cerebral, processes,” he says. “Going by the overwhelmingly positive reception to the drone delivery, I must state that Nigeria is indeed ripe for such an initiative.”

South Africa is also at an advanced stage of drone readiness, with numerous commercial drone start-ups already providing services for clients and generating revenues. However, a common thread that connects most African countries as far as drones are concerned is the issue of regulation.

Incoherent regulatory guidelines and policies

Some of the continent’s powerhouses are just forming their drone policies and are introducing licensing procedures through the aviation authorities. Late last year, South Africa introduced the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems regulations. In spite of positive responses for the policy, many experts believed it failed to fully institutionalise the emerging drone ecosystem in the country.

The situation is worse in Nigeria, where the recently released guidelines on the use of drones stipulated some tough conditions that could greatly limit and restrict the use of drones for any purpose in the country.

According to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), it is illegal to fly drones without a licence, and to obtain a licence an applicant must have a registered company with a minimum share capital of about $100,000. Furthermore, drone operators will pay a non-refundable processing fee of about $2,500 after which they will have to secure a security clearance from the office of the National Security Adviser. This prompted several stakeholders to speak against the guideline.

Anyika thinks that the government should ensure that the licensing process is easy.

“Government must do its bit in easing the path through a clear policy statement or regulation on their use,” he says.

Balogun Ayobami, a private drone owner, believes that there is a positive side to the development in Nigeria. According to him, Nigeria’s stakeholders now have something to work on and their job will be to ensure that the policy is revised to properly reflect the interest of the government in deploying drone technology to solve the country’s problems.

“I’m not worried about Nigeria or South Africa,” he says. “I’m more worried about countries like Ghana, where the government is yet to tell the people what its drone policy is. This means that companies like Aeroshutter, which is offering drone services, may get shut down if the government’s policies are unfavorable.

“Today, many people are creatively deploying or planning to deploy drones in various parts of Africa to solve big problems, the major concern for now is ensuring that governments do not stand in the way of good drones.”

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