Drones for sustainable development in the Global South

The best way technology can witness an exponential growth for citizens of the Global South is by promoting local technological entrepreneurship.

At least that is the submission of Leka Tingitana, Managing Director at Tanzania Flying Labs, a drone services start-up that has been changing lives in the east African nation.

Since its founding, Tanzania Flying Labs – part of the WeRobotics family of Flying Labs franchise dotted all over the southern hemisphere – has been heavily involved in the local economic body politic; offering drone-based solutions to industries like agriculture, survey and mapping, emergency response and building local capacity by training local youths to fly and use drone technology in various commercial and enterprise applications.

“Drones – the payloads they carry and the data they acquire – are radically transforming multiple industries through rapid and dramatic gains in efficiency and productivity,” says Tingitana. “At Tanzania Flying Labs, we want to create the same impact in a responsible and meaningful way, to contribute towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in country through creating local robotics capacity, building a Tanzanian drone ecosystem and creating employment through the use of robotics technology and data products.”

At least in creating local capacity, Tingitana and his colleagues at the Tanzanian franchise were fortunate to find a very capable partner in WeRobotics, the brains behind the Flying Labs Franchises. According the company’s executive director, Patrick Meier, the idea of creating WeRobotics and country-based flying labs franchises was born in 2018, when Meier got a contract from an international organisation to work on a project in Central and South America.

The international organisation had come to the right place alright – WeRobotics certainly had the right experts and the right tools for the job.

But all of their experts were in North America.

Building local capacity. Used with permission from Tanzania Flying Labs

“None of us had ever worked in either Indonesia or Jamaica,” Meier said recently. “We don’t even know the local languages, customs, terrain, or weather patterns. Also, we are not directly familiar with the relevant regulations there or knowhow to secure required permissions. We lack this local knowledge and understanding of local contexts, which would directly impact the quality and ultimate success of the project.

“What’s more, we would just be parachuting in and out for this project, transferring zero savoir–faire, or technologies. This only creates further dependency, exacerbating the digital divide, and increases extreme inequality.”

With that realisation, Meier and his colleagues decided to steer WeRobotics from the expatriate approach where all experts for international projects are imported into a country, and rather build up the capacity of local experts so that when the big jobs come calling, they will be ready.

So they went about setting up Flying Labs Franchises in the Global South, of which Tingitana’s is one of the 29 franchises in operation so far. The drone professional agrees that local expertise is best placed to solve local challenges, and leaving a lasting legacy in the process.

Said Tingitana; “We have plenty of social challenges where I am from, and the default response to solving these challenges – especially in capacity building – has always been to bring in the international experts. The end result has been that nations in the global south have been flooded by international experts, who have come in at the expense of local problem solvers whose number has stayed low because they are almost never considered when it comes to solving challenges in their own communities. While the demand for expertise has gone up, the local expertise itself has been dwindling because it lacks opportunities; thus creating a digital divide between the North and the South.”

It is a divide that Tanzania Flying Labs are looking to bridge, at least in as far as drone technology in the global south is concerned. Being part of a global network of flying labs that are striving to promote local capacity in artificial intelligence, robotics and drone technology has provided the Tanzanian start-up with a window to opportunities they might have only dreamed of in the past.

“We have a motto – The Power of Local, we call it. Our mission is to ensure that local experts with local knowledge and the lived-in experiences of the areas they come from get the leadership opportunities they seek to implement technological solutions to local problems.”

With drones being a relatively new technology, there has been run-ins, especially with state and legal authorities, who have sighted examples of drone technology being abused for criminal activities, and used them to set stringent controls on the technology, or ban it altogether. This has been a fact of live since commercial drones began to make in-roads into the mainstream, as they have been accused for all sorts of offences – invading people’s privacy, endangering traditional aeroplanes, engaging in espionage, among a cacophonous minefield of myriad accusations that commercial drone technology has had to endure in its young life.

Fighting these accusations with imported expertise could prove to be really difficult, if at all possible.

But in Tanzania, Tingitana and his fellow drone professionals seem to have found a way.

Local capacitation inspires future generations. Picture used with permission from Tanzania Flying Labs

“The local certification program, where we train local drone pilots to fly drones safely has worked wonders for us in proving to local civil aviation authorities that drones can fly safely,” says Tingitana. “It has been very important and ties everything together in terms of the drone ecosystem; because, not only are we working with various partners to achieve good results, but by cooperating with the regulating authorities, we have set a precedent for the safe flying drones so that eventually, civil aviation will open the lower skies, not only to ourselves and current operators, but also to the youth who should realise the potential of drones as part of local economic development in the country and beyond.”

Tingitana said he was grateful for the growing drone economy in Tanzania, which has seen his company partnering with local universities and other related experts along the in the drone value chain, such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an international team dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through the provision of map data which expedites responses and reduces risk during disasters.

Actually, he could not emphasize the importance of local partnerships with stakeholders and communities enough; so he had to do it again, as he concluded his presentation at the just-ended DJI AirWorks 2020 Conference.

“Drones are extremely important because they are obviously the ones doing the data collection,” Tingitana said. “But it is the processing and analysis of that data that will put drones on the pedestal, especially in Africa.

“Because, by producing drone data sets that are easy to interpret when presented in front of decision-makers, that is how we can convince everyone that drones are really important to economic growth. That is the challenge we are working on every day, trying to improve the way drone data is interpreted by the stakeholders and communities in which we work.

“At Tanzania Flying Labs, we are always engaging the community, not only during operations, but we also provide feedback after we fly, so we close that loop. Once we have collected data and send them back to the farmers, the urban planners and other clients in ways in which they can easily grasp, we know we have made our mark, and ultimately made another step towards achieving those United Nations sustainable development goals.”

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