High time the African Union gave drone technology the real chance it deserves

We have a bone to chew with the African Union.

Five years after the then AU Commission chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma appointed a panel of really smart people (they are so smart that almost all of them have the title of Doctor or Professor) to advise the continental body of emerging technologies whose adoption would help its members’ economies progress on levels at par with the rest of the world, the body has yet to commit to any continental level technology as proof that they are actually listening to the committee they appointed.

Drawn from diverse professional backgrounds the ten-member African Union High Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) and are critical in terms of providing evidence-based analyses and recommendations that should inform policy direction at the continental, regional and national level on the utilization of existing and emerging technologies.

“There is need to strengthen legal and regulatory systems on emerging technologies in Africa at both continental, regional and national level,” the commission said at the time. “Hence, AU Member States and RECs (Regional Economic Communities) must be engaged to promote a culture that allows responsible regulation of emerging technologies without imposing an undue burden on adoption.

“In addition, NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa’s Development) Agency and AUC will work closely with the appointed high-level panel to assist AU Member states and RECs to effectively assess the ethical and safety requirements and standards of emerging technologies by providing expert knowledge, advice and recommendations. Furthermore, NEPAD Agency and AUC shall strive to create an enabling environment were debates on the subject can flourish and divergent views on emerging technologies can be accommodated.”

Well, the panel did recommend drone technology to the AU – but what we only have so far is a disparate collection of private commercial drone operations dotted in countries around the continent, most of which have had to fight tooth and nail with their governments to get operating licences.

Even after the historic African drone forum held in Kigali exactly a year ago, which was supposed to catapult the African drone landscape to greatness, the industry is still groping for its way in the wilderness.

Humanitarian organisations like WeRobotics have been especially quietly making their mark, working with local drone and robotics start-up companies to establish Flying Labs networks that offer drone-based solutions to humanitarian situations in their respective countries.

The European Union’s Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has also helped set up the Africa Goes Digital Initiative, a collection of African start-ups offering digital solutions to agriculture problems, especially in rural Africa.  

Many agriculture start-ups in Africa do not have government support

Even then, some countries do not allow commercial drone activities within their borders at all.

There are exceptions of course. Ghana and Rwanda have opened their doors to American drone logistics start-up Zipline for government supported medical drone deliveries, with Kaduna State in Nigeria to follow suit. In the Democratic republic of Congo, Swoop Aero has been working with the government and VillageReach, a non-governmental organisation to deliver medicines to remote areas in the country.

But on the whole, drone companies have been finding it really difficult to set up shop in Africa, and the clever people the AUC appointed to figure stuff out seem to have a clue as to why.

“The African Union High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) has recommended drone technology as a transformative technology for Africa’s agriculture,” the APET secretariat wrote in their latest blog post. “However, APET has acknowledged the sluggish uptake and adoption of drones in Africa because of the prevailing barriers, which are preventing Africans from accessing this technology in numerous African countries.

“These barriers to the adoption of drone technologies include their high costs, incompatible infrastructure, unskilled manpower and restrictive regulatory frameworks. Therefore, member states are encouraged to consider the drone technology adoption towards mitigating impacts of disasters through enabling regulatory and infrastructural frameworks.”

Cost. That is where the gist of the conundrum is when it comes to drone technology in Africa. That setting up drone technology structures is way too expensive an undertaking to embark on.

But that is on one hand. On the other, we have Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and the DRC already working with private partners to overcome the prohibitions of costs. But more importantly, we have seen the AU’s counterpart, the European Union Commission, coming together as a single group to set up structures, working groups with private players and regulations that have created an atmosphere that allows drone technology to prosper.

The Single European Sky (SES) initiative has enabled for the establishment of harmonised regulations for drones that permeate through the whole EU territory. The SES’s air traffic management research wing, SESAR, has struck deals with several private companies that have pledged to help with the integration of drones into the busy air spaces of European cities.

In other words, the argument is not whether drone technology will work or not; rather it is whether the AU members are willing to work together so the continent does not lag behind technological development, especially in the drone space, which has proved to be one of the most important industrial discoveries of the 21st century.

Zipline’s adventures in Rwanda and Ghana are proof that government/private partnerships do work

One African regional body has been making positive strides in this regard: The East African Community’s Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency (CASSOA) is working towards harmonising the aviation regulations of its six member states – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi – having already assumed responsibility for airworthiness inspections of aircraft and airport facilities in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

As noted by the APET secretariat; “Drones, are progressively being deployed on emerging disaster situations. This is because drones are portable, reliable, and increasingly affordable.”

What we got from the above statement is, drones do not need the expensive infrastructure that manned aviation require. They do not need airports and runways and hangars – actually, for applications like agriculture, construction, inspection, mapping and surveying, the drone operator will literally carry the drone in a bag and only lets it loose when he gets to the working site.

Drones just need a willing regulator with regulations for the safe operations of the unmanned vehicles; and parties willing to work together for the safe integration of drone technology in the African skies.

“Most importantly, their application in combating disasters is becoming imperative” the APET statement went on. “Moreover, drones are being incorporated in rapid situational awareness with mapping technology and imagery of affected areas. As such, drones are helping firefighters identify hot spots and assess property damage in inaccessible areas.”

The blog proceeded to helpfully site examples of disaster areas where drones proved their worth – the 2017 fires in Western Cape, South Africa and also during Cyclone Eloise, which struck Mozambique, Malawi, Eswatini, South Africa and Zimbabwe last month.

Besides, there is the Africa Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) set up by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Malawi last year, to teach the young technopreneurs on the continent all they need to know about drone technology. Surely all these developments and many others should be enough to let the continental union understand how important drones can be to economic prosperity?

Granted, we do understand that SESAR has been in operation since 2004 – way before commercial drone technology became a thing – and it might be too soon to expect much from APET, which came into operation only in December 2016. But the members have the blueprint from SESAR, and now what they need is for the AU heads of state and government to listen to them and implement their recommendations with regards to technology.

Right now, we know that a German non-profit organisation called Endeva, through its Inclusive Innovation 2030 (ii2030) Programme, is trying hard to emulate the technological progress made by SESAR, with its own Wakanda Beyond Challenge (WBC); what we have not heard is whether the AU is willing to help Endeva so they speed up the WBC, and, through it, help economic growth and employment creation on the continent.


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