Niger’s Kountche has big plans for West African drone community
It is not every day that you find a former president’s grandchild staying in the national headlines for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and scandal; for most, the lure of power is to sometimes too great to ignore, and they just follow the family’s well-trodden path into national prominence through their quest for power.
But in Niger, Abdoulaziz Kountche was always wired differently.
The 37-year-old aeronautics prodigy – a grandson of former president Seyni Kountche – might have been just a toddler when his grandfather left power, but he was already building model aeroplanes in his family home, right in the vicinity of the presidential palace where his grandfather ran national affairs from 1974 until his death in 1987.
His friends gave him so much stick for his obsession – until their smirks froze on their faces when Kountche was asked to build a model aeroplane that could take pictures from the air in 2011.
He has not looked back since.
The young man took up the challenge, and that was how the T-900 – his first ever drone – came to life.
“I drew the plans myself,” he told local media in 2017. “I bought the wood at the Katako Market (in the capital, Niamey), curved it into shape, then installed a small NDVI camera on board. I imported the other electronic equipment from France.
“Surprisingly, this drone immediately worked well, it never broke down. My friends couldn’t believe it. But they stopped making fun of me when they saw my drone making the 8PM news.
Five years later, Kountche founded Drone Africa Service, a drone services company that offers mapping, inspection and monitoring services to its clients in West Africa, using drones that the company itself builds. The start-up has grown from strength to strength since then, but the highlight of Kountche’s life at DAS will always be the time he was contracted to map out refugee and IDP in August 2016, by the United nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
There missions were to be carried out in the in the Diffa region to the south east of the country, on the border with Nigeria – and right where Boko Haram regularly operates.
Working right in the vicinity of an armed militia operation that has had its fair share of notoriety in the last few years – surely there was nothing to be afraid of there?
“I was very scared. And it was also just my luck that I broke a drone during the first mission. Fortunately, the others held on and we were able to complete the mission.”
Recently, Kountche sat down for an interview with The Africa Tribune, and below is the excerpt. We hope you get inspired.
How did your journey lead you to design drones?
When I was young, I was passionate about aeronautics. I enrolled in an aeroclub that I financed by giving home courses. With the money saved, I was able to finance my flying hours to get my pilot’s license. After high school, I had to settle for a degree in business management, as options for studying aeronautics were scarce. I was hoping to land a job with an airline, or become a pilot.
But in 2010, I decided to chart a path for myself, and built my first drone. It generated a certain enthusiasm in the country. I quickly understood its usefulness in remote areas of Niger where international organisations could no longer go because they were plagued by terrorism. The drone allowed for remote monitoring, so I started contracting international non-governmental organisations as a consultant.
What was the first mission that you carried out?
My first mission was to map several flood-sensitive villages in the town of Gaya. Our client needed this information to assess water retention options for a report he was making. We then mapped a dozen more villages and invested the proceeds into better drone equipment.
Then in 2016, I was approached by new actors such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They wanted us to map all villages in the Diffa region, especially refugee sites.
What are the applications for the drones you produce?
They are multiple; like aerial mapping, that allows us to obtain up-to-date data compared to satellite images. In precision agriculture, drones are used to calculate the amount of fertilizer or pesticides needed for farms. We also work a lot in logistics, because our goal is to optimise the travel times of our drones so that they can eventually be able to deliver drugs and vaccines.
And the types of drones you manufacture?
We decided to produce a multi-role device; a standard drone issue with parts that could be refitted from one model to another. Our T-series drones – including the 350 and the 400 drones – can be fitted with components for several different subcategories, depending on the job at hand. The T400 is available in S version for Surveillance, the M version for mapping, the C version for Cargo; and the AG version for precision farming. It’s the same drone, but the sensors are different. The M version, for example, has a dedicated mapping camera, while the AG version has a specific camera with an NDVI sensor. The S version can be equipped with a camera with night vision.
All our drones are proudly made here in Niger. We have our own workshop in Niamey. We do import some components (like cameras, aeronautics glue and carbon fibre), which we cannot make here, from all over the world. We usually order these important components from countries like France, Germany, Australia, the United States and Japan.
Since its inception, how has Drone Africa Service evolved?
It has far exceeded our original expectations. I am always surprised because when we started, I never imagined that the demand would be so high that it became more and more difficult to meet. It was then that we came up with the idea of offering training to my clients on drone technology and equipping them with knowhow to operate the drones.
Today, we manufacture drone products, train our customers and provide them with after-sales service. In addition, in 2019, we expanded our drone applications repertoire for uses like aerial photography. We now have three full-time employees and we work with many external consultants; when dealing with calls for tenders for example.
Our turnover has increased from €10,000 in 2016, to around €150,000 today.
Who are your customers and what is the scope of your activities?
We work mainly in Niger but we also have projects in Mali and we have carried out missions in Benin and Burkina Faso. We have also carried out cross-border anti-poaching missions through the W-Arly-Pendjari Cross-Border Biosphere Reserve (a trans-boundary nature reserve that covers Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso) project for ecological monitoring of the giraffe and its environment in the Kouré area. At the moment, we only work with state partners, ministries or some NGOs that work with the state. We manufacture drones on demand, but this year, we want to focus more on training.
Cool. Tell us more about the training
To date, we train about fifteen students a year. We want to open our project to other frontiers, hence the the plans to build a drone academy. I think we can train world class drone professional here, without having to send them abroad. It is possible to realise your dreams from Africa, and we want the Drone Academy to be recognised regionally and internationally. The project is progressing fast and is expected to be underway in 2021.
Plans for a passenger drone in the future?
Of course, these are projects that are in the cards. We already have the technology; but right now, the underlying factor lies in demand. How will a passenger drone today solve the country’s challenges, and will it find a market here in Niger? I guess we will have to see.