UNDP’s tribute to African innovation in fighting COVID-19
Two drone technology enterprises have made the grade among 48 other ventures by young Africans whose innovative works to combat the COVID-19 scourge has been recognised in a special magazine edition by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Africa.
Titled Africa Innovates, the magazine was released two days ago and it celebrates the tireless efforts by 50 young Africans in the fight again the coronavirus disease that has ravaged the whole world and whose economic impact is wreaking havoc everywhere. is timely as the world grapples with a response and recovery to a global pandemic.
With nearly 1,5 million recorded cases since the first patient was diagnosed around March, Africa has lost nearly 35,000 lives to coronavirus, and is still grappling with more than 220,000 active cases today. Even after conceding that there are several coronavirus-related cases and deaths that have gone unreported, the numbers are not as bad as initially feared – so of course, the narrative has turned from trying to save lives to trying to figuring out just how Africa seems to have escape with fewer scars than the world predicted.
But while the world still wonders, there are still lives to save, and it is remarkable that a lot of young people have come forward with initiatives that have had a positive impact on the wider African society in as far as the fight against COVID-19 is concerned.
We once covered the story of Ghanaian agricultural drone services start-up AcquahMeyer Drone Tech, which had to temporarily abandoned its core business of crop-dusting fields and redirect efforts towards using their drones to sanitise public markets.
Well; a drone technology entrepreneur in Cape Verde has done entrepreneur something similar.
Erico Fortes Pinheiro sowed the seeds of his start-up, Prime Robotics Drone Services, following a survey he conducted while researching on solutions to the problems of deforestation and agricultural output in his country. Then a student at Bridgewater State University, Pinheiro then came up with a prototype drone, which took him three more years to build; importing components and building some using a 3D printer.
It may be the case that Pinheiro was the first person to introduce drone technology to Cape Verde, by using them to plant trees for reforestation, and for agricultural purposes. But – as happened with AcquahMeyer in Ghana – a different kind of urgent duty called when coronavirus landed on the Cape Verdean shores. Except that, in addition to disinfecting areas that needed it, Prime Robotics Drones Services have to also deliver medicines and other medical supplies to isolated areas.
“Due to the geographic isolation of many areas, the Cape Verdean population’s access to health services is inherently destabilised,” the UNDP said of Pinheiro’s work. “Most health services are affected, including the delivery of medicines and medical samples for analysis at hospital labs. Erico set up his start-up Prime Robotics to provide his versatile drones for logistics and agricultural services purposes. With the emergence of COVID-19, Erico and his partners have now repurposed Prime Robotics to medical logistics, to help counter problems created by the COVID-19 onslaught in the islands.
“The drones have been redesigned and re-engineered, so that during the pandemic, they can be used to disinfect streets, transport medicines, light medical equipment, samples, as well as other essential goods to cater for those isolated in remote island areas. Prime Robotics is also currently producing face-shields and is looking for partners to upscale its production capacity.”
Investment capital constraints have been the biggest handicap to Prime Robotics’ expansion plans; most of the time, Pinheiro has to fork out personal funds earned from his lectureship position at the University of Cape Verde to keep his drone technology venture above water.
“Since I started, I’ve always used my own resources,” Pinheiro said in a recent interview. “But of course, if I had funding, I could have developed at a faster pace.”
But that has not deterred him, though; for the love to succeed and put his beloved archipelago on the map fuels his will.
“I am aware that funding is not an easy thing to obtain. So I’m not waiting for someone to come and help me with my project. Until the funding comes, I will continue to run my projects with the meagre resources currently available.”
Meanwhile in Southern Africa, the Malawi franchise of the Flying Labs family of drone services providers used the grant it received from its parent organisation, WeRobotics, to help map out areas most affected by the COVID-19 in the country, as well as contact tracing efforts.
“The majority of the Malawian population live in high densely populated areas and are at risk of coming into contact with the virus,” WeRobotics said in a statement. “Therefore, the purpose of the project is to use geospatial data and high-resolution drone maps to support contact tracing for people in high-density informal settlements in peri-urban and rural areas. Geospatial mapping will aid with the mathematical modelling of the spread of coronavirus in Malawi, thereby informing contact tracing exercises, infection and prevention programs, and resource allocation. It will also help responders to understand better the living conditions and sanitary conditions of communities in these places and provide a better predictive picture of the specific locations that are more at risk.”
Laudable undertakings indeed. With global calamities like COVID-19 threatening lives everywhere, it is always bigger response efforts from companies with world-class profiles that always get attention. Which explains why we have been reading about drone delivery companies like Zipline and Wingcopter a lot; and for a good reason too. These companies have been really instrumental in leading the charge against the spread of coronavirus in some countries in Africa.
But we also have to take time to appreciate the efforts of smaller ventures like those of Pinheiro’s Prime Robotics and Malawi Flying Labs, who are risking their own immediate economic welfare to help their fellow citizens to survive this plague. Their helping hand might be bear earth-moving fruits, but in these tough times, even money cannot buy the change they make in the community they live in.
The UNDP says the 50 ventures – which to all intents and purposes cover only a portion of continent-wide efforts to stop coronavirus – were selected on the recommendations of the communities in which they serve, industry insiders, as well as research based on their African origins, scale of innovation, game-changing levels, applicability, safety, impact and scalability post COVID-19.