Drone technology holds great promise across Africa. It just needs the right regulations

A drone hovers over tea pickers in Uganda. © Seth Carnill

Like other novel and emerging technologies, appropriate regulation for drones has left governments worldwide on the back foot: Innovation in multiple sectors from construction and mining, to journalism, humanitarian aid, and agriculture is continually driving new use cases for the technology. In the context of African agriculture, drones have enormous potential that will only be realized with enabling regulation — to promote more widespread use for greater food and nutrition security, and to provide much-needed high-tech jobs.

In June, the European Union moved to harmonize drone regulations across all member states. And the African Union, with the launch of its landmark report, Drones on the Horizon: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture, has recognized the critical role drones can play in job creation, food security, and, ultimately, stabilization of the fragile agriculture sectors so critical to emerging and developing economies.

Across Africa, 100 million young people will come into the workforce over the next 10 years — the vast majority of which will be entirely dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. A sustainable increase in healthy food production will be impossible without the transformation of smallholder farms into profitable businesses. To do so, smallholders, making up the bulk of agricultural production on the continent, must be enabled to embrace the most forward-looking solutions.

In Uganda’s mountainous south-western region of Butare, near the town of Ishaka, for example, the Igara Growers Tea Factory, a collective of over 7,000 smallholders, has started using drones to create digitalized member profiles, mapping the location, size, and productivity of their farms. This means farmers can rapidly spot problem areas to target inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides much more efficiently, and access appropriate finance.

The reliable data generated has also made it easier for farmers to access finance. Consider this particular site is over 6,000 hectares, the implications for productivity are enormous, or, in the words of IGTF’s foreman: “It’s the difference between going to school on a motorcycle with a cell phone, or going by foot, dragging an old backpack.”

Drones are capable of generating crop diagnostics or other types of location-specific and high-resolution data providing farmers with real-time information about their land, crops, and livestock. By monitoring these from the air, farmers can quickly find, or even anticipate, problems that would simply not be detectable through on-the-ground checks. Drones could also attract many more young people to remain in rural communities working in agriculture, rather than migrating to cities in search of employment.

African nations, however, have a long road ahead if they are to benefit from drones and the associated industries and innovations they can enable: Only around 14 out of 54 African countries currently have regulations in place. Some of these are restrictive and disabling, banning civilian use of drones and lacking certification and licensing standards. If governments act now to remove current barriers, they will effectively unlock great potential, taking another giant step toward next-generation, precision agriculture in Africa.

Unmanned aerial vehicle-informed, real-time data and decision making will also enable climate change adaptation — a critical concern for African smallholders.

By 2030, 90 percent of the world’s major crops, including maize, rice, and wheat, will experience reduced or stagnant growth rates. If we can help to pioneer a faster transition to next-generation, climate-smart agriculture through the widespread promotion of drones, satellite services, apps, and open data, then farming communities in developing countries will not only increase their profitability and productivity, they will also be able to ensure their long-term sustainability and resilience in the face of changing weather patterns.

Drones governance is a multisector, multistakeholder issue which must involve all relevant actors in decision making. The development sector needs to strengthen its public-private sector partnerships, leveraging international drone manufacturers’ presence, influence, and expertise in precision agriculture. We need to build awareness around drones’ potential in the broader context of rural employment, and work with governments to address the cost and technical barriers through licensing, registration, subsidies, and cooperatives.

Currently, many African countries, to obtain a permit for a drone service, you need to deal with multiple government bodies, at significant expense, with no ultimate certainty you will be granted your permit. There is still a long way to go.

Young people entering the workforce don’t want to step into their ancestor’s shoes, they want to feel they are moving with, and have access to, the newest technologies that not only have potential to increase profitability, but will help them create altogether different lives. Imagine the excitement of being a rural drone operator and building a new career structure as a drone pilot, data analyst or agronomic adviser. Drones are creating these opportunities and young people are witnessing first-hand the impact of their new-found knowledge and the very real changes that can occur when you bring new tools to an age-old sector.

As the impacts of climate change and conflicts threaten progress toward addressing global hunger, we need to apply new thinking in agriculture. Investment in the right innovations, including drones, will not only strengthen the resilience of agrifood systems, it will also accelerate development as a whole.

Michael Hailu

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.