Just as the mobile phone market saw Africa leading the world in various applications, many believe that the use of drones will eventually have the same positive socioeconomic impact on the continent and be adopted globally.

Delegates at WEF Africa shine the spotlight on unmanned vehicles to
save lives and develop economies

Shaping inclusive growth and shared futures through the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the theme for this year’s WEF Africa summit in Cape Town. Delegates from across the region, the World Economic Forum and World Bank are punting drone innovation and adoption as the next area where the continent will dominate. Drones are already starting to revolutionise how some countries tackle service delivery challenges to improve the lives of their citizens and build their economies through entrepreneurship. In South Africa, the use of drones for commercial and non-commercial use is at a very early stage – with the Civil Aviation Authority passing regulations this year on drones spraying crops.

But countries like Rwanda, which is the epicentre of the drone market on the continent, is already looking at upscaling and exporting. Edward Anderson, who is a digital development specialist at the World Bank, told a
WEF Africa panel that he believes drones will have a huge impact such as making it easier to reach rural communities, digital mapping, data collection and cutting costs.

“We’ve seen the leapfrogging that happened with the mobile phone adoption. It wasn’t just a lower cost and lower complexity for rural communication, but also innovation around that… mobile financing, pay-as-you-go. So, when we think about drones… it’s a similar leapfrogging application. I think it can have a significant impact,” he said.

Timothy Reuter, who is the portfolio head for drones and tomorrow’s airspace at WEF, agrees. “(We) sees drones as a technology where Africa is leading the world in the application of social benefit use cases and we hope to highlight where the rest of world can learn from,” he told delegates.
The panel discussion mainly focused on Rwanda, which is partnering with the World Bank and WEF to host the African Drone Forum on February 2020. The event will include a regulatory summit attended by leaders in drone technology from the private sector and airspace regulators to discuss what is possible for the future of drones in Africa.

There will also be flying competitions to promote new industries, harness data for delivery and resilience, and explore technologies. “We hope that this will be the start of creating an enabling ecosystem… where technology can save lives and improve lives across the continent,” said Reuter.
Regulations around the use of drones are one of the main impediments to its uptake across the globe. Concerns include safety, security, and privacy.

However, in Rwanda, the government has made a concerted effort to speed up regulations after realising that not only can drones improve services, they can also cut costs. Rwanda first used drones for medical services and is the only country using them on a national scale to deliver blood supplies in partnership with US start-up Zipline. Rwanda Minister of ICT and Innovation, Paula Ingabire, said her country was able to draft and implement regulations quickly due to a willingness from different players to understand the risks without neglecting potential technology and its advantages.

She said her government made a huge investment in Zipline. While drones were more expensive than the motorbikes and cars that were used to deliver blood supplies for rural areas, money was saved because of speed – it takes 13 to 26 minutes to get blood to outlying areas compared to hours – and blood wastage has dropped from 38% to 3%. Also, there are fewer deaths as communities have faster access to blood. “Looking at these savings, it was worth it,” she said.

Ingabire said the investment not only improved healthcare, but the knock-on effects included a mushrooming of start-ups which such as drones being used to spray pesticides in the country’s marshlands to combat malaria.
A number of countries, including Ghana and Tanzania, are in talks with Rwanda on how they can adopt and benefit from its drone programmes.
The country also established FabLab in 2016, which is a platform for local
entrepreneurs and others to turn innovative ideas into products specifically in the hardware and electronics domain. She said that while no products have gone to the market yet, it was an important part of the country’s approach to drones and how to maximise their benefits.

“(We are bringing in) drone operations in agriculture, healthcare, construction, mining… We are open to being a test bid, but with the intention that you are creating a Pan African business. A global business that is going to scale beyond Rwanda.”

Although the country has not yet built products that can go to the market, there has been a surge in local entrepreneurs who are buying low-cost hardware to start businesses and sell services – such as mapping – in Rwanda and other countries. WEF says that while drones, also known as unmanned vehicles, offer various opportunities, 74% of countries on the continent are not developing enabling regulations. Here is a discussion from the summit on how the drone economy can be unleashed for the public good.