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Africa’s first drone academy inspires tech for development revolution

July 29th, 2020
topic:Innovation
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo
tags:COVID-19, digital revolution, drones

A growing number of young innovative Africans are leading a tech revolution across the continent with modern and homegrown solutions geared towards addressing local challenges.

From agriculture to health to transportation, almost all sectors are experiencing a renaissance thanks in part to the digital disruption.

Drone technology that was hitherto confined to military operations is now an integral part of Africa’s development from delivering life-saving medical supplies to protecting wildlife from poachers.

But there has been a shortage of qualified Africans to operate them and expand their applications.

Until now. The first African drone training institution, christened African Drone and Data Academy, opened its doors to its first students early this year. The institution located in Malawi is sponsored by UNICEF and run by Virginia Tech in collaboration with the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST).

Malawi has been a frontrunner in the use of drones for humanitarian activities and international development was the right fit to house the academy. Collaboration between UNICEF and Malawi in the use of drones and data started in 2007, when the UN agency opened a first-of-its-kind drone testing corridor in the country, allowing drone companies carry out their operations and test their solutions. The same corridor is now being used by startups and universities.

“The government of Malawi has been keen on using drones to deliver services to its citizens. The government was supportive right from the start in 2017, when UNICEF used a drone to transport dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis for HIV. The Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and its support has always been crucial in every single milestone, starting with the drone testing corridor to the three drone delivery projects and the opening of the African Drone and Data Academy”, said Michael Scheibenreif, the Academy’s programme manager.

The first cohort consisted of 25 students drawn from Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo with 50 percent of them being women. While the initial qualification to join the academy was an undergraduate degree in STEM, an applicant who was a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo who hadn’t cleared his degree was admitted after the panel assessed his competencies. The move has seen the academy relax admission requirements to allow those with relevant practical expertise to join.

The ten week programme covers among other aspects how to build and pilot drones, how to process and analyse data to address challenges like diseases and calamities and navigating drones through rough terrains when delivering supplies.

The academy graduates are in the process of being incorporated by Swoop Aero, Wingcopter and FES to support data analysis for the national COVID-19 response.

The companies are involved in transporting medicine, mapping emergency areas and supporting precision agriculture.

Hope Chilunga, one of the academy graduates is now running a startup that is designing drones as he looks to apply the knowledge he acquired from the academy to provide solutions in the agriculture and health sectors.

“I am now working on building a drone with a team that will help health centres in Malawi transport COVID-19 samples to testing centres around Blantyre, a city in Southern Malawi. I also have a start-up company called Nkhwazi Aero’s that is in the business of construction management, mapping/ survey, inspection, search and rescue, aerial and video photography and delivery through use of drones. I am driven by the passion of designing and building drones using locally available resources to make an impact in agriculture and health which are vital sectors in Malawi”, Hope said.

Hope who has bigger dreams for his country and continent through his startup is convinced that drones holds a promising future for Africa and is looking forward to more proactive policies that are geared towards creating a favourable environment for innovators who are keen on transforming the continent through local solutions.

“Developing countries need to embrace drone technology to advance and address their everyday challenges. Farmers need to spray and monitor crops, health centres need urgent delivery of key supplies, construction sites need aerial photography for progress and survey, telecommunication companies and power companies need to inspect their towers and power-lines. The place and space of drone technology especially in Africa cannot be gainsaid”, he enthused.

Michael on the other hand believes that for Africa to tackle its pressing challenges, local expertise is crucial in a continent where the tech boom has become unparalleled.

“One of the major obstacles to use technology to tackle the continent’s most pressing issues is the lack of local expertise. It is crucial that the academy trains youth to use leapfrog technologies, such as drones and geo-referenced data, in order to provide new services for children across the continent. Local youth are most suited to identify their specific challenges and academy provides them with the 21st century skill set to tackle these problems in a sustainable way”, he said.

Article written by:
Bildschirmfoto-2014-10-08-um-19.29.13
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Malawi Uganda Kenya Nigeria Tanzania Botswana Sierra Leone Ethiopia Democratic Republic of the Congo
© Hope Chilunga
The first African drone training institution, christened African Drone and Data Academy, opened its doors to its first students early this year.
The first African drone training institution, christened African Drone and Data Academy, opened its doors to its first students early this year.
© Hope Chilunga
Local expertise in crucial in a continent where the tech boom has become unparalleled.
Local expertise in crucial in a continent where the tech boom has become unparalleled.