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Drone-based services taking off to transform Africa’s agriculture

© CTA

Africa’s agriculture sector is being progressively transformed into a high-tech industry through digital services. Decisions are being based on real-time gathering and processing of data, feeding into increasingly effective decision support systems. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are an integral part of this digital revolution.

Across 21 African countries, 38 youth-led enterprises, three government agencies and two universities are now offering drone-based services to farmers’ organisations, agribusinesses, governments, international development agencies and other parties as a result of support provided by CTA’s ‘Eyes in the Sky, Smart Techs on the Ground’ project, which was launched in 2017. This is a significant development for the continent.

Through a combination of scientific research, proof-of-concept initiatives, capacity building, investment support, enterprise development, networking, experience capitalisation and communication, this innovative initiative has played a key role in establishing an enabling environment for drone technology. The project also supported the African Union’s (AU) High Level African Panel on Emerging Technologies in selecting ‘drones for precision agriculture’ as one of the most promising technologies to foster Africa’s development. As a result, in January 2018, the AU Executive Council recommended that all Member States harness the opportunities offered by drones for agriculture.

In addition, CTA project implementers co-authored the report, Drones on the horizon: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture, which was launched at the Africa Innovation Summit in Kigali in June 2018. Project beneficiaries have also played a critical role in advising national civil aviation authorities in developing regulations for the responsible use of drones.

Understanding perceptions and addressing challenges

Despite the Africa-wide interest in UAS, a number of challenges have been experienced during project implementation and development of drone-based services linked to: 

  1. disabling regulatory frameworks (e.g. Uganda, where no framework is in place); 
  2. lack of access to capital for upscaling (in the initial phases of business development); 
  3. initial lack of understanding of the potentials and pitfalls of the technology; 
  4. difficulties in cloud data processing due to poor internet connectivity in most countries; 
  5. steep learning curve in using data processing software; 
  6. need to develop a price structure for UAS services; and 
  7. a lack of agronomic skills within most of the drone enterprises which have more of a focus on GIS, remote sensing and ICTs.

Nevertheless, over time, the challenges have been addressed either via the project or by the enterprises themselves. Assisting the AU in realising the potential of the technology resulted in the issuance of the AU’s Executive Council decision, which induced many national civil aviation authorities developing and promulgating their own regulations. Training offered by the project and regular mentoring facilitated the enterprises in being more responsive to challenges and more competent in delivering their services. On-site instead of online data processing addressed the challenge posed by poor connectivity. Constant information sharing among members facilitated the establishment of ad-hoc partnerships and mutual learning.

A Community of Practice (CoP) was established with members sharing common interests and goals which has also led to the establishment of a ‘first of its kind’ industry association – Africa Goes Digital Inc (AfGD), which is supporting further growth and outreach of the member enterprises. Learning and information exchange in order to maximise on opportunities and help to address challenges has been facilitated through the project via a WhatsApp group, which has become the pulsating heart of the CoP. The group has continued to expand – consisting now of approximately 80 members from across 21 different African countries.

Evolution of Unmanned Aerial Systems

Whilst the terms drone technology and UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are used here interchangeably, UAS is not just the drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) but also includes the sensor(s); the controller used to command it; the pilot; the apps used for flying; the analytical software used to analyse the (multispectral) imagery captured by the sensors; the data scientist, who performs data analysis; and, finally, the computer which hosts the analytical software.

UAS are evolving at breath-taking speed and are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to feed decision support systems. Currently, high-end UAS solutions are providing real-time actionable information visualised as, for example, georeferenced index maps or infrared imagery, which allow on the spot data interpretation and action. CTA is funding a sub-project in Ethiopia where UAS are used to calibrate an existing algorithm aimed at estimating wheat yield according to local agro-ecological conditions. Once upscaled and matched with satellite generated data, this kind of information would be of strategic importance to the Ethiopian government for mitigating food shortages in years of adverse climatic conditions.

Innovation and impact

In June 2019, a survey was conducted to assess project outcomes and impact. Results revealed that most enterprises had recruited additional staff (72% aged between 18 and 35 years) contributing to youth employment. Of the 32 respondents, 97% stated that offering drone services had improved their companies’ visibility and reputation. Results also show that during the first 6 months of 2019, 19% of the companies had signed service contracts in excess of €50,000, each one including a drone component. Enterprises had also signed more service contracts with private companies (54%) than donor agencies (14%), and the value of individual contracts increased compared to previous assessments, indicating the enterprises’ viability and sustainability.

The survey also revealed that agriculture (60%) and surveying and mapping (31%) were the service domains yielding the highest volume of business, although the most successful enterprises were those that had diversified the most and were also serving other sectors such as engineering and construction, real estate and mining. Overall, the 32 enterprises served 209 farmers' organisations, 65 government agencies and a total of almost 16,000 farmers. In terms of policymaking, 38% of surveyed enterprises reported having contributed to the passing of national regulations governing the use of drones, with 75% stating that their staff reviewed or commented on draft regulations.

Sustainability and growth

While the CTA project comes to an end, the long-term sustainability of drone-based services for agriculture will be ensured through AfGD, which is a legally incorporated industry association representing African enterprises providing digital services across a number of sectors beyond agriculture. AfGD provides a range of services to members and sources funding for supporting its activities as well as members’ growth in terms of enterprise management, business development and acquisition and service delivery. Members have to meet a number of eligibility criteria to be part of AfGD and pay membership fees to access the services. All AfGD members are currently CTA project beneficiaries but, going forward, AfGD membership will be opened up to non-project beneficiaries who meet the eligibility criteria.

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