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Agricultural drones: seven African ‘ambassadors’ trained in Paris

By Rémi Carlier, Le Monde Afrique, 19 April 2017

April 19, 2017

The entrepreneurs came from Uganda, Tanzania, Benin, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, ambitious to develop this new sector back home.

The last time they had all met together was in a pineapple field near Accra, the capital of Ghana. Five months later, they are in a meeting room in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Seven entrepreneurs from Uganda, Tanzania, Benin, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), all specialised in various areas of new agricultural technology, have come to take part in a training course in precision agriculture, the art of optimising yields and investments on agricultural plots, an area still very under-developed in sub-Saharan Africa.

They meet on the premises of Airinov, a pioneer and French leader in agricultural drones. This start-up owes its success to a particular sensor that it adapts to its drones, allowing them to collect data on soil quality, the presence of any diseases, or optimal fertiliser needs from the air. The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an EU-funded international development organisation with a major presence in Africa, spotted an opportunity using this technology for the continent, and decided to fund the training of the first seven 'ambassadors'.

Improving farmers’ living standards 

“A few years ago, a Helicoverpa caterpillar epidemic in Benin ravaged the country’s cotton crops [which represent 70-80% of its export earnings]. With this kind of technology, we could have identified exactly where the attacks were taking place from very early on and helped the farmers stop them,” says Abdelaziz Lawani, director-general of Global Partners, a start-up in Benin involved in the conservation of natural resources. Like the six other entrepreneurs taking part in the training, he is convinced that bringing in drones to support local farming techniques will not only lead to better yields, but will significantly improve farmers’ living standards in the long term. 

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Four of the seven entrepreneurs and an executive from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) taking part in Airinov’s practical training in Fosses, in the Val-d’Oise, in April 2017 © Rémi Carlier

"The drones will give farmers a better idea of the fertility of their soil and allow them to monitor the development of their crops," says Abdelaziz Lawani, who intends to offer his services to cotton and maize farmers.

Standing in the middle of a field in Fosses in the Val-d'Oise, the seven entrepreneurs take the controls of their quadcopter drones for the first time. The drones were purchased from Airinov for €5,000, 60% of which was covered by CTA. Rose Peter Funja is the only woman in the group, and director-general of Agrinfo, an online database in Tanzania that maps and records land titles. She is enthusiastic and already thinking ahead: "Until now, we used to collect land GPS coordinates by hand. Now, we'll be able to work much faster and include photos as well. Ultimately, we'll be able to help fertiliser sellers know exactly how much to sell to those farms that use our services and allow the farmers to use them rationally."

However, it will be some time before drone sensors can be used to determine the optimal dosage of fertilisers. The application of fertilisers is not widespread in Africa, and the image processing service, provided and charged to the entrepreneurs by Airinov, will be expensive. Still, with financial support from CTA and logistics services provided by the Parisian start-up, which offers them a free processing package of a hundred images per day for a year, the seven entrepreneurs are confident that they can create a brand new market back home.

Economies of scale

In a region where traditional farming techniques remain prevalent, and where legislation on drones is virtually non-existent, persuading stakeholders is going to take a lot of work. The first step is market research to assess the potential benefits. Some are already thinking ahead, like Barthélémy Boika Mahambi, technical director of a Congolese design office specialised in cartography, “First, we’ll go and meet the agro-industrial firms to ensure the funding of our activities. At the same time, we are talking to the government and development agencies so that they can contribute, too.” Abdelaziz and Rose are looking more towards economies of scale and pitching their services to large cooperatives.

The entrepreneurs are confident they will gain government support. In Ghana, the authorities are already interested in the initiative. All of them want to believe in it. “Drones are the future of agriculture in Africa,” all three of them stress.