With their trademark buzz, the drone's four propellers start spinning and the aircraft takes off. Just seconds later, the drone is in the air capturing footage of several hectares of pineapple fields. It skirts around the edges, then lands in the middle of a small, tightly packed crowd. This unusual scene played out in early October at a plantation near Accra, Ghana, owned by Joshua Ayinbora, a young farmer brimming with enthusiasm. He will use the images to guide his work in the field, check his irrigation, and see whether differences in plant treatment are causing any anomalies. "If I want to hit my growth targets, I have to know everything about my pineapples," he explains. "These days, precision agriculture is vital to minimising risks and maximising yields."
Agricultural drones use a special sensor to capture vast amounts of data to a higher degree of accuracy than satellites, allowing farmers to detect weeds and diseased crops, gauge post-disaster damage, and estimate how much fertiliser they need to use. Drone use is on the rise among crop farmers in Europe and the United States. French market-leader Airinov already works with around 8,000 farmers in France, but the technology has yet to take hold in sub-Saharan Africa.
The EU-funded Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) – an international development organisation founded in 1983 by 79 countries across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and EU Member States – has spotted an opportunity. "Much of our work focuses on innovative ICTs (information and communication technologies)," says Giacomo Rambaldi, CTA Programme Coordinator, adding that there is "huge potential" for agricultural drones in Africa.
An Airinov fixed-wing drone takes flight to map a pineapple field near Accra, Ghana, in October 2016© Giacomo Rambaldi/CTA
CTA has turned to French start-up Airinov, the market leader in agricultural drone services, with 40 employees and a turnover of €2.5 million in 2015, to train seven African entrepreneurs – drone experts, developers or researchers selected for their ICT expertise and their local knowledge. The hope is that the trainees will help establish drone-based precision agriculture in their home countries. Rambaldi calls the move a "first step". The demonstration session held in Ghana in October, using Airinov equipment, was a chance for those involved in the project to meet.
Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo will travel to Airinov's premises in Paris for a week of training in February. "Once they've got to grips with our technology, they'll be able to go back home and use it in a way that suits their needs," explains Hamza Rkha Chaham, Airinov's Head of International Affairs. Each of the farmers will buy a quadcopter for €5,000, and CTA will finance 60% of the cost. The start-up will then work with them for 12 months and include weekly feedback sessions.
Minimal fertiliser use
Airinov has built a successful business in Europe by focusing on reducing fertiliser use for environmental and cost-saving reasons. But this model is largely unsuited to sub-Saharan Africa which has some of the world's lowest fertiliser usage rates and where land-related data is often inaccurate or non-existent. "In Europe, our drones are used for optimisation. But it's a different story in Africa where the focus has to be on development," adds Chaham. "Our drones will be used to map fields or pinpoint problems with crops. We want to give farmers more flexibility to invest."
After completing their training in Paris, the entrepreneurs will offer their services to farmers, cooperatives, local authorities and insurance firms. They will also be able to bring in Airinov to analyse the data in detail, particularly around fertiliser use. Small-scale farmers growing the same crop could work together to operate joint flights in an effort to cut costs. Rambaldi envisages drones flying over thousands of hectares of paddy fields in Ghana or oil palms in Uganda where each farmer owns an average of 1.5 hectares. Both CTA and Airinov believe that farmers are likely to see their costs drop as they gain a better understanding of the terrain.
But drones are not yet commonplace in Africa, where often tight regulations – or no regulations at all – restrict their use. "We've published a study on agricultural drones and distributed it to all the countries we work in to try to change people's attitudes," says Rambaldi. "As well as training seven entrepreneurs, we want to help create an enabling environment for the drone industry to expand."