Pioneering drone-based services are beginning to transform Africa’s agriculture sector into a high-tech industry. CTA was among the first organisations to recognise that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – or systems based on drone technology – could help smallholder farmers become more productive, sustainable and profitable.
UAS provide farmers with location-specific real-time, actionable data to improve their management of crops, soils and livestock, and to minimise environmental damage and maximise profits. To take advantage of the exciting opportunities offered by drone-based systems, in 2016, CTA partnered with leading private sector operators to provide training in drone piloting and responsible data acquisition and processing, as well as business development support, to ICT start-ups from 11 African countries through its pioneering Eyes in the Sky, Smart Techs on the Ground project.
A farming revolution
Drone services and other innovative digital technologies are helping to attract young people into the agricultural sector. By the end of 2019, 38 CTA-supported youth-led enterprises were offering drone-based services to farmers’ organisations, agribusinesses, governments, and international development agencies in 21 African countries. With CTA support, a ‘first of its kind’ pan-African consortium of digital entrepreneurs – Africa Goes Digital (AfGD) – has also been established to support further growth of the enterprises and enable group members to offer diverse services and be more competitive. A recent survey revealed that in the first 6 months of 2019 alone, 32 enterprises had served 209 farmers' organisations, 65 government agencies and a total of almost 16,000 farmers.
Evolving at breath-taking speed, UAS are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to feed decision-support systems. In Ethiopia, CTA is supporting an innovative project where UAS is being used to calibrate an algorithm which would be able to take local agro-ecological conditions into account when estimating wheat yields. Once upscaled and matched with satellite-generated data, this kind of information will be of strategic importance to the Ethiopian Government for mitigating the potential impact of food shortages in years of adverse climatic conditions.
One of the challenges that Africa faces in fully utilising UAS is a lack of robust regulatory frameworks, which CTA has been working tirelessly to address. According to the 2018 African Union (AU) report, Drones on the Horizon: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture, which was co-authored by CTA project implementers and AfGD members, in 2017 only 26% of countries had drone regulations and some had temporary bans. This ground-breaking report underpinned the AU Executive Council’s decision issued in January 2018 to recommend that all Member States harness the opportunities offered by drone technology to transform agriculture across the continent. Nationally, across Africa, many of the CTA-supported enterprises have also been playing a critical role in advising civil aviation authorities in developing regulations for the responsible use of drones. The latest assessment on national drone governance reveals that by the end of 2019 60% of African nations had ad hoc regulations in place or had amended existing regulations to include provisions addressing the use of drones.