“Most of Africa missed out on the Green Revolution that transformed agriculture in South and East Asia, but we’re not going to miss the digital revolution,” says Dr Abdelaziz Lawani, Professor of Agribusiness at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). Dr Lawani is also the founder of Global Partners, a Benin-based start-up which uses unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – to provide a range of services to farmers and others.
Besides providing farmers with real-time data to improve their management of crops, soils and livestock, and to minimise environmental damage and maximise profits, drone services and other innovative digital technologies are helping to attract young people into the agricultural sector. They may even help to prevent the mass movement of young people into the cities.
Dr Lawani was one of 11 drone operators to attend an ‘experience capitalisation’ workshop organised by CTA in Ghana, in June 2018. Participants were able to share their experiences, discuss challenges and learn from each other’s successes and failures. “We also decided to continue working together in a more formal way as a consortium,” says Dr Lawani. The consortium, Africa Goes Digital, now has some 30 members across 17 African countries, most of whom offer drone services. CTA encouraged the creation of the consortium and has supported its development.
The operators at the Ghana workshop had all attended at least one of the two CTA-supported training events in 2017 at the Paris headquarters of Airinov, a private-sector pioneer in drone-based farming applications, with whom CTA is working closely. Here they learned how to use drones and multispectral sensors, and how to process remote-sensed data. Participants were also provided, on a co-funding basis, with drone equipment, including sensors.
“Drone technology is really beginning to take off in Africa,” says Giacomo Rambaldi, CTA Senior Programme Coordinator for ICTs. “The demand for services is booming, and in January 2018 the African Union took a policy decision to encourage member states to make use of drones to increase agricultural productivity.” CTA played a key role in the formulation of the new policy.
However, there are many challenges when it comes to mainstreaming the use of drones, and CTA is helping its partners not only to develop their skills and business management, but also to learn how to operate in a world where the regulatory environment is frequently unclear. This is being done under its ‘Transforming African Agriculture: Eyes in the Sky, SmartTechs on the Ground’ project, which runs from 2017 to 2019.
Major clients for CTA’s Africa drone partners include agribusinesses, government agencies, international donors, NGOs, research agencies and universities, large-scale farmers and farmers’ organisations. Some are involved in a wide range of different sectors and activities. Global Partners, for example, currently focuses its activities on agriculture, land use planning and biodiversity conservation, but it has also become an important training centre for drone operators in West Africa.
Africa Goes Digital is benefiting from advice provided by Ernst & Young Enterprise Growth Services. It will facilitate cooperation and networking between members and represent their interests. Just as importantly, the consortium has begun linking members to agribusinesses, development agencies, NGOs, government departments and others looking for drone-based services.
Dr Lawani and his colleagues at EKU run face-to-face teaching courses on drone certification and the use of drone-based services. He, EKU and the consortium are now adapting the curriculum to provide online training courses for drone operators in Africa. These will be tailored to meet the different regulatory needs of countries in Africa. This is a work in progress, but members of the consortium have already held discussions with government departments in Benin and elsewhere.
“I really believe that through the consortium we can help to change the way agriculture is done in Africa,” says Dr Lawani.