How drones can help rural Africa take flight

26Apr 2019
Correpondent
The Guardian
How drones can help rural Africa take flight

STORIES around the development of drones and the future of mobility are increasingly populating our news feeds.

Whether it’s the world-first drone delivery of a vaccine to a baby in Vanuatu via the United Nations; the use of UPS drones to deliver medical samples across campus at the WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina; or packages being delivered to customers through the rough weather conditions of Finland via Alphabet’s spinoff, Wing, these individual use cases together paint a broader picture.

They demonstrate how drones can transform last-mile delivery to people who live in rugged and rural terrains; how they can alleviate over-burdened medical teams with a time and cost effective solution; how drones can perform dangerous jobs in emergency scenarios; and most importantly, how they can help to spare lives.

We are increasingly realizing the value of drones. Although their use to ease societal challenges and evolve business models is compelling, there are still significant barriers in the way of realizing this technology’s true potential - whether it’s the speed and complexity of regulation, access to airspace, training or a unified traffic management system.

To encourage this innovation, widespread changes are required. New types of regulation and policy frameworks, governance tools, airspace management, physical infrastructure and privacy and data ownership policies are needed, along with work from a range of experts from the public sector, civil society, industry and academia.

In response to this, the Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC) has adopted a different approach. Instead of pushing a particular use case, the initiative acts as a platform that connects government and regulators with global innovators, thought leaders and local entrepreneurs around an incredible opportunity.

The Lake Victoria region of Africa is the world’s most densely populated rural area in the world. Over 35 million people live in or around the Lake Region, which is notoriously hard-to-reach. Africa has an annual infrastructure shortfall of US$112 billion and the impacts of this shortfall can been seen and felt on the shores of Lake Victoria, where people seek to be connected with critical services and wider economic and commercial opportunity.

The Lake Victoria Challenge asks what could happen if Africa was no longer bound by surface infrastructure and could unlock lower skies as a resource. It asks how the nation can augment mobility from rail, road and sea; to connect excluded communities, enhance the resilience of supply chains, and create new markets and services that connect urban and rural opportunities.

John Mongella, the Regional Commissioner of the Mwanza Region expands on this: “The rural island communities in and around Mwanza are often only accessible by boat, which can be slow and expensive.

A drone network will support this existing infrastructure, improving access to healthcare and opportunity. The transformative effects of drones on the African continent can be significant and the Lake Victoria Challenge has been created to advance this work.”

An initiative launched by the Government of Tanzania and with support from the World Bank Group, the LVC has attracted an extensive range of partner organizations that reflect both the opportunities and the challenges at hand.

These include international organisations like the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, UNICEF, JSI and the World Food Program; to international development that includes the Korea Green Growth Trust Fund, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (Danida) and United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID); to local Tanzanian government and regulators like the Tanzanian Airports Authority (TAA), Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA), Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology; and local innovators like AfricanDRONE, Tanzania Flying Labs and DroneMasters.

“The Lake Victoria Challenge is unlike any other drone program, in that it is initiated and supported by the Government of Tanzania. As a technology, drones have the power to create human impact that will last generations to come — but robust regulatory frameworks are required to make this dream into a reality.

That’s why the World Economic Forum has partnered with the World Bank to support the development of real use cases in Mwanza,” said Harrison Wolf, Project Lead, Drones and Tomorrow's Airspace, World Economic Forum.

Taking the form of a symposium, an expo and three flying competitions, the LVC is intended to offer three clear takeaways:

1) Demonstrate the possibilities to regulators and government officials. Currently, nearly three quarters (74%) of African countries do not have or are not developing regulations that enable drones, however at the opposite end of the spectrum, Rwanda’s performance-based approach allows governments to determine acceptable levels of risk while offering operators flexibility in demonstrating how they can meet that threshold.

The approach is agile, integrated and globally influential and the LVC can examine how it can scale-up regulation like this for drones across the region and create a regulatory environment conducive to growing the industry.

2) Illustrate the benefits of drones in Africa

New last mile delivery technologies are needed as part of a continent-wide digital moonshot to overcome current infrastructure challenges. The use cases are potentially vast, from mining to medical, from transport to telecommunications with significant economic opportunity in the areas of eCommerce, agriculture and health supply chain.

Tapping into this, drones can help organisations like Medical Stores Department (MSD) with its challenges around logistics and access to the 7,309 health facilities it serves across Tanzania.

Drones can be used by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to help remote, smallholder farmers solve problems and advance their production systems. And they can propel the work of the Ariel Glaser Pediatric AIDS Healthcare Initiative (AGPAHI) with faster and safer sample collections to support the 300 health facilities they work with in Tanzania to eradicate childhood HIV and AIDS.

Poor quality surface transport isn’t just a mobility challenge but also a major public health concern. Road safety is now the third largest killer in Africa behind HIV/AIDS and Malaria. As Young Tae Kim, International Transport Forum (ITF) Secretary-General shared in 2018, “Africa has 2% of the world’s cars but 20% of the road deaths.”

3) Create commercial opportunities

Economy viability is required to ensure the sustainability of drone network. The Lake Victoria Challenge through its three Flying Competitions aims to offer three separate contracts to its winning teams to service rural Tanzania and the Lake Victoria region. However commercial opportunities around drones are not just one-sided given this new industry would look to spark meaningful economic opportunities in Africa.

The power of tech entrepreneurship to solve community challenges could be key for African young people, who are three times more likely to face unemployment than older adults. With drones come drone ports, fabrication labs that can 3D print spare parts, new skills and knowledge opportunities for young people - and a mindset shift that instead of looking overseas, that local challenges and opportunities can be addressed in locally.

“The Lake Victoria Challenge is designed to reimagine Lake Victoria’s mobility, public health systems and daily life; opening up innovative possibilities for real-world impact. This goes further than just drones, and will benefit industries like agriculture, e-commerce, entertainment, construction, and telecommunications.

We’re excited to see what the future will hold for the Lake region, and we commend the Regional Commissioner of Mwanza for taking a lead on making it happen,” said Bella Bird, Country Director for Tanzania, Burundi, Malawi and Somalia at the World Bank Group.

The Lake Victoria Challenge is currently calling on global drone innovators to take part in its three Flying Competitions. Registrations are currently open, however close shortly on 25 April, 2019. To apply or find out more information, please visit the LVC website here.