LAGOS, Nigeria — Ethel Pondelan spends her free time poring over data collected by the unmanned aerial vehicle she built with a group of classmates at the Malawi University of Science and Technology.
“I love to build things and fix things. But with drones, they are a lot better because I can see a lot of problems in Malawi that need solving, problems that I can use drones to solve,” 23-year-old Pondelan explained to Devex.
In 2017, Pondelan and two other engineering students from her university were selected to take part in a drone training program organized by UNICEF and an engineering team from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. With oversight from the U.N. agency and Virginia Tech team, Pondelan and her peers were able to test the drone they built — which weighed 1,400 grams and was fabricated from form boards, locally sourced plastics, and other materials provided by Virginia Tech — at the Kasungu Airport in central Malawi.
“I was a little worried our drone would not work,” Pondelan told Devex. But the drone took off from the airport in Kasungu and flew 19 kilometers northeast to the nearby village of Gogode in 16 minutes — just as it had been programmed.
Now in her final year studying chemical engineering, Pondelan says she did not expect to understand and warm up to the new technology so quickly. Once intensely interested in pursuing a career in chemical engineering, Pondelan finds aeronautics and data science to be more appealing choices for her future now, she said.
“It is only logical that the young Africans will be bringing forward the next aeronautic technology in the world.”— Edwin Kayuni, engineer at a telecommunications company
In 2017, the government of Malawi established the first drone testing corridor in Africa in partnership with UNICEF. The initiative was a follow-up to a 2016 UNICEF program in which drones were used in Malawi to transport blood samples to test infants for HIV. With the potential to support actions such as flood response, search and rescue, and medical supply delivery, the drone corridor offers the opportunity for the development of a new tech ecosystem in sub-Saharan Africa — beginning with Malawi.
Creating a STEM ecosystem
In Africa, a majority of STEM development is tailored around software and problem-solving. In Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s most valuable tech ecosystem, a focus on STEM began with website development and then moved on to software-based startups, for example. But drone corridors now offer the opportunity for African countries to lead their own industrial revolution, borne in part from using tech to come up with humanitarian solutions for the continent.
In 2018, the government of Malawi and UNICEF worked together to cut down the spread of malaria in the country by using drones to identify breeding grounds for mosquitoes transmitting the disease. Since then, drones have been used in Malawi to combat infant HIV and cholera. Following the progress of the drone outreach program in Malawi, UNICEF Namibia is looking to deploy drones to transport blood samples from rural areas in the Zambezi to central laboratories. And in Ghana, drones will be deployed to deliver vaccines, blood supplies, and medicines to remote areas in the country, a program designed by Zipline, a California-based robotics company that also operates in Rwanda and is now valued at $1.2 billion.
The deployment of drones and the ever-growing spread of drone testing corridors in Africa presents new opportunities for young people.
“Here [in Malawi], it is the young students and graduates that are learning about the drones and even building them. It is only logical that the young Africans will be bringing forward the next aeronautic technology in the world,” Edwin Kayuni, an engineer working with a telecommunications company in Lilongwe, explained.
The notable absence of drone regulation on the African continent, though potentially problematic, presents an opportunity for the tech ecosystem to develop in ways that might not be possible elsewhere. The absence of legislation, according to Kayuni, allows technology to plug gaps in infrastructure through rapid development.
In fact, drone technology exists as a “vehicle to drive new ecosystems of development,” said Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor at Virginia Tech. “Artificial intelligence, robotics, data science, mechatronics… these are some of the fields to be explored to create solutions for Africa by Africans. Testing corridors will provide locals with the opportunity to play around with new technology and hopefully, it stays with them.”
Drone technology is a lot more than the act of flying drones, explained Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone coordinator for Malawi: “People are learning how to build drones, data acquisition, and even how to program the parts that make the drones unmanned.”
As drone technology enters the African market, there are several sectors they can be plugged into, such as agriculture or farming. These sectors are often lacking in the much-needed talent to thrive. As an increasing number of logistics and delivery companies enter the market, especially in Malawi, there is a guaranteed market for local talent, Scheibenreif told Devex.
“The possibilities are endless. The wide adoption of drone technology in Malawi and other African countries will create new, never before seen jobs,” he added.
Harnessing potential gains
Elizabeth Njandja, an economist in Malawi, doesn’t believe building new tech ecosystem is enough to set a flailing economy on a path toward development. Despite the huge gains Nigeria has made in its tech ecosystem, “Nigeria is still the poverty capital of the world,” she said.
There are gains to be made from drones and the technology’s application in Malawi, Njandja said, but the technology mostly exists to solve problems that skirt existing infrastructure issues. There is hardly any room to innovate and develop entirely new systems and technologies, she said.
A change in government policy toward education might be enough to make the uptake of drone technology work in the long term in favor of the countries with corridors: “Beyond the specialized academies proposed, the curriculum needs to change from the lowest level. Maths, sciences, and computers need to be taught from the youngest age possible,” Njandja proposed. “Trade policies to bring foreign tech manufacturing to Malawi is definitely a start.”
In the meantime, drone technology continues to take off in Africa. WeRobotics, a nonprofit that works with local communities in emerging markets to use robotics for good, is creating a global network of Flying Labs, networks of local drone experts from around the world. Twelve labs have already been established throughout the African continent.
UNICEF this year will be launching a drone academy in Malawi, in partnership with the government — although details on how it will operate are still in the works. The U.N. agency is also establishing several new drone-testing sites for humanitarian and development initiatives, first in Sierra Leone with plans to launch a similar drone testing corridor in Namibia. As with other drone corridors, industry, universities, and individuals are invited to test potential use cases of drones for humanitarian and development work, while also developing local talent. This caveat serves to drive investment in and help develop broader STEM ecosystems.
Pondelan, meanwhile, is one of many young people currently looking to further her education in drone technology.
“I’m graduating soon and there is no guarantee of a job in chemical engineering for me. But a drone academy is coming to Malawi towards the end of the year and I’m excited to be getting into this new, exciting field.”