This Tiny African Country Is Leading the World's Drone Race
Drones could help developing countries leapfrog ahead.
March, 2016

In this limited series, OZY looks at leading-edge ideas in technology, health care and education that are emerging from different countries within Africa.

Imagine this: A child is sick in a small village in the hills of Rwanda. It’s late at night, and the nearest hospital is hours away. So the kid’s worried mother picks up the phone, and, shortly thereafter, the much-needed asthma medication arrives — thanks to a drone.

Yes, Dr. Drone may sound futuristic, but it could be a way to get ahead of neighboring Kenya, which has banned the use of this tech for fear of the terrorist group al-Shabaab. And unmanned aerial vehicles, as they’re technically known, could also be a game-changer for humanitarian purposes and trade in countries such as Rwanda, with few roads to rural areas. Indeed, this tiny East African country, known as the land of a thousand hills, is leading the continent into the future of drone use — it’s even home to what could become the world’s first drone port by the end of 2017.

The word “drone” tends to conjure up images of terrified children running for cover in parts of the Middle East, or chubby nerds scaring passersby in San Francisco with their silent toys. And there are plenty of skeptics about how far this technology may go — many think deploying a large network of drones over developing countries is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. But for those like Jonathan Ledgard, a director at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, people have only begun to scratch the surface of this potentially world-changing technology. “Drones could do for transportation in Africa what mobile phones have done for banking,” he says.

The life-saving potential of this technology has been tested by Doctors Without Borders, which used drones to fight tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea.

Despite their difference in beliefs, both sides agree that the lack of infrastructure for transportation is one of the main factors holding back sub-Saharan economies. According to a study by the University of Sydney, only 34 percent of rural Africans live within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared to 65 percent in other developing regions, like Southeast Asia. Even in nations like Nigeria and South Africa, where the economies are growing close to the double digits annually, the lack of infrastructure is getting in the way of farmers being able to sell their produce and e-commerce ventures distributing their goods.

Drones could be part of the solution. At least that’s what people like Ledgard and his group of scientists say. They’ve spent the last few years developing and testing carrier drones for civilian purposes, and they’ll also be the ones in charge of filling Rwanda’s drone hub with solar-powered flying machines. (The design will be the work of the world-renowned architect Norman Foster, who has already envisioned a series of clay-made domes overlooking a lake, where the port will be built.) “Drones offer us such a great opportunity for development,” says Eric Rutayisire, founder of CHARIS, Rwanda’s first drone-making company.

But what about locals? While drones are likely to become cheaper and more accessible in the years to come, these machines currently cost thousands of dollars, putting them outside the reach of most folks here. And while some Western companies may heavily market their drones in this area, “we need to be wary of people promising quick fixes,” says Kristin B. Sandvik, director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

What most tech optimists also forget to mention is that Africa already has a history of drone use: The devices were used by colonial powers to bomb rebellions in the late 20th century. More recently, they’ve been used by the United Nations in Congo, and a couple of them fell near Goma, hurting civilians and burning down fields of crops. It’s hard, too, to make sure the power of drones is not abused when the laws and regulations are being created on the fly — some of the countries that could benefit from this technology have governments that are arguably undemocratic.

Yet fear is a bad advisor, says Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana. He recently signed a new agreement with the San Francisco-based company Zipline, whose aerial vehicles — aka vampire drones — will be able to deliver blood to more than 22 transfusion facilities throughout the country. The life-saving potential of this technology has been tested by Doctors Without Borders, which used drones to fight tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea. And if the Rwandan experiment works, it won’t be long before other countries in the region decide to follow suit. For Rutayisire, the prospect of aerially connecting hospitals, tech hubs and markets across the continent is simply too exciting not to try. “With so much potential,” he says, “it’s hard to not be optimistic.”


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