The Fight to Bring Commercial Drones to Africa
African governments have cracked down on commercial and recreational drones. A small band of hobbyists wants to change that.
George and his drone. Photo: Justin Lynch
The man lied motionless in a coffee field in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, asleep after a night of heavy drinking. He wore a grey polo shirt that rippled from the whirr of a small quadcopter flown by my guide, George, who hovered his drone close to the hungover man.
George, who asked that his full name not be printed, owns a commercial drone company that films weddings, wildlife, and rally car events. He is likely one of only a handful of drone operators regularly flying on the continent, and still operates his aerial photography business under the radar. That's because like most of Africa, commercial and recreational drones are essentially banned in Kenya.
According to statistics from the New America Foundation, of the six countries that have introduced drone regulations in Africa, only Namibia allows for essentially unrestricted drone use. (Full disclosure: I am currently an editorial fellow at the NAF.) For those countries that have no public regulations, the rules are arbitrary.
Across Africa, drones have been grounded because governments don't fully understand the technology, and amateur pilots don't understand how to fly them properly. The regulation of drones in Africa is about more than if a machine can fly the skies of the continent unburdened; it forebears Africa's relationship with new, disruptive technologies. Uber has come to Africa, possibly driving the taxi business and the regulations that come with it into obscurity in some cities. Meanwhile, Google and Facebook are trying to provide African countries with internet connectivity using blimps, literally flying above censorship and the necessary investment that governments often overpass.
"All we need is to have the spaces opened up"
How will African governments engage with a new, disruptive technology like George's drone, one that stands to upend society and governments' relationship with it?
After guiding his drone over the sleeping man, George flew it further into the coffee field. He was worried about the police seeing him—a politician was attending a church only a few hundred meters away, and security was heavy. Some people, George told me, have had their drones confiscated by the Kenyan government. But because the law is arbitrary, it's unclear what penalties he might face if he's caught flying a drone.***
When cell phones were introduced in the 1990s, George said, the Kenyan government stifled the possibility of the mobile industry. He remembers SIM cards costing close to $1,000 USD, and the industry became bogged by bureaucracy. Today, 93 percent of Kenyans use mobile phones, and 73 percent use their phones for mobile money.
"Over time, (the government) came to realize the benefit of having this process take its natural course," George said, referring to the cell phone industry. He hopes the same thing will happen with drones. "All we need is to have the spaces opened up," he said. "Some of the uses of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in the future, we can't even imagine at this point."
Dickens Olewe, a former journalist who was the first to see the mainstream potential of drones in the East African nation, agreed. "There is so much interest around drones," Olewe said. "If I were advising the Kenyan government, I would make space to allow money to come into the country."
For him, drones are not an innovation, but a tool that can innovate other industries. To combat Nairobi's infamous traffic jams, Olewe suggests stationing drones on roads to give live feeds of congestion. To give journalists and humanitarian workers aerial images of natural disasters, Olewe suggests using drones instead of expensive helicopters.
"There is a way you can tap into all of that innovation, and let people come to Kenya to do cool stuff," Olewe said.
Olewe has used drones to map Nairobi slums, and flown them over Kenya's rich landscape for wildlife and environmental conservation.
As Olewe midwifed the drone industry in Kenya by pollinating its use across different sectors, its demise also became evident. Pilots started to invade people's privacy, he said. Airport officials raised security concerns around drones flying too close to planes. His own newspaper ran a front page headline "Mysterious flying object drops in Naivasha" that was really about group of students who crashed their small-fry DIY drone.
"There has been a lot of scaremongering and ignorance in the media," said Olewe.
The tipping point for the Kenyan government came after an unidentified pilot flew a drone right before an event that President Kenyatta was scheduled to appear at, Olewe said . In a country still shaken by the Westgate mall shootings carried out by a group of al-Shabaab militants that killed 69 people and injured 200, drones became a security threat. Instead of creating legislation that targeted only the problem, in January 2015, the Kenyan government announced only drones approved by the military and civil aviation authority would be allowed to fly.
"There is a general concern that without regulation, drones could be misused to create acts of unlawful interference."
"There is a general concern that without regulation, drones could be misused to create acts of unlawful interference. Terrorism and other negative and bad things," said Capt. Gilbert Kibe, the Director General of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.
Kenya is developing drone regulations that will be two tiered, Kibe said. Recreational drone users will have less restrictions, while commercial pilots will face higher barriers to fly.
"For UAVs you have to be at the level of training and qualification and competence of pilots," Kibe told me. "Because it is commercial activity, you do have to license the operator and make sure that they are operating within that regulated environment for commercial purposes."
It means that photographing a wedding using an $800 drone could mean meeting the same standards as a pilot who flies a multi-million dollar passenger airliner.
South Africa has already developed the two-tired approach to regulating drones, and many in the community believe that it's stifling the industry's growth. Only a few companies have been given commercial drone licenses, according to But Corpaci, the owner of Skylab Productions, based in Cape Town.
"For the film industry we need so many permits in place, and insurance won't cover us," said Corpaci. He said even the Cape Town police are using drones illegally because they help them track criminals.
To the countries in Africa that are already at a heightened state of alert over internal security, small-fry drones are another potential tool for terrorists. Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria all require permission from the government to fly, and it is unclear if anyone has been given a permit.
Is the all-or-nothing approach practical? Drone experts say that regulations are necessary, but that there is a way to target the problem without stifling innovation. Pilots like George are flying anyway. Restrictions can be put on flying around airports or major cities, for example, but still allow for drones to fly in the rest of the country.
"I think this gets to one simple point—we need a more nuanced approach to this technology," said Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Ledgard was a former Economist correspondent for Africa, and sees that the continent will struggle to meet the employment demands of a youth budge. Poor roadways and transportation networks will make it hard for governments to give the surge of young Africans jobs over the next two decades. Ledgard is betting that cargo drones could make Africa's poor transportation networks non-essential, and spur employment by promoting intra-African trade.
Ledgard has held discussions with countries like Angola, Uganda, and Rwanda regarding cargo drones. Instead of dealing with mid-level bureaucrats like Kibe of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, he'd rather talk directly to the resident of a country. His pitch is simple.
"Any ability to move ahead and build an economy in a new way around incomes that will hover around $2,000 or $3,000 USD per capita—the reality for the next 20 years—you are going to have to be much more imaginative about the way you apply technology."
So far, the results have been mixed.***
The hungover man was on his feet by the time George had flown his drone a mile away. The man's name was Ronald, and he said he works at a nearby hotel. The drone was a perfect hangover remedy it turns out, and Ronald was the only one who could still spot the white quadcopter in the cloudy sky from a distance. With a smartphone, George was lining up a photograph of the serene Kenyan landscape as a rainstorm rolled in.
"It can handle a bit of rain, but not much," he said.
The emergency warning system on the drone started to beep. The battery level was low. It started to rain. George pressed a button to have the drone return as fast as it could. Only Ronald could see the aircraft's white outline as it began returning to home.
"You shouldn't get below ten percent battery," said George, as he looked into the sky.
He still could not see his aircraft. The drone didn't seem to be moving fast enough to beat the rainstorm or have enough battery to return. Another emergency battery warning interrupted the silence. Ronald now couldn't see the drone in the clouds. George hoped the automated pilot system didn't malfunction. They waited to spot the drone, as helpless as NASA mission control waiting for a spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere.
"There!" shouted Ronald, and the outline of the auto-returning drone became clear.
George took manual control to speed up landing. It started to rain more, and the wind picked up. The drone hovered 20 meters overhead, and began a rapid descent. George reached out his hand, and grabbed it.
"18 percent battery left!" George said. "I set the battery warning early."
George packed the drone in its padded carrying case right as the clouds really opened up. Ronald looked hungover, wet, and inspired.
"Please give me some food," he said.