Tech in Agriculture In Africa, drones are in the business of precision farming

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In its characteristic buzz, the drone starts up its four propellers and takes off.

In seconds, it is above the terrain and has already filmed several hectares of pineapple fields and returns to land in the middle of a small compact crowd.

 

The scene is from early October 2016 in a suburb of Accra, Ghana, an unprecedented development in farming employed by Joshua Ayinbora, a young enthusiastic farmer.

The images from the flight will serve to orient him on the action to take on the ground; check the irrigation, or find anomalies related to sanitary treatment differences. "Understanding my pineapple is deciding if I want to achieve my goals of growth", he says. "Precision in agriculture is essential today to minimize risks and maximize returns."

Drones flying across agricultural fields can observe through a specific sensor, generate more accurate pictures than satellite images, and raise a higher amount of data.

 

It can help in the detection of weeds and diseases on crops in remote areas, finding damage disaster, and even in estimating the amount of fertilizer required for the farmland.

Though the drones are being increasingly used for crop management in Europe and the United States (in France, the market leader Airinov provides services to about 8000 farmers), they are yet to take a hold in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an international development organization started in 1983 by 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and member states of the European Union, rose to the occasion. "An important part of our work focuses on innovative ICT”, says Giacomo Rambaldi, Programme Coordinator at CTA. Talking about the use of drones in African agriculture, he speaks of a "huge potential”.

 

The center has used a French start-up, Airinov, the leader in agricultural drone services with 40 employees and €2.5 million in revenue in 2015 to help seven African entrepreneurs.

Specialists in UAVs, developers or researchers, have been selected by CTA for their knowledge of the realities in the field. They will help to put increase precision agriculture in Africa by setting up drones in farming in their country of origin. This is just "a first step", according to Mr. Rambaldi. The demonstration in October in Ghana with the equipment was an opportunity for different stakeholders to meet.

With a grant from CTA, agricultural entrepreneurs from Ghana, Tanzania, from Uganda, from Benin and DRC travelled in March 2017 to the premises of Airinov in Paris for a week of training.

 

"They will be able to take ownership of our technology and deploy next-friendly services at home," says Hamza Rkha Chaham, Head of International Affairs at Airinov, ahead of the event. Each of farmers were given a four-rotor drone.

"Our applications in Europe are aimed at optimization. In Africa it is the opposite: we must guide the development", summarizes Hamza Rkha Chaham. Our drones will help to map or identify a problem. The goal is to give the user more flexibility farmer to invest. "

Entrepreneurs trained in Paris will offer their services to farmers, cooperatives, communities or government and will solicit Airinov for analyzation of specific data, including the use of fertilizers.

play Trainees familiarise with UAV flight planning & control using eMotion2 (UAV4Ag (Twitter))

 

To reduce costs for farmers, flights will involve clusters of small producers of the same product. Giacomo Rambaldi of the CTA plans to fly over thousands of hectares of paddy fields in Ghana or oil palm trees in Uganda, where each farmer owns an average of 1.5 hectares. CTA and Airinov both believe that the charges borne by farmers should decrease through better knowledge of the terrain.

But flying a drone is not yet accepted as the norm on the continent: there are sometimes strict or no regulations thus restricting its use.