"Agriculture is a science as much as it is an art." Late last year, a group of farming and technology experts came together in an online webinar to explore the future and topic of Drones Applications for African Agriculture. (Part two is available here.) In the final part of the Webinar, the panel and presenter discuss innovation challenges for applying drones in agriculture. Watch now and join the discussion!
It’s time to go to the marketplace. Let’s bring it home to Africa.The discussion is kicked off by moderator '‘Captain’ Helen Ese Emore, a business development expert and agriculture consultant at Scientia Consult in Lagos, Nigeria. “What is the case for drones in Africa, and what does it mean for you and I as farmers?”
Herman Krebbers is a Project Manager for Mechanisation and Precision Farming at Delphy who has over 25 years of experience in the field of agribusiness. Born and raised on a dairy farm, he has dedicated much of his professional life to studying “how technology can be made profitable for farmers.” He has promoted the use of drones around the world (including in countries such as China, Egypt, Ukraine, Mongolia, etc.).
Practical uses of drones in agribusiness
According to Krebbers, drones can “play an important role in collecting high resolution data,” which makes them a valuable asset. When a drone flies over a farm with the sensing technology needed to collect data, it can be analysed and used in practice.
There is no market for drones if there is no agricultural knowledgeIn terms of the types of drones that can be used on farms, Krebbers explains three of them. The first are equipment carrying drones, which can be useful for transport on fields with difficult terrain, for example. The second are field spraying/broadcasting drones, which apply pesticides/fertilizers on the field. A third type of drone, which tends to be the most used today, is the data collecting drone. These are autonomous vehicles flying on presets and equipped with cameras/sensors, which also require sophisticated software. The benefit of these often lies in the fact that they give a birds eye view of the fields.
Another advantage of drones is that there is much less risk of unfavourable cloud conditions hindering an aerial view of the fields in comparison to satellites, Since drones are more flexible to operate and manipulate over time and space, farmers have a better opportunity to get quick and specific overviews of field situations in real time. With satellites, this type of movement is almost impossible.
Drone technology does have its cons though. In order for drones to be practical for long term use in agriculture, “there must be a return of investments by yields and savings." In terms of cost, data collection is a key issue to consider. Krebbers points out that it is essential that drones provide the right data at the right time, particularly when monitoring stages of crop growth or at the nexus of important decisions. “If it’s too early or too late it’s not useful. It’s also only advantageous if you have the agronomic knowledge to use this data.”
In addition, data collected through drones is relative. This means that these is always a need for taking samples in the field by hand to corroborate and check the collected data. Processing the data “needs extra investment, time, and skills.”
In order for drones to be practical for long term use in agriculture, there must be a return of investments by yields and savingsFinding the best fit
So what types of images can drones take, and how do these give different types of data? The first type of image that a drone can capture is RGB photos - these are best compared to images taken by satellites that basically give us a birds eye view. These are most useful for “zone oriented soil sampling and analysis,” since they can obviously show variety in the colour of the fields from high above.
The second type of imaging that drones can use is spectral imaging. Through the use of infrared technology, spectral images can highlight parts of good crop growth green, while areas of poor growth present in red areas. This way, the difference in the growth of the crops themselves can be highlighted and seen in large groupings.
The last type of imagines uses thermal data to show temperature differences within the field. How does this work? Well, “differences in temperatures in crops are related to growth and moisture stress.” So if an area of crops shows signs of being colder on the images, farmers can postulate that this is because of a problem with drainage, which increases the temperature of the soil!
Concluding his presentation, Krebbers highlights some final points. “Drones can be reliable and easy to use on many farms, but only if you have the agronomic experience and knowledge to use this data.” Circling back to his earlier point of needing on-the-ground sampling to corroborate data collected by drones, he thinks that “drone data combined with in field sensor data has the most potential” to give farmers valuable insight.
Krebbers adds a piece of valuable personal insight to his presentation by explaining that when he has the chance, he “always orients on cheaper alternatives of data for free from satellites or sensors. Because when we give this advice to farmers, and they also have to pay for our services, I want to prove to them that it will be profitable to use this new technology.”
I think it’s high time Africa gets transformed through it’s agriculture sector.Next up is our first panelist, Billy Katontoka, Owner and CEO of MiDrone Pilot Academy. Joining from Lusaka, Katontoka is “positioned to train the next generation of drone pilots and technicians in key sectors of the Zambian economy.”
“What is the low-hanging fruit for drone applications in Africa? Where do we start from?”
“What we need to ask ourselves before we answer that question is this: Africa is a continent with so many unique problems that require unique African solutions. With regards to drones and what has been pointed out so far, what I had in mind is capacity building.”
Katontoka believes that for Africa to start taking advantage of drone technology, there is a need for people that are “skilled and certified as drone pilots, technicians, and data scientists. First and foremost, we need a skilled workforce for the drone industry.” Once there is a drone service industry, it will be much easier to carry out the practical technology and actions.
Train Africans so that you can provide African solutions
Cultural context is especially important to consider. As Katontoka mentions, Africans can sometimes be apprehensive of technology that comes from outside the continent. In order to get Africans to start trusting drone technology, there must be local experts in these technologies. Katontoka states: “Let’s train our people to be skillful drone pilots. Then the people in policy making will also be at ease and accept the technology. Right now they are apprehensive: do our people have the capacity to fly these drones?”
Our second panelist, Richard Ogundele is joining from Abuja, Nigeria. “Immediately after that knowledge acquisition that Billy talked about, the next thing is proper application in the agribusiness sector. That’s where real precision agribusiness profitability will come into place.” Ogundele is the Founder and CEO of JSMF Agribusiness Nigeria. He is a value chain development and consultant who has worked with topics such as poverty reduction in emerging markets and inclusive application models.
The key to unlocking adoption and acceptance of drone technology is capacity building.Captain Helen poses a question to Ogundele about the economics of implementing drones in the marketplace. “If we are going to have drones to facilitate production to boost agribusiness in Nigeria and Africa, what kind of business model is suitable? How can we bring it home?”
Ogundele thinks it’s important to make drones affordable by prioritising an extension delivery system and embedded services. An extension delivery system entails that farmers are assisted through comprehensive education and guidance on new methods and techniques, while embedded services mean that there are “free” services provided by the seller in addition to the commodity sold. In simple terms, it’s important for drone technology to be delivered along with contextual and relevant application knowledge in an affordable manner.
Affordability is key to making sure there are actually savings with things such as precision application of pesticides/fertilizers. Savings can be multiplied if drones are shared between farms. “With one capital investment in acquiring a drone, say for over 500-1000 hectares of clustered farmers, you can offer that service for far cheaper to everyone. That way nobody feels the pain, because everybody is sharing the cost of it.”
Women and children: the key to building a native drone service industry
Next, our final panelist chimes in with some insight about how the youth of Africa are a key part of bringing this technology home. Dr. Ikechi Agbugba is a lecturer and researcher at Rivers State University’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Dr. Agbugba, who has BSc, MSc, and PhD degrees in Agricultural Economics is an active contributor and friend of both AgriFoodNetworks, as well as The African Farmer Stories.
“Youth and women are major actors and drivers of Africa’s agricultural transformation through the agricultural sector,” says Dr. Agbugba. Because there is currently a distorted and inaccurate view of what farming is, it can sometimes be looked down upon as a career. Thus, drone integrated farming is a huge part of “making farming sexy again, especially for the youth.”
Drone technology creates an avenue to create employment and attract the youth back to farmingThis echoes a common sentiment that has been expressed throughout all three parts of the webinar - agriculture in Africa has a perception problem and needs a marketing makeover to make it a viable choice for people to invest capital in, both human and monetary. Earlier in the webinar, Captain Helen commented on how innovative and exciting this technology is. “It reminds me of the days we used to fly manual kites, and now we can fly drones. If you want to get young people on the farm, get them to come and fly a drone, because it’s fun!” When young people become enthusiastic about becoming drone pilots, technicians, data analysts, etc., they contribute to building a network of African drone service professionals.
As the question circles back to Katontoka, he believes it’s important to “stop tiptoeing around this technology” and embrace it fully. “It has the capacity to transform not only our communities, but economies at large.” Adding additional insight to Captain Helen’s original question, he says “the basis of a business model for introducing this technology to farming, especially among smallholder or commercial farmers is that it needs to start with establishing relationships and demonstrating the experience of drones in those farms.”
He agrees with Ogundele about extension delivery and embedded services, giving a personal anecdote about his own grandfather, who is a farmer himself. “If I talk to my grandfather about drones, he would not understand anything unless I go ‘fly the kite’ over the field with him. The pictures may look good, but I also need to explain to my grandfather what they mean. What do these pictures mean for him and his crops?” So offering drone technology service is just as important as supplying the actual machine.
Drones can bring forth employment as well as a healthy and happy citizenshipFurthermore, Katontoka reminds us that farmers who need this technology the most may not have as comprehensive of a grasp on metrics and measurements as we assume. “My grandfather doesn’t know the size of his field. He will tell me how many steps he has to take to walk the length of his field. But if I go over with a drone and fly it over his property, I can tell him, ‘You have 10 hectares of land.’ That in itself is a way that you can start bringing in technology to be accepted by smallholder farmers.”
Showing farmers practical and scientific information like this can be incredibly beneficial, and not just through direct drone application. For instance, in the scenario above, once a farmer knows exact dimensions and measurements of his farm (which may have been previously very difficult to measure), it is much easier to get microfinance loans. Giving farmers access to precise information and science about their farms is just the beginning of a ripple effect to access better resources.
“What’s going to be the economic impact of drones in African farming and the African agribusiness space?”
Dr. Agbugba explains that drones will contribute to the GDP of African nations in innumerable ways: providing employment, increasing crop production and exports, and keeping the population fed. Furthermore, because of the variety of settings in which drones can be used, including with crops, livestock, fisheries and forestries, there can be savings across the board.
Ogundele focuses on the precision that drones can provide, saying that their use will help with “immediate business actions that can lead to increasing yield of produce on the field. We can know specifically where to treat and where there is a problem.”
Katontoka agrees with his fellow panelists and brings in another sphere: the human social ecosystem. Even if drones are purchased specifically for a farm, their use can be extrapolated to other societal and community uses. He gives the example that for a farmer who lives far away, using a drone as a vehicle for transporting information is much faster than a bike. Another example is that “if a farmer on the last mile lives near a health center that requires blood to be delivered on the same day, that blood can be delivered more efficiently. Drones can help us create a healthy and happy citizenship.”
Echoing Dr. Agbugba’s earlier sentiments, Katontoka also sees value in drones unlocking rural economies, particularly through women and the youth. “If the women and youth in those areas are trained as drone pilots and then are equipped to start offering services to neighbouring farms of those communities, that community becomes unraveled.” This starts a ripple effect that boosts the economy, starting in places it’s needed the most.
As Captain Helen begins to wrap up the session, she circles back to Krebbers, asking for his perspective on the discussion thus far. “What concrete steps should we take as Africans to bring these suggestions to practice?” Krebbers reaffirms the need to make sure there is a return in investment on the cost of these drones. “You need to have higher yields, better quality, or have more efficacy of fertilizer and protection costs.”
The first step in doing this is making sure that there is applicable and accessible knowledge to improve and use data from satellites and drones. Education is equally important, since “there is no market for drones if there is no agricultural knowledge.” The next key part is that the value of the technology must be proven even before a major investment is made so that farmers can see potential to improve crop production.
Ogundele shares some questions to help determine actionable outcomes for drone technology in the near future.
- How much does it cost to get a drone?
- What types of drones are out there that can be used for agribusiness operations?
- What training is available and what is the cost of that training? How long does it take?
- What sort of expert knowledge do you really require to operate the drone?
Most importantly, how can you merge agronomic knowledge with observed data, and how do we keep the element of human involvement alongside this new technology?
Interpretation is key so that the farmer can relate to the information that is givenOnce these systems and services are in place regionally, there’s a need to make sure there can be cooperation and collaboration to share resources continent wide. Katontoka thinks the key to achieving this is a “pan-African coordination team that will speak to the African Union to erase artificial barriers.” It’s important to have standard regulations, for example, so that a drone pilot who is certified in Zambia can also operate drones in Nigeria. Cross-border coordination is the way forward, because “as long as we remain disintegrated and operating in isolation, we are not going to transform our agricultural sectors as individuals.”
In concrete terms, Krebbers believes the next step is to try and prepare demonstration farms as quickly as possible, so that drone technology in farms can be studied and observed in practice, and not just on paper. This would benefit not only farmers (who get the chance to see technology and added value in action before putting in an investment), but also those involved in the education and retail sector in relation to agricultural drones. “When you can see results, people will follow.”
We need to get the African ecosystem together with the European ecosystem by using technology and companies that were unknown, even a decade agoAs Captain Helen signs off and closes the final panel discussion, she reintroduces Victoria Madeor of The African Farmer Stories to give some concluding remarks. Thanking the speakers and sponsors, Madeor envisions “more collaborators across the continent so that we can demonstrate that drones truly are the toy to have today” and the way to rebrand farming in Africa.
Coen Hubers of the LDE alliance also shares some parting words and thoughts. “COVID-19 has been forceful this year in transforming physical conferences into digital ones.” While the pandemic has been a hurdle in some aspects, it has shown us that “speed, access, and cost of communication between continents does no longer differ from communication with the farmer next door.” This opens doors for international collaboration, which must be strengthened with a global governance model. “We need to get the African ecosystem together with the European ecosystem by using technology and companies that were unknown, even a decade ago."