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Your next delivery in Africa by drone

Daniel PelzJune 1, 2016

Potholed roads, traffic jams, roadblocks and moving goods within Africa is often a logistical nightmare. Drones could help change this trend. Rwanda and Ethiopia have embraced this new technological advancement.

A Chinese worker flies a drone in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Z. Abubeker

Traffic on Rwanda's skies is set to increase. But it's not about more birds or additional planes. The Rwandan government and private companies are working on an ambitious project. Unmanned drones are soon going to start transporting blood samples from hospitals in the west of the country to central laboratories.

"Drones are very interesting for a country like Rwanda. When I look at the infrastructre that is needed to get on top of our mountains, I think that a drone becomes an attractive solution for us," Rwanda's ambassador to Germany, Igor Cesar, said.

Expensive road transport

Dubbed the "land of a thousand hills", road transport is an expensive and time-consuming business. If the trials succeed, drones could also start carrying medical drugs for needy patients into remote villages or deliver much-needed medical equipment to rural hospitals in the future.

"One of our main challenges is health. Health care has always been very expensive and if we want to make it available for the whole population, we need to find solutions," Ambassador Cesar said.

The use of drones might sound like science-fiction. But most participants of the "Logistics and Mobility - Digital Africa" conference think otherwise.

The conference held in Berlin and organized by the Afrika-Verein, an umbrella group of German companies with business interests in Africa, brought together business representatives, development specialists and diplomates from Africa and Germany.

Green hills in Rwanda
Drones could soon fly between Rwanda's green hills.Image: DW/A. Le Touzé

Higher transport costs than anywhere else in the world

"Transport costs are far higher in Africa than anywhere else in the world," said Karsten Galipp, Africa director at Inros Lackner, a German engineering and consultancy firm.

This means that drones could be even advantageous in Africa than in Europe or US.

"You may know that Google or Facebook are all testing this in urban situations here in Europe or America, but we do not think that it makes sense, because we have a well-set infrastrucure here. But for sub-Saharan Africa, it does make sense to establish an autonomous and rechargeable air transporting system as a logistical approach," said Stefan Zelazny of Mobisol.

A traffic jam in Africa.
Transporting goods by road in Africa is expensive.Image: Sebastien Martineau

'A business case?'

Mobisol provides solar-panels to households in rural Tanzania and Rwanda that are not connected to the national grid. The company plans to start trials early next year to deliver solar panels to the customers. But a situation where drone-deliveries of solar panels become the order of the day is still far off.

"For us as a company the most challenging question is: How we can do this, not just create interesting concepts, but how we would like to have a business case on a larger scale," Zelazny said. "We have to bring three things together: Making a business case, find technical solutions and do all that in reliable legal environment."

But even if the trials succeed, investment in Africa's traditional infrastructure are still necessary. Drones can only carry limited capacities of cargo. So the continent's dire need for more roads, railways and seaports will remain for decades to come.