Mapping the future with Africa’s first drone academy

Lilongwe, Malawi CNN  — 

When Thumbiko Zingwe, 24, was in sophomore year studying for his degree in Earth Sciences, he was faced with a difficult task.

How would he translate his knowledge to address enormous challenges his community and the country were facing?

This was a time when Malawi witnessed an upsurge in the abduction of people living with albinism, who were being targeted for their body parts because some people believed it would bring them good luck and fortunes.

“I remember asking myself how I can solve this problem. My idea was to use technology to provide rapid response surveillance to such people,” Zingwe told CNN.

Africa’s first drone academy

After some research, he found out about the African Drone and Data academy, the first in Africa and Zingwe has become one of the first cohorts of the institution, which opened last month in Malawi.

Zingwe is one of 16 Malawians and 10 nationals from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be enrolled.

UNICEF Malawi and the government of Malawi have been spearheading the use of drones and data in the international development and humanitarian context.

In June 2007, they opened the first drone testing corridor worldwide as a technology-friendly environment for local and international drone companies to test their solutions.

Since then, the charity has used drones for wide range of applications—from delivering medical commodities, collecting aerial imagery for predictive analysis in combating cholera and malaria to supporting real-time emergency for children and their community.

“Drones, data and artificial intelligence are leapfrog technologies that allow more informed and agile development response and potentially accelerate economic growth in the region,” UNICEF Malawi Representative Rudolf Schwenk said.

But to achieve all these initiatives from drones and data, the charity has one hurdle to contend with.

Malawi, just like its neighboring countries in the region, lacks the qualified personnel needed to use the opportunities offered by the technology.

“Therefore, education and local capacity building are needed to enable these digital advances to bring lasting solutions to the country and beyond. To respond to the skills deficit, we have established this academy,” he said.

Scaling up innovations

In 2017, the charity opened the first humanitarian drone testing corridor in Malawi.

The drone corridor is being used by startup companies and universities to test their drone services.

Apart from providing the testing area, it is also providing short training to local students and entrepreneurs to give them a better understanding of the technology and its benefits.

It was during these workshops, the charity says, that they realized a huge demand for this expertise and that it would make sense to provide more in-depth training and create local and regional expertise.

Among other things, the academy is providing a comprehensive training in how to build or pilot a drone, how to integrate it into an existing supply chain to transport live-saving materials to hard-to-reach areas and how to use the drone acquired data to fight cholera, malaria or prepare better against floods.

When he finishes the course, Zingwe aims to start his own consultancy company which will be using the technology for acquiring data, processing and interpreting and plan to apply this in land surveying, urban planning and agriculture.

“I plan to start a technology hub which will be operating as a foundation mostly targeting the young on how they can utilize this technology to improve their lives by harnessing drone technology implications. I would like also to help and go into aviation policy making operations so we can safeguard this technology to be safe to the community and the nation,” he added.