As drones take off in Africa, familiar concerns linger

It is quite concerning that drones while having the potential to drive economic development, can also be weaponised and utilised by insurgents, terrorists, and criminal networks.

As drones take off in Africa, familiar concerns linger
Photo by Diana Măceşanu / Unsplash

The first drones to fly African skies were deployed in 1978 by the government of what was then Rhodesia to keep an eye on the country’s civil war. In the late 1980s, South Africa went on to produce the continent’s first homegrown drones. 

Modern use started in 2001 when Botswana purchased a swarm of Israeli-built unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for its surveillance force. Since then, drones have gained popularity, becoming a must-have technology for governments as well as some private entities across the region. 

Almost every country in Africa uses drones in some form. For the most part, they have been used positively: national defense, weather forecasting, delivering healthcare supplies, monitoring frequently poached wildlife reserves, surveying farmlands, and finding sightings on safari tours. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the technology’s capacity came into sharper focus, as several countries used drones to spread crucial public health information and keep a strong check on lockdowns, ultimately saving countless lives. 

However, more recent global and local developments suggest that increased drone use poses several risks worth immediate consideration. 

At a convention in Dakar, Senegal, Air Force chiefs of staff in Africa, alongside aviation industry executives, agreed that the need for the continent to develop a sophisticated defense against drones is now more pressing than ever. 

It was the opening of the second edition of the Africa Air Force Forum, a regional forum for advancing air force capabilities that will help build bilateral partnerships. Aerospace industry leaders and government officials discussed modern security challenges, with an emphasis on drone use. 

“The massive use of remotely controlled vehicles made possible by the accessibility of the technology and the ridiculous costs of its implementation is becoming a real threat for any air force, however modern it may be,” Brigadier General Papa Souleymane Sarr, Chief of Staff, Senegalese Air Force, is quoted to have said at the event. 

While drones are potential drivers of economic development, the technology can be weaponized, since they have become a sought-after tool for insurgents, terrorists, and criminal networks. The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Hamas have demonstrated them as one of the most advanced technical weaponry on the planet. 

Unlike the Middle East and Europe, Africa has yet to witness major drone-led terrorist attacks. 

But, per the Institute of Security Studies, there is evidence of UAVs being weaponized by extremists and transnational criminal organizations. Armed camps like al-Shabaab in Somalia and insurgency groups in Mozambique and DRC are actively exploring drone tech. 

Back in 2020, al-Shabaab coordinated an attack on an American military base in Manda, Kenya, in what was described by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a prolific use of drones. 

In March this year, the issue of Iranian-made drone presence in the Sahel region was raised by the Kingdom of Morocco, having noticed supply to the Polisario Front via Algeria. The Moroccan government alleged that Tehran sends drones to the Sahrawi, a separatist group in the Sahel region, in what Rabat fears could destabilize North and West Africa. 

For the longest possible time, global media has focused on the menacing adoption of hobbyist drones in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. But militant sects in Africa—including Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and al-Shabaab, are taking note of the trend and leveraging them to their advantage. 

In 2022, ISWAP used quadcopter drones to shoot propaganda videos showcasing a military training camp in northern Nigeria. The same year, ISWAP surveillance drones were noticed hovering over Nigerian government force territory minutes before the base was ambushed. 

Several terrorist groups in the continent are yet to offensively deploy drones. But from the looks of things, it is only a matter of time before the situation becomes grim. In a recent report, the Institute of Security Studies revealed ISWAP is testing delivery drones, in view of using them to convey explosives for attacks in the Lake Chad Basin.

On the bright front, the industry—now worth hundreds of millions—is shaping up nicely. 

As one of the first commercial use cases in Africa, Rwanda partnered with U.S. startup Zipline to deliver emergency blood supplies to remote areas. Zipline went on to partner on the same beat with Ghana’s Ministry of Health, from where it expanded to Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Kenya.

In another case, Moroccan startup Smart Life Innovation, developed project Atlan Space—an AI-driven surveillance solution capable of covering 2,000 hectares per hour and ranging up to 800 km. Atlan Space was created to combat illegal fishing and oil discharging in Moroccan and African waters. 

Farmers in the Maghreb axis, which covers Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, are embracing drones to combat climate change in what is one of the world’s most water-stressed regions. They are also being leveraged to fight locust infestations in East Africa. 

Airbus, the European aerospace giant, just revealed its plans to set up its first hub for high-altitude communication drones in Laikipia County, Kenya by next year. Reports say the station can potentially create as much as 1,000 jobs for locals. 

In October, the South African Defense Industry (SADI), successfully test-flew the Mikor 380, an 18.6-meter craft with a maximum takeoff weight of 1300kg. The feat put South—which is already the continent’s biggest drone market—in a short list of countries that have developed and flown such a size of UAV.

Though drone deployment is for good, it is critical to take long-term privacy protection into keen consideration. Measures need to be put in place to secure aerial data. Regulations are still in their infancy across the world; Africa is no exception. 

The standing regulations vary from country to country, with some North African countries prohibiting private drones altogether. Meanwhile, countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana allow drones to fly with the permission of aviation authorities. 

Harmonizing Africa’s UAV use policies will make it easier to protect airspaces, enable operators to expand across markets, and contribute to the socioeconomic development of the continent. 

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