Drones are currently leading smart technologies and breaking down barriers in different industries. The innovation that was once primarily used in the military is gradually making its way into a variety of civil industries such as health care, e-commerce, and so on. For example, Rwanda has a drone delivery service used for blood delivery. Away from these industries, drone technology is fast becoming a crucial tool in agriculture – an industry integral to the economies of many African countries.
While the use of drone technology in agriculture is already advanced in other parts of the world, it is still relatively new on the African continent. But even with its nascent status, its adoption on farms is gradually becoming noticeable. Farmers can now look to the sky for help from an aerial vehicle that solves different problems. Drones are often used in agriculture to map land, report crop health, analyse soil, improve spraying accuracy, locate livestock, etcetera. Taking actionable steps based on analysed data from drones increases agricultural productivity.
A PwC report shows that drone planting systems significantly increase productivity, resulting in higher yields per hectare, an uptake rate of 75 per cent and a drop in planting costs of up to 85 per cent. The Global Market Insights forecasts that the agricultural drone market will exceed $1 billion and 200,000 units shipped by 2024. The industry looks promising.
However, owning an agricultural drone can be quite expensive as the technology is not yet widely available, and there are only a few players in the market. The majority of farmers on the continent are smallholder farmers who lack the financial resources to purchase this gadget.
Femi Adekoya of Integrated Aerial Precision helps Nigerian farmers access this transformative technology. It is a first-of-its-kind agricultural industry-focused drone technology and data analytics service enterprise in the country.
Kindly introduce yourself.
I am an agricultural expert with more than a decade of experience. I have a BSc in agriculture from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta. And an MSc in Integrated Pest Management from Harper Adams University in the United Kingdom through the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship by the UK Government. I am a UK-certified commercial drone operator licensed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority. I am the director of flight operations at Integrated Aerial Precision and the founder of Agridec Ltd, an agricultural value chain and consultancy firm that trains youths and women in climate-smart agricultural technologies and techniques to increase farmer productivity.
Have you always had an interest in agriculture?
I have always had a passion for agriculture since my teenage years. When every kid wanted to study engineering or medicine, I wanted to study agriculture. I chose agriculture because I saw the potential it has, the potential for economic empowerment. My little self and innocent mind saw planting a maize seed as a good investment that generates hundreds of yields in a few weeks. This thought ignited my quest for knowledge in the agricultural field.
Why drone technology?
From my background, you would understand I am a practitioner. The motivation behind playing in the space is that I have defined my career objective. I wanted to be an astute professional contributing to food security, both locally and globally, which can be achievable through technological innovation. You also need proven scientific knowledge of statistics and figures gotten through data to amplify the transformation. So you would always see me at the interception of both. I am usually open to innovation and learning to deliver my objective in the context of a sustainable environment. I got the opportunity to be trained and certified as a commercial drone pilot, and I am now combining that expertise with data analytics in agriculture.
How do drones work for smallholder farmers?
We provide smallholder or large holder farmers with aerial intelligence and actions that empower them to practise smart, decision-driven agriculture, leveraging drone technology and generated data. Beyond that, we generate insight for farmers by turning this drone data into information that empowers them.
We use drone technology to deliver solutions and perform automated tasks in the field. We help farmers access their farms and identify their heterogeneity. With drone technology, they can discover where the nutrient is lacking, the hotspot of pests and diseases, and understand their landform. These actions lead to better productivity and improved profitability. Our drones spray pesticide, fertilizer, fungicide, or organic matter.
What are some challenges you face in the course of your service?
Generally speaking, business is not perfect globally, but it can get quite tedious in Africa. Integrated Aerial Precision is the first of its kind in Nigeria as a drone enterprise focused on agriculture. We are a subject matter in agriculture, and we are using the drone as a tool for an agricultural solution. Since what we do is relatively new, awareness is low. You’d agree that awareness determines adoption. This extends beyond users/farmers to regulatory agencies whose policies limit what we can do.
Like any other business, finance can be a challenge because it is capital intensive; software and hardware combined. Another issue would be education, specifically the lack of local educational content. We’re getting better at producing or assembling our sprayer drones locally. It is still a challenge, but we are progressing.
Expertise in the landscape is also a crucial challenge. For instance, the booming fintech space is so because there are lots of tech-savvy guys in the ecosystem. We are trying to put things in place as pioneers in the industry. One of the prices we have to pay as pioneers is that we have to train people so that we would be able to deliver the right solutions. These are a few of the challenges we face.
You seem to prioritize women and youths with Agridec, why?
The role of women in agriculture is critical because they play a frontline and salient role from production to the end of the value chain. Their contribution to the food system from the field to the fork is critical, hence our interest in them.
Youths do not dislike agriculture as people typically believe. What we should be asking is, “What kind of agriculture are youths uninterested in?” You won’t find them in traditional drudgery driven agriculture because there are easier ways of doing things now. When we talk about smart, data-driven, intellectual and productive agriculture, the youths are happy to contribute and identify with this kind of agriculture. I can see the surge and interest when I speak with youths and engage with them. So we focus on how to get a future out of this for them. They should be able to compare themselves with a doctor and not feel disadvantaged in engaging in agriculture.
With the adverse effects of climate change, what climate-smart practices do you advise people to adopt?
Agriculture contributes to climate change, and climate change negatively impacts agriculture. There are a series of climate-smart techniques that we advise to be adopted. Drip irrigation systems can work in places where climate change affects water availability. With drone technology, you can be climate change smart with the information and data insight provided. There are also climate service products like weather information that can help you to be able to adapt to the effects of climate. With drone technology, you can access and know your landform by identifying its elevation slope and knowing if your land is vulnerable to flooding.
You should also be aware of fertilizer application in the proper proportion because it helps reduce the hazardous pollutants associated with industrial agriculture, benefits the environment, and aids in the fight against climate change. That leads to sustainable consumption and production, which is an SDG goal. Our sprayer drones are battery-driven and more or less do not contribute to the impact of climate change. This contrasts with the conventional tractor method, which needs expensive fuel that depletes the ozone layer. We are delivering solutions that are climate-friendly. Those are some of the ways we contribute to climate-smart agriculture.
What is the future of drone technology in African agriculture?
It will have an impact everywhere. Drones will undoubtedly influence the future of work. If agriculture remains our sole source of food, drone technology will play a significant role in the industry. To increase food production and farmers’ profitability and deliver on the promise of food security, we will see a lot of automation. Drones are still evolving. The type of data we can collect from a drone and how we can transform these data into actionable insight to improve productivity is still untapped. We are still working on the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning. There is a lot to explore; this is why Integrated Aerial Precision is at the core of drone technology in agriculture.
How would you describe your impact, and what are the plans for the future?
Through our engagements with drones in Agriculture, we have introduced over five thousand agricultural technology enthusiasts to the realities and goodness of Drones in Agriculture. I have also trained and built the competence of close to 50 drone enthusiasts in drone piloting, many of who now use the skills to make positive changes in various industries and positively impact the future of work. We want to transform and revolutionize agriculture to be able to deliver on the promise of food security and a resilient food system. We want to spread across various parts of Africa with our drone technology solutions in a few years.