Regulatory bottlenecks slow down drone revolution in agric sector
Technology companies using remote sensing and big data to tackle some of the problems affecting Nigerian farmers are facing regulatory restrictions, IFE OGUNFUWA writes
Research has shown that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are immensely useful in executing tedious tasks such as video coverage, land survey, data collection in mining, agriculture, property inspection, parcel delivery and construction.
However, many Nigerian farmers and drone operators are facing regulatory and market entry pushback in their quest to commercialise drone services.
In the agricultural space, the use of drones in farm mapping and improving the overall crop yield in a country faced with food insecurity, erosion and irrigation challenges and low agro-export is daunting.
This is despite the fact that the concept of using drones has gained traction and government acceptability in other African countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, among others.
Some of the challenges Nigerian farmers face are the inability to predict farm yield, inadequate knowledge of the size of the farm, drainage and soil properties before planting.
Even after cultivation, findings show that they are unable to estimate the yield, quickly identify accurate harvest time, nutrition deficiency or spot diseases before they spread.
Even though only a few drone companies operate in Nigeria, they are finding it difficult to obtain government licences to operate. Some complained of non-transparency in the licensing process and exorbitant fees.
“Emerging digital entrepreneurs are not able to advertise their drone businesses to attract clients due to the fear of being clamped down by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority,” the Chief Executive Officer, Orbital Solutions Global Service Limited, Adewale Adegoke, said.
Orbital Solutions Global Services Limited is a company that started operations in Nigeria in 2014 and applies technology to optimise agricultural production and facilitate aggregation of farmers by using smartphones and drone technology in farming processes.
He alleged that the government did not seem to understand the economic benefits of the technology, saying this had limited the effectiveness of drone technology in the agricultural space and other sectors.
According to Adegoke, there are constraints with regard to technology transfer and knowledge exchange as most farmers are aversed to technology or empirical methods of farming.
“They (farmers) believe their anecdotal knowledge is sufficient for them to achieve optimum crop output and increase their incomes. However, the farmers have consistently recorded significant levels of post-harvest losses, which have impeded their capacity to realise returns on investment. Drones have the capacity to monitor crop health, develop early warning and crop disease monitoring systems, achieve crop scouting and damage assessment,” the drone operator said.
He added, “The limiting nature of the legal and regulatory environment for drone usage in Nigeria impedes to an extent the ease of nationwide adoption of drone technology in agriculture.”
It was gathered that market entry is also a challenge as most farmers are illiterate and do not understand the significance of mapping their farmland before farming but rely mostly on anecdotal knowledge that cost them time and wastes farm inputs.
“The market entry is poor, to be sincere. We have to run most of our researches and training with agric-based research institutes and universities to be able to propagate the message to farmers,” the Operations Manager, Aerialdrones Technologies Limited, Aduewa Taiwo, added.
Sharing his experience, the co-Founder, ATMANCorp Nigeria Limited, Mr Seyi Oyenuga, complained that it had been “extremely difficult to get drone mapping accepted.”
ATMANCorp, a company that applies technology and data to farm processes, has been operating in Nigeria for over 10 years. The company is currently into the commercial farming and processing of cassava.
Oyenuga alleged that regulatory agencies in the country were not supporting the use of emerging technologies in agriculture when other countries like Rwanda, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire had already developed regulations around the use of UAV and growing economically as a result.
“The regulatory bodies in Nigeria are not moving at a pace to keep up with the changing technologies. Without a supportive environment from the government, key stakeholders in tech and financing will not enter the Nigerian market,” he said.
Oyenuga also claimed that attempts to reach NCAA for licensing had been difficult and licensing processes non-transparent.
Commenting on market entry, he said many farmers were not aware of the capability of technology in farming and did not have the financial capacity to engage their services but operators were devising ways to reduce cost by aggregating farmers.
To bring down the cost for farmers, Oyenuga said, “We created SecureFarmer, which aggregates farmers on a contiguous parcel, bringing down the cost of drone imagery and location tracking by up to 90 per cent. These smallholder farmers now can use the imagery to identify issues on their farms and have peace of mind that their farm is safe based on the weekly updates they get.”
Food and nutrition concerns in Nigeria
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation’s estimates, agricultural productivity in Nigeria is low at an average of 1.2 metric tons of cereals per hectare and farmers face high post-harvest losses and waste due to the non-available storage facilities and preservation techniques.
Nigeria was one of the countries with the most severe food crisis in 2017, especially in the North Eastern states due to conflicts and displacement of the farming population.
A 2018 Global Report on Food Crisis noted that North-Eastern states of Nigeria experienced significant acute food insecurity and malnutrition, declaring 8.9 million people in a state of crisis and famine.
Food insecurity, according to FAO, is a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and active and healthy life.
The report, however, declared that the number of food insecure population would decline to 3.7 million by August 2018, while about 13,000 people would be in a state of famine.
While acknowledging that harvest in late 2017 significantly reduced food insecurity, World Food Programme called for longer-term approaches to accelerate recovery.
Commenting on the findings, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said, “Reports such as this gives us the vital data and analysis to better understand the challenge. It is now up to us to take action to meet the needs of those facing the daily scourge of hunger and to tackle its root causes.”
To address these issues, some farmers are beginning to explore the possibilities of improving yield, averting losses from diseases and pests and having a general understanding of the growth patterns of different crops using technology.
Drone operators and farmers attest to the early warning ability of technology as analysis of remote imagery provided by a drone helped them to identify problem areas before it is too late.
According to them, the remote monitoring using UAV can help farmers to achieve plant count, understand fertilizer application rates, topography and soil properties.
Time savings, fertiliser optimisation on Kwara maize farm
Sharing his experiences on the use of drone with our correspondent, the Co-Founder, Heart and Capital Nigeria Limited, Umar Oba Adelodun, said the UAV helped the company to save a lot of time and resources that would have been wasted on mapping over 100 hectares of farmland scattered all over Kwara State.
“Imagine going around 100 hectares of land on foot, which will take up to a month, but with a drone, it can be done in one day,” Adelodun said.
He affirmed, “Drones have just made our operations more efficient. Our losses mostly would have been in valuable time; which we are now using for better things.”
According to him, the robot was used to map and inspect a maize farm at different stages of growth and it was discovered that only two bags of urea were required instead of four bags that were initially planned.
“There were places that needed urgent fertiliser application and others that did not need at all. We had to focus on those areas that needed fertiliser more urgently,” he added.
Topography, soil properties on Kwara rice farm
However, Ifedola Ogundipe, another farmer in Kwara State was not as lucky as a delay in mapping his farm before cultivating led to a huge loss for him and his partners.
His first stint with rice farming in 2016 and 2017 led to a loss of three tonnes of rice per hectare due to poor drainage.
“We got one tonne of rice per hectare instead of the four tonnes per hectare that we estimated,” Ogundipe, who later co-Founded, Aerial Advantage Global, a drone company based in Lagos, said.
Having acquired requisite training on rice farming, Ogundipe planted rice seedlings on 20 hectares of land in Okeoku area of Kwara State. Together with his partners, they had estimated that four tonnes of rice per hectare would be harvested after six months.
“We decided to plant rice on 20 hectares and with our training, we thought we were well-equipped. Later on, I started learning about drone technology in early 2016. After the first month, I told my partners to let us do a drone survey of the land. Although at that time, we didn’t have much experience; they disagreed saying it would cost money,” he explained.
Eventually, he was able to convince his partners and he took drone imagery of the different parts of the farm and analysed the data.
From the data, he realised that they had been scammed by the farm workers as farm size and rice stalks were not accurate.
According to him, the topography of the land and drainage of the soil which ought to have been discovered and corrected before planting contributed to the loss they suffered.
Ogundipe added, “We mapped it and I came back to Lagos to process the images. After the processing, I found out that instead of 20 hectares of a cultivated rice plantation, we had 11 hectares. The people that cleared the land lied to us and then we paid them for what they didn’t do. Also, the people who planted the rice seedlings said they planted on 20 hectares which turned out to be a lie.
“We found out the drainage was at the centre of the land because the land sloped inwardly. We needed water for most of the rice. When we did the drone survey, we examined the topography and the contour variation of the land. The topography should be even and if it is not even, there should be irrigation to complement the drainage.”
Accurate yield, cost savings on Ibadan cassava farm
On about 50 hectares of farmland in Eruwa area of Oyo state, Oyenuga has farmland where he cultivates cassava.
With the robot in the sky gathering information on the number of cassava plants, Oyenuga was able to estimate the number of cassava tubers that would be harvested.
“The technology has had a significant increase in our productivity and reduction in our cost. The drones have helped us reduce cost by identifying the areas that need attention in the fields more than others. Previously, we spray an entire field with chemicals, now we can identify the areas that need chemical first and apply only there,” Oyenuga said.
Lessons from Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana
In January 2018, the Rwandan drone regulation which came into effect in January 2018 opened up the country to commercial use and empowered operators to test use cases for the technology.
This was after the Rwandan government pioneered the first cargo drone delivery service in partnership with Zipline, a drone start-up based in California, which delivers blood to the hospitals in record time.
As part of the new regulation, Rwanda gave drone companies and manufacturers access to airspace in order to test the numerous possibilities of this technology as long as the companies meet the regulator’s safety requirements.
Following in the precedence of Rwanda, the Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority developed a framework that required potential drone operators to apply for operating licences.
The country, which modelled its framework after Rwanda’s, gave permission for the drone to fly within the airspace close to the airport and monitors them in a bid to keep its airspace safe.
Kenya is also set to unveil a regulation to standardise the operations of drone companies before the end of the year as safety and security concerns begin to rise in the country.
This was after objections were raised to some provisions in regulations proposed by the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority in June last year.
However, a local media report in Kenya stated that KCAA Director- General, Gilbert Kibe, promised to ensure adequate public participation.
In February, Ghana’s Civil Aviation Authority issued its first licence to a local firm, SKT AeroShutter, for the commercial use of its drones in mining, agriculture and construction, after completing five stages of the certification process.
The agency had previously issued directives on drone ownership and operations, under which operating an unregistered drone can incur a jail term of about 30 years.
SOWIT, an agric tech company that offers advisory services to farmers in Morocco, Senegal and Sudan, believes that African smallholder farmers are important to increase global agricultural production and meet the growing food demand while addressing the sustainability and volatility challenges.
The Managing Director, SOWIT, Hamza Chaham, explained that the company leveraged remote-sensing technology and machine learning to fill the information gap for smallholder farmers in Africa.
The application of these technologies, according to him, is making African smallholder farmers more competitive as they have better access to information that optimises critical operations such as fertilisation or harvest to increase their margins in sustainable ways.
He cited the example of farmers using a decision support tool to decide on how to conduct the fertilisation operation for cereals, saying they made between $20 to $80 additional net margin per hectare.
Also in Ghana, the Co-Founder, Complete Farmer, Zoussi Ley, says drone technology is applied by the company on cassava, chilli pepper and soybeans farms mainly to generate crop diagnostics and other types of location-specific data, providing farmers with real-time information on their lands.
Using drones, according to her, enable African farmers to find and/or anticipate problems that will not be detectable otherwise.
She called on an inclusive business model that would enable small and medium holder farmers to upgrade their farms by, for instance, renting drones for crop monitoring, as only a few African farmers use drones, mostly because of the high costs and lack of training.
Prospective drone operator needs to apply to NCAA
When contacted, the NCAA denied speculations that there was a clampdown on the use of the drone in the country.
The General Manager, Public Relations, NCAA, Mr Samuel Adurogboye, said the country was in the process of developing a regulatory framework for its use as the technology was relatively new in the country.
“Drone technology is new and as such every nation of the world, Nigeria inclusive, are in the process of fashioning out a regulatory framework for its usage in line with the International Civil Aviation Organisation prescription to that effect,” he said.
According to him, the agency issues licences to prospective drone operators after the security clearance has been obtained from the Office of the National Security Adviser to the President.
Commenting on the transparency of the process, he said, “The system is transparent in the sense that a prospective drone operator needs to apply to NCAA. On receipt of the application, the requirements to be met are issued in writing.”
He listed some of the requirements to be met as the identity of the operator, purpose, where the drone was manufactured and location where it would be deployed, among others.
He added that all requests must be addressed to the “Director -General, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Aviation House, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos.”
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