Commercial drones make a beeline for top flight in shift by Kenyan firms


Charles Ageng'o spraying coffee at a client's farm. Farmers are now embracing the use of drone technology.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Last week agricultural firm, Sasini sealed a deal with Fahari Aviation, a subsidiary of Kenya Airways to provide drones for spraying and spreading fertiliser on its expansive Kipkebe tea farm in Kericho county—adding to a growing list of firms that have adopted the technology to cut cost and boost efficiency.

In the deal, Fahari Aviation will deploy high-capacity drones to cover over 3,000 acres of tea plantation in less than two weeks, potentially saving half the cost and time of fertiliser application.

“We are indeed very excited to partner with Fahari Aviation, who is a pioneer of the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology in the country, in the application of fertiliser on our tea fields using drones. As a leading agricultural enterprise, Kipkebe is uniquely positioned to lead our industry towards the future of sustainable farming due to a rich heritage, commitment to innovation, learning, and continuous improvement,” Silas Njibwakale, managing director at Kipkebe Limited said.

“This technology will reduce the time span for fertiliser application on the tea fields ensuring that application coincides with good weather conditions, enhance crop yields while reducing attendant costs, as well as adverse impacts on humans and the environment,” he added.

The use of drones to plant seeds, and spray pesticides and fertiliser is growing in popularity in many parts of the country as farmers grapple with a labour shortage as more youth are lured to better-paying construction jobs and the less tedious boda boda operations.

But it is not just in agriculture where drones are becoming a commercial bet. For years, drones have also mainly been for photography and videography in Kenya although other sectors such as logistics, surveillance, and medicare are also now lining up for a piece of this technology.

Power firms, Kenya Electricity Generation Company (KenGen) and Kenya Power have also embraced drones for plant and grid surveillance operations.

KenGen has bought two drones at Sh28.7million to inspect its plants at its vast Olkaria geothermal fields in Naivasha. Kenya Power also targets to procure drones to inspect its power plants and lines across the country as part of a fresh plan to increase efficiency and cut costs.

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has spotted an opportunity for use of drones to deliver government medical services and products to those in need.

While not new – the technology is already being used in countries such as the US, China, Rwanda, and Ghana – it would be the first time that drones are notably used to deliver medical services in Kenya.

CA wants to use Sh100 million from the Universal Service Fund (USF) to pilot the delivery of essential medical services and thereafter scale it on a commercial level for postal and courier services depending on the performance of the pilot.

The USF was set up through the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act, 2009, managed by CA.

The role of the fund is to accelerate access to ICT services across the country and if funded by levies on mobile network operators (MNOs), appropriations from the government as well as grants and donations.

“It is now time for Kenya to employ drone economies for postal and courier deliveries. This pilot project funded by USF will begin with government deliveries, especially for essential medical services and products,” said CA in a survey on the postal and courier sector in Kenya.

Rwanda and Ghana were among the first countries in Africa to deploy drones to deliver medicines, personal protective equipment, vaccines, and other medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially to areas that were far or inaccessible.

CA says it will with start the struggling Postal Corporation of Kenya (Posta) before rolling out to the rest of the postal and courier sub-sector with the pilot project set to be completed by the second year of the communications regulator’s five-year action plan.

Postal services providers have been virtually been put into a coma by the digitisation of communication services.

With customers looking for reliability, reachability, relevance, resilience, affordability, and innovative products and services at affordable prices, CA says that innovation especially the use of drones will help delivery firms survive. 

“This is a rapidly growing area which is playing a key role in supply chain management and logistics. Market-oriented reforms have been undertaken in most countries to address the emerging technologies and markets,” notes CA.

KQ is also one of the firms betting big on the speed and efficiency of deploying drones for cargo delivery as part of efforts to turn around the fortunes of the loss-making company.

The airline in June launched the country’s first-ever drone cage to be used for training drone pilots. Through Fahari Aviation, the airline is aiming to use the facility for the training and testing of drones and drone equipment.

KQ wants to first use drones to deliver light cargo services over short distances depending on customer requests before upgrading to more expensive drones that can handle larger loads and cover longer distances to make the venture more economically viable.

The rollout of commercial drone operations in the country had been lagging for years due to the absence of a regulatory framework to guide drone operations amid concerns about the safety and privacy of drone use.

The Civil Aviation (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Regulations, Act of 2019 which was enacted in April 2020 however paved the way for the entry of private firms into the unmanned aircraft space with a keen eye on Kenya’s logistics market.

The market for drones in Kenya remains relatively small as the commercial use of drones is currently mainly for undertaking aerial photography and videography.

However, as technological upgrades make drones cheaper, faster and able to carry larger loads, and able to cover distances, the battle lines have been drawn with an increasing number of firms eyeing a piece of the pie for e-commerce.