By Olumayowa Okediran
Last month, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) banned the use of unauthorized drones in Nigeria, disregarding great potential for technological advancement in a country that direly needs it.
With the new ease with which technology waves are hitting Africa, it’s critical that developing economies like Nigeria have the freedom to experiment and explore innovative methods of using drone technology. Before the ban, many Nigerian companies had ambitions to use drone technology in their operations and had begun to test its uses on a large scale. University students, too, had started to assemble drones and experiment with its potential application. Thus, a number of Nigerian tech enthusiasts were disappointed with the NCAA’s action.
The government justified its preliminary ban in the name of national security and public safety, arguing that the widespread use of drones by aviation-ignorant citizens was a recipe for disaster. While certainly there are legitimate safety concerns surrounding the drone technology, a unilateral ban on unregulated use is too harsh a remedy.
“Unregulated” is an operative word; the NCAA did not completely prohibit the drone technology. Companies who wish to be drone operators must have a minimum capital share of 20 million Naira (about $100,000 USD) and pay a non-refundable processing fee of 500,000 Naira (about $2,500 USD). This is just the beginning. After a company’s application is submitted, it must await security clearance for at least six months. Even if a business is lucky enough to receive a three-year permit, it will still be required to pay an annual utilization fee of 100,000 Naira ($500 USD). By contrast, it costs a mere $5 USD (about 1,000 Naira) to register a drone in the United States.
Drones have a proven track record of creating jobs, providing great promise to countries like Nigeria, which are looking for a way out of their economic quagmire.
Drone technology is projected to create 150,000 jobs in Europe alone, according to a report by the UK House of Lords. The report describes several potential uses for commercial drone activity, like filming, photography, deliveries, security, search and rescue. Their optimistic findings inspired the committee to encourage a light-touch regulatory approach with simple safety guidelines rather than draconian prohibitions of unmanned aerial vehicles, as in Nigeria.
Drones and Terrorism
Unfortunately, Nigeria is not the first African country to take the wrong approach with regard to drones. Kenya similarly imposed strict regulations on the growing drone industry in the name of keeping the technology out of the hands of terrorist groups like Al Shabab. However, such fears are naive and do more harm than good. Patrick Meier, director of social innovation with the Qatar Computing Research Institute and the founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, sneers at the idea of a ban being able to prevent Al Shabab from getting a drone. Since terrorist groups are not well-known for obeying laws, it’s likely that Al Shabab could acquire a drone if they wanted to. Thus, governments, who ban unregulated drone activity in the name of public safety, do little to keep the technology out of the hands of bad actors. Instead, their regulations only stifle citizens from the creative use of drones.
The creative opportunities related to drones are endless. Rwanda is using drones for medical supplies and vaccine delivery to clinics in inaccessible rural areas. Malawi has collaborated with UNICEF to use drones to transport HIV test results, enabling quicker diagnosis and chances of survival.
The ability of the government to inhibit the freedom to innovate and experiment with new technologies can be a major setback for development. Bureaucracy creates unnecessary bottlenecks for entrepreneurs who are taking the first step towards changing inefficient systems. In short, African governments like Nigeria’s are caging their nations, thereby preventing them from flying amidst the developed nations. Nigeria needs to allow its citizens to innovate without fear. Creating a tight tunnel around the possible use of drones not only stifles progress, but also strangles the little hope left for the country to realize her true potential.
The author is a socio-economic and political commentator, nonprofit consultant and entrepreneur.