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Africa is now the world’s testing ground for commercial drones



Muhanga, Rwanda

Lily Kuo

The world’s first commercial drone delivery service operates from a hill almost smack dab in the middle of Rwanda. A barbed wire fence surrounds a field, a white tent, and a control tower. From here, Zipline, a San Francisco-based robotics company, delivers blood by drone to almost half of all Rwanda’s blood transfusion centers. Orders are made online, by text, phone, or WhatsApp. A technician sits in a refrigerated room where the blood—specifically red blood cells, platelets, plasma, and cryoprecipitate—are stored, communicating with his team over Slack. An order has come in for a hospital about two hours away by car. The drone delivers the package in 20 minutes.

“To have a proven model here first in Rwanda is amazing,” says Maggie Jim, who manages global operations and communications for Zipline. She says the company is talking with other governments in Africa, including Tanzania’s, as well as in Latin America about launching drones services there.

That African countries are emerging as a test bed for new ideas that Western countries—bogged down by strict regulations or antiquated systems—are too slow to try has become something of a popular narrative. Foreign investors and companies are still wary of setting up on the continent while local startups, especially those outside of Nigeria, South Africa, or Kenya, struggle to get funding.

Drones are one area where African countries are proving more accepting and innovative. The commercial drone industry has been slow to start in most other parts of the world. The United States prohibits drone flights that leave the line of sight of a human pilot. In contrast, African countries like Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, South Africa, and Kenya are increasingly open to the use of drones in tourism, health services, and e-commerce.

Kenya recently said it would allow the commercial use of drones. In Malawi, drones have been deployed to transfer HIV tests to and from rural parts of Malawi. Elsewhere they’re being used to combat poaching or to augment safaris. A Cameroonian start up named Will & Brothers recently raised $200,000 to begin assembling and producing within the country parts for drones. In Rwanda, another drone company has plans to build what would be the world’s first civilian “drone port” for commercial deliveries and ferrying health supplies.

A Morocco-based startup Atlan Space has developed software to use drones for monitoring illegal maritime activity (video) like illegal fishing or oil spills. Ugandan authorities have also been open-minded, according to Moses Gichanga, founder of Autonomous Systems Research, a Kenya-based tech consultancy. With consent from the country’s aviation regulator and local authorities, his company has been doing aerial drone tests in the Uganda’s eastern districts as well as in Malawi.

“There are countless use cases for Africa,” says Gichanga, listing agriculture, mineral exploration, security surveillance, and conservation as some of the top areas where drones could be deployed on the continent.

Drone deliveries make sense especially in countries with poor roads and disconnected communities. During the rainy season, many of Rwanda’s roads are wiped out and getting health services in an emergency can take hours because of the country’s hilly terrain. Mapping and deliveries would also be useful for quickly expanding African cities. By 2050, as much as a quarter of the world’s population will be living in Africa, more than half of them in cities.

“If we think about Africa in 2050, it won’t be the same story. More people, more security needs, more urbanization, more connectivity [mean] more need of accurate data for maps,” says William Elong, who founded Will & Brothers, which already uses drones for agricultural surveys. Elong says the company has been getting more requests for their drone services in e-commerce and healthcare.

Elong and Gichanga both cite Rwanda as an example of the continent’s increasing openness to drone technology. At Zipline’s operation in Muhanga, a few hours south of Kigali, the drones sit in rows on a wall. More like small airplanes than quadcopters, they fly at 100 km an hour, about 60 miles per hour, and can reach any clinic or hospital within 75 kilometers.

The drones follow predetermined routes that trace the ups and downs of Rwanda’s terrain. Instead of landing, the drones drop the package at the hospital, in a biodegradable paper box attached to a parachute, and then return to Zipline’s headquarters.

But even in a country like Rwanda where technology has been a core part of the government’s plans for growth, it’s not clear that drones have the most effective impact on its healthcare improvements. Rwanda has expanded access to healthcare across the country and dramatically improved maternal mortality rates, but is still dealing with a shortage of health workers. The country has 0.06 doctors per 1,000 people (pdf), well below the World Health Organization’s recommended rate of 2.5 health workers per 1,000 people. In 2011, there were nine anesthesiologists and 17 surgeons serving a population of more than 10 million.

Zipline and the government won’t disclose the costs of the service. Jim says that the healthcare system overall will save money by reducing waste and inventory costs.

In a country with a government known for keeping an eye on its citizens—and accused of disappearing rivals and critics—Zipline has also had to earn the trust of the communities their drones fly in. The team introduced themselves at town hall-like events, showing the residents photos of the drones and assuring them that they are solely for delivery. The only time cameras are installed on the drones is during test flights to map out routes. “We want to make sure that every citizen in Rwanda understands what it means when a drone flies over them,” says Jim.



DP World says Djibouti incident could hurt Africa investment



DUBAI (Reuters) – Port operator DP World said on Thursday that Djibouti’s decision to seize control of a terminal project could hurt African efforts to attract investment.

The Dubai state-owned port operator is facing twin political challenges in Africa.

Djibouti abruptly ended its contract to run the Doraleh Container Terminal last month and Somalia’s parliament voted this week to ban the company.

DP World has called the Djibouti move illegal and said it had begun proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration, which last year cleared the company of all charges of misconduct over the concession.

“Africa needs infrastructure investments and if countries can change their law [to take assets then this] is going to basically make it more difficult to attract investment,” Chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told a news conference in Dubai.
DP World reported 14.9 percent rise in 2017 profit to $1.18 billion profit and said that it would invest $1.4 billion across its global portfolio including in Berbera in Somaliland. [L8N1QX0F2]

It is developing a port in Berbera in partnership with the governments of Somaliland and Ethiopia. It is also developing a greenfield free trade zone in the breakaway region.

Bin Sulayem said he was not concerned by the vote in Somalia’s parliament to ban DP World from the country, which the parliament said nullified their Somaliland contract.

It is unclear how Somalia’s federal government could enforce the ban given Somaliland’s semi-autonomous status.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for about 42 percent of the cargo DP World handled in 2017.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; editing by Jason Neely

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African arms imports down



DEFENCE WEB — Over the last decade, African arms imports dropped by 22 per cent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), but Algeria, Morocco and Nigeria continued to order large quantities of weapons and equipment.

In its Trends in International Arms Transfers 2017 fact sheet released this week, SIPRI said that African arms sales dropped 22% between 2008-12 and 2013-17. Much of the hardware that was supplied went to Algeria (52% of African arms imports), Morocco (12%) and Nigeria (5.1%).

“Major arms play an important role in the military operations by sub-Saharan African states, although, due to lack of resources, procurement typically involves small numbers of mainly relatively low-end weapons,” SIPRI said.

States in sub-Saharan Africa received 32% of total African imports in 2013–17. The top five arms importers in sub-Saharan Africa were Nigeria, Sudan, Angola, Cameroon and Ethiopia. Together, they accounted for 56% of arms imports to the subregion. Nigeria’s arms imports grew by 42 % between 2008–12 and 2013–17, SIPRI noted.

Russian arms exports to Africa fell by 32% compared with 2008–12, but despite the decrease, Russia accounted for 39% of total imports to the region. Algeria received 78% of Russia’s arms transfers to Africa in 2013–17.

China’s arms exports to Africa rose by 55% between 2008–12 and 2013–17, and its share of total African arms imports increased from 8.4% to 17%. “A total of 22 sub-Saharan African countries procured major arms from China in 2013–17, and China accounted for 27% of sub-Saharan African arms imports in that period (compared with 16% in 2008–12). In North Africa, China became an important supplier to Algeria in 2013–17, with deliveries including three frigates and artillery,” SIPRI reported.

The United States accounted for 11% of arms exports to Africa in 2013–17 – the transfers were mainly small batches of weapons and included eight helicopters for Kenya and five for Uganda, which were supplied as US military aid. In 2013–17 Kenya—which is fighting al-Shabab on its own territory and in Somalia— acquired 13 transport helicopters, 2 second-hand combat helicopters, 65 light armoured vehicles and a small number of self-propelled howitzers.

SIPRI lists Egypt’s acquisitions as falling under the Middle East – if these are included in the continent’s statistics they push up Africa’s imports significantly as arms imports by Egypt grew by 215% between 2008–12 and 2013–17.

SIPRI noted that the US has been Egypt’s main arms supplier since the late 1970s, and accounted for 45% of Egypt’s arms imports in 2008–12. “However, between 2013 and 2015 the US halted deliveries of certain arms, in particular combat aircraft, to Egypt. In 2014 Egypt signed major arms deals with France, and deliveries started in 2015. As a result, France accounted for 37 % of Egypt’s arms imports in 2013–17 and overtook the USA to become the main arms supplier to Egypt for that period. This was despite the fact that the USA ended its restrictions in 2015 and increased its overall arms supplies to Egypt by 84% between 2008–12 and 2013–17.”

Globally, SIPRI in its latest report said that the volume of international transfers of major weapons in 2013–17 was 10% higher than in 2008–12, a continuation of the upward trend that began in the early 2000s.

The five largest exporters in 2013–17 were the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China. The United States in 2013-17 had a 34% share of the global market, followed by Russia (22%), France (6.7%), Germany (5.8%) and China (5.7%).

The USA supplied major arms to 98 states in 2013–17. Exports to states in the Middle East accounted for 49 per cent of total US arms exports in that period. “Based on deals signed during the Obama administration, US arms deliveries in 2013–17 reached their highest level since the late 1990s,” said Dr Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. “These deals and further major contracts signed in 2017 will ensure that the USA remains the largest arms exporter in the coming years.”

The five largest importers were India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China. Most states in the Middle East were directly involved in violent conflict in 2013–17 and consequently arms imports by states in the region increased by 103% between 2008–12 and 2013–17, and accounted for 32% of global arms imports in 2013–17.

“Widespread violent conflict in the Middle East and concerns about human rights have led to political debate in Western Europe and North America about restricting arms sales,” said Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. “Yet the USA and European states remain the main arms exporters to the region and supplied over 98% of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia.”

SIPRI said the flow of arms to the Middle East and Asia and Oceania increased between 2008–12 and 2013–17, while there was a decrease in the flow to the Americas, Africa and Europe.

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Tillerson Reaffirms US Commitment to Africa



ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has re-affirmed the U.S. commitment to Africa, two months after President Donald Trump’s reported derogatory comments about the continent.

“I think the United States commitment to Africa is quite clear in terms of the importance we place on the relationship,” said Tillerson at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “The president himself wrote a personal letter to the chairperson, reaffirming the importance of this relationship.”

Trump in January reportedly used an expletive to describe Haiti and some African countries. At the time, officials from the AU and several African nations said they were outraged by the reported comments.

On Thursday, Tillerson met with AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, who spoke of renewed ties.

“This incident is of the past,” Mahamat said during a joint news conference with the secretary in the Ethiopian capital. “With the visit of Secretary of State Tillerson, the evidence of the relations between Africa and the United States is personified through his visit.”

Tillerson said promoting peace and security, development and trade, and good governance, are three pillars of Washington’s approach to Africa.

His visit to Addis Ababa came after Ethiopia officials decided to impose a state of emergency. But protests in the restive Oromia region have continued.

The top U.S. diplomat said after Thursday’s meeting with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu the answer to political turmoil in Ethiopia is greater freedom. He said he hoped to see “the country move on past the state of emergency as quickly as possible.”

Tillerson added, “We firmly believe that democratic reform, economic growth, and lasting stability are best addressed through an inclusive political process, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.”

He noted the U.S. appreciated the statements on South Sudan made at the AU summit in January, where the African body raised the possibility of sanctions for the violation of cease-fires in the conflict-stricken nation.

Continental free trade

Meanwhile, the AU plans to sign a Continental Free Trade Agreement later this month aimed at economically integrating the continent, which has a population of 1.2 billion people and a combined estimated GDP of $3.5 trillion.

Tillerson said Washington supports “the African Union’s economic regional integration efforts to lower intra-trade barriers on the continent, boost more intra-regional trade, which we know has been a central goal of the negotiations around the constant Continental Free Trade Agreement, which we are quite supportive of.”

Fighting corruption

Leaders of the African Union, which represents 55 countries, also outlined an official theme of anti-corruption for the year of 2018 during its annual summit in January.

“We think these are all positive developments. So the continent is moving in one direction and we’re just hoping the current administration is taking noteand is also engaging this continent in a direction in which it’s trying to move,” said Brahima Coulibaly, Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative senior fellow.

Proposed cuts in aid

But the Trump administration is under criticism for a proposed 2018 budget cut on efforts to combat HIV and AIDS.

While Tillerson has announced nearly $533 million in new humanitarian assistance for food insecurity in some African nations, the Trump administration has not proposed a signature initiative to aid Africans.

“It is unusual for a secretary of state to make a trip like this and to have no deliverables, to have no initiative that they’re ready to announce,” said Witney Schneidman, the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative nonresident fellow.

After more than a year since entering the White House, Trump still has not nominated a chief U.S. diplomat for Africa, and embassies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Africa and in five other African countries remain without ambassadors.

China in Africa

Speaking Tuesday before leaving for Africa, Tillerson said the United States is “eager” to lower barriers to trade and investment on the continent, whose largest trading partner by far is China.

He pointed up that the U.S. approach of “incentivizing good governance” contrasts sharply with China’s, “which encourages dependency, using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty.”

Tillerson’s one-week, five-nation trip is focusing on counterterrorism, promoting peace, good governance and trade and investment. He is scheduled to meet with top officials in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria — all of them U.S. allies in the war against terrorism and jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab and Islamic State.

Without partnerships to build infrastructure and achieve more economic development, Tillerson warned there will be “new ways for terrorists to exploit the next generation.”

The secretary of state also said U.S. and African leaders “must work to find long-term diplomatic solutions” to regional conflicts “that cause so much human suffering.”

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