The ongoing drone proliferation throughout Africa has received little critical attention. However, African drone proliferation has become a vehicle for the production and distribution of forms of legitimacy and of resources that have implications for drone proliferation both within and outside Africa. More specifically, the perception of Africa as being in need of external drone intervention dovetails with the drone industry’s efforts to identify and promote good uses for drones — efforts that are central to increasing the legitimacy of drones in the eyes of the Global North. This blog post discusses the ways in which drones are presented as a means of “leapfrogging” past Africa’s development problems.
Leapfrogging refers to bypassing the stages of investment or capability building through which countries were previously required to pass in order to achieve a particular level of economic development; the notion is embedded in the idea that African countries with poor road infrastructure could “leapfrog right from donkeys to drones”. As part of “a new strategy of fighting poverty from the air”, there have been several proposals to provide rural Africa with networks of humanitarian cargo drones. Several commercial players have described plans for cargo drones that will initially engage in humanitarian aid, but that will then transition to purely commercial activities, as they undergo further development and become able to carry more cargo. For example, Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech, notes that the payloads carried by the first cargo drones will probably be “units of blood to keep alive children who otherwise would perish. But they will quickly evolve into larger and heavier craft until they can carry 20 kilos or more over distances of several hundred kilometers.” Ledgard has also suggested that “one day, perhaps 40 percent of African trade could travel by drones. . . . That would boost economies and link cities, tribes and countries in lucrative trading channels.”
Several features of the leapfrogging discourse are worth analyzing: first, leapfrogging is generally linked to the objective of rapid economic growth. In an environment where the absence of functioning markets is defined as one of the principal obstacles to such growth, some view drones as a means of overcoming “one of Africa’s steepest challenges: a lack of transportation infrastructure that stymies trade.”
Second, the continent’s lack of infrastructure — including power lines, airspace control, and commercial flights — is attractive to the drone industry: African airspace has been described as “less cluttered with flights that have slowed the adoption of commercial drones in North America and Europe.” From this perspective, it is not drones but the absence of infrastructure that is the utopian factor. Under the heading “Forget roads — drones are the future of goods transport”, Andreas Raptopoulos, the founder and chief executive officer of Matternet, a drone start-up, has suggested that “following the lead of road systems in the West is a nearly impossible task for the African continent.” Similarly, in an article titled “Making the Case That Africa Needs Drones More than Roads”, Simon Johnson, the director of the Flying Donkey Challenge (a planned race between cargo drones around Mount Kenya), observes that “there’s incredible growth happening there, but not a lot of infrastructure. Roads just can’t be built fast enough. So why not use flying robots instead?”
A third component of the leapfrogging discourse is the argument that in the African context, future infrastructure projects would be irresponsible: Raptopoulos has observed, for example, that not building roads means avoiding a “huge ecological footprint”. And according to Jonathan Ledgard, drone highways entail “much less disruption to the environment than if new highways, tunnels or canals were built.”
But will drones effectively eliminate obstacles to development? The leapfrogging discourse, with its images of “connecting Africa”, is geared towards enhancing the appeal of drones. These arguments should be subjected to more critical scrutiny — not least because the implementation of such leapfrogging strategies has distributive consequences, particularly in relation to procurement and funding for research and development. For example, in light of the ongoing struggle to secure access to health care and education for broad swaths of the African population, what does it mean, from an ethical perspective, to take seriously the argument (or even to make the argument) that the ambition to build roads should be forgone in favor of building drone highways?
Read also Kristin B. Sandvik’s blog post on IntLawGrrls: New Developments in Drone Proliferation: How Africa was Deployed to Rescue Drones