Challenge For Africa: Flying Donkeys Drop Mail By Drone

Written by Andrew Friedman

Swiss researchers are challenging African youth techrepreneurs to develop commercial drones that can deliver packages from African skies by 2020.

One night in Northern Kenya, camped in a traditional enclosure fenced with thorns to keep out lions and hyenas, some researchers explained the concept of cargo robots to a Samburu elder.

After some puzzlement the elder laughed. “Now, I see! You want to put my donkey in the sky!”

The Flying Donkey Challenge, a project of a number of Swiss researchers, aims to bring drone technology to the African continent by 2020 for the delivery of commercial and medical supplies.

The Flying Donkey name was no accident. It stems from the discussion the group had while soliciting input from some of the people it could most benefit.

On Dec. 1, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos made a big reveal on American news and analysis show “60 Minutes.” In the not-too-distant future, he said Amazon would be using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), known more commonly as drones, to ship smaller packages to purchasers’ homes in certain locations.

In the coming years, products sold by Amazon that weigh less than five pounds for delivery within 10 miles of a distribution center may arrive by Amazon drones, he said. While Bezos’ big reveal caused an uproar in much of America and throughout the West, he is not the first person to look to the skies as a means of cheap delivery and distribution.

The Flying Donkey project stems from the realization that one of the greatest barriers to commercial distribution across Africa is a lack of infrastructure and transportation technology. Many of the spaces between major metropolitan African areas, especially inland, lack the infrastructure to support overland shipping or transport. This can be as simple as a lack of quality roads or as complex as geopolitical and security complications.

The statistics are staggering, according to a Forbes report. Most of Africa’s rural populations do not live near all-season roads, said Calestous Juma, professor of international development and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In middle-income countries around the world, on average 60 percent of rural residents live within two kilometers of all-season roads, Forbes reported. In Kenya the number is 32 percent; in Angola it’s 31 percent; in Malawi, 26 percent; in Tanzania, 24 percent; in Mali, it’s 18 percent and in rural Ethiopia, just 10.5 percent or rural residents live within two kilometers of an all-season road.

This makes it nearly impossible to take part in any commercial, much less entrepreneurial, activities.

Under these circumstances, attempts to move products even short distances can result in unwelcome delays. The Donkey Challenge is an attempt by La Fondation Bundi, encompassing the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss National Centre of Competence for Research in Robotics, to remedy these issues by taking to the skies.

The challenge is a self-styled “…escalating series of sub-challenges held annually in Africa,” where inventors, entrepreneurs and regulation experts of all stripes convene in an attempt to improve “…the safety, durability, legality, profitability and friendliness of cargo robots.”

The initial five sub challenges include three technical, one business and one legal component. The three technical components are precision take-off and landing, navigation without the benefit of GPS and the ability of the UAV to sense and avoid potential obstacles. Winners of these competitions receive grants to continue the work. The business and legal plan competitions are yet to be detailed, but will require a framework for the inexpensive completion and marketing of Flying Donkeys and a successful legal regime for their regulation.

In addition to the amount of good that can be done with the new technology, the grant money is significant enough to attract global talent. Teams can receive significant grants for their work without winning, while winners of the annual sub-challenges receive up to $100,000.

The challenge’s final winner walks away with $2 million. This will be determined some time before 2020 with a day-long race around Mount Kenya. The UAVs will have to pick up and drop off 20-kilogram payloads. The final requirement is that the Flying Donkeys must have a total takeoff weight of less than 60 kilograms.

Researchers are focusing on projects with African input and collaboration.

“The young Africans I have met are highly motivated by the challenge, very knowledgeable…. resourceful and eager to make it happen,” said Flying Donkey Challenge Director Simon Johnson in a Skype interview with AFKInsider. Johnson said he was impressed with the innovativeness and talent of Africa’s youth, crediting the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for the tremendously talented African youth participation in the challenge.

The ambitions of the project do not stop on the continent. Johnson said he believes the technology will grow with this challenge and become a development mainstay around the globe. “It’s because we are getting universal support that I believe we are onto something historical; a game-changing transportation infrastructure that will be built and implemented in Africa first and then replicated around the world.”


Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.