September 3, 2020

How Drone Technology Is Changing Farming in Ghana

by:
TECH TOOLS :

Agriculture, Ghana’s most important economic sector, employs half of its workforce and accounts for 54% of GDP and over 40% of export earnings. 

Similar to most other African countries, smallholder farmers are the majority of this workforce. Moreover, as these farmers look to increase their output, new innovative solutions and farming methods will play a critical role in the industry’s growth over the coming years.

One solution is drone technology as it brings greater efficiency, precision, and reliability at a much lower cost. Drones allow farmers to optimize their agricultural yields while simultaneously reducing production costs.

Founded in 2017, GEM Industrial Solutions is a Ghanaian based commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) service delivery provider, focused on agriculture. Using drone technology, GEM provides its clients with more efficient & cost-effective mapping, inspection, surveying, and crop health assessment​ services, with crop-spraying now in the pipeline.

Started by Ghanaian American George Madjitey and native Ghanaian, Aicon Andah, GEM is another manifestation of a member of the diaspora returning to Africa to contribute to the tech revolution.

I spoke with George Madjitey, Co-Founder of GEM Industrial Solutions, about what led him to Ghana, the role drone technology will play in Africa’s agriculture sector, and his tips to other entrepreneurs in the diaspora considering tapping into Africa’s tech ecosystem.


What is GEM Industrial Solutions​, and what value does it provide to the marketplace?

We are a commercial drone service provider with a market emphasis on agriculture. Using drone technology, we provide a range of services: mapping, crop health assessments & diagnostics, tree counting, stockpile volumetrics, and more.

With our services, we’re providing a more cost-effective and efficient method for farm management. The traditional method, within the context of Africa, is to walk the grounds and make human eye assessments of what’s going on, whether it’s irrigation issues, pest infiltration, or disease.

We use high-resolution cameras and other complementary sensors to cover a farm aerially, which allows us to perform the same task more cost-effectively and efficiently. Insights that may take anywhere from days to weeks to months to collect, we’re doing within hours. 


What are your thoughts on Drone technology and its impact on the agriculture sector in Africa? ​

On a global scale, the drone space is thriving and growing, but when it comes to Africa, it’s still a bit of the Wild Wild West. 

Many operators on the ground sell themself as the end all be all provider, attempting to service all industries from oil and gas to construction. 

We took a different approach and decided to focus on agriculture because it’s the highest employment industry and one of the higher GDP contributors. So it stands to add and retrieve the most value.

Also, it took some time to change our customer’s perception of drones. When we got started, people thought we were trying to sell them on a tool used to take videos at events. We had to explain that we’re using drones with high definition cameras and complementary sensors.

It’s taken us two years to understand our customers, the challenges they’re facing, and how we can create a service model that provides value and will help their farms thrive.


How did your journey lead you to Africa? 

In 2017, I was approaching the completion of my master’s in healthcare administration when the journey to starting GEM Industrial Solutions began.

Both my partner & I  had a classmate from undergrad who started a similar business in Texas. At the time, he was providing services like asset inspection to the oil and gas industry. In conversation, he brought up the idea of expanding to Africa. 

We were all in because Ghana was still in the infancy of its oil and gas discovery and boom. At the time, the market was in a bit of a slump; we saw drone technology as a means for industry players to be more cost-effective and efficient in their assessment of assets. 

I was fortunate because I was interning with the Ghana Houston Chamber of Commerce, and every year we hosted delegates from Ghana for the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC). 

Houston being a big oil and gas player, Ghanaian delegates would come to interact with the different stakeholders here and discuss what’s going on in the market.

I used that as an opportunity to pick their brains and assess their knowledge of drone technology and figure out if there was any interest in leveraging it within the industry. I spoke to the deputy director of one of the main regulatory bodies, and he was optimistic.

After that moment, we formalized the business. I went to Ghana for about a month and presented to the different regulatory bodies in the oil and gas space. There was some optimism there, but soon it became clear that the oil and gas space was incredibly bureaucratic. And that there would be a lot of hoops to jump over to create the value we envisioned. 

Around that time, our classmate decided he didn’t want to be in a hands-on role because his business was thriving and that he’d rather serve as a resource. 

These two setbacks took us back to day one. Still interested in introducing the technology, we accepted that oil & gas was not the space, so we began researching to understand Ghana’s landscape, and that’s how we decided on agriculture.

We were fortunate because there were several NGOs actively looking to support companies on the ground using drone technology in agriculture. One, in particular being the Technical Center for Agricultural Cooperation, a Dutch-based NGO, which has since dissolved.


What were some of the challenges of working in Africa’s tech ecosystem​? 

Bureaucracy is a big challenge. There is this idea that young people, although they have the ideas and foresight, have limited value to offer. The older generation is in the positions of power, so they have a lot of control over the landscape despite not being the ones creating these innovations.

Access to capital, at least locally, is another challenge. Across the continent, you’ll find that most enterprises in tech look outside for capital. I’m fortunate to be a dual citizen, so I can access capital from the States, but for others, it’s not so simple.  

Moreover, these are the two main hindrances for young individuals to start a business, grow a business, and thrive within the tech community.


How did you go about identifying talent?​ ​

We’ve maintained a small team for the past two years, which includes an agronomist, a renowned Ghanaian inventor, two drone technicians, my business partner, and I. 

However, we’re now in a position to scale our operation; COVID has allowed us to take a step back and focus on positioning ourselves for growth. We are ready to train, employ, and station more drone technicians in Ghana’s different regions.

Identifying talent first started with finding individuals who had an appetite for tech, which is quite easy to find in Ghana because tech is booming. Also, the willingness to learn alongside us.

I’d never flown a drone when I started the business, and my partner’s knowledge was as a hobbyist, so there was a learning curve, but we’re thankful there are many individuals in Ghana with a genuine interest to learn. 

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How do you see​ GEM Industrial Solutions​ evolving over the next 3-5 years?

Keeping a small team over the past two years, we’ve maintained our integrity as a service provider and built a foundation. Over the next few years, we want to become the nationally recognized name brand company for drone services in agriculture.

We’re also leveraging technology to improve our services. We are currently creating a customer-facing tool. A number of our customers have limited access to high-speed networks because they’re in rural communities. So we’re creating a tool that facilitates ease of access to our services.

The tool will be an SMS-based interaction where a person who doesn’t have a smartphone can request our services via SMS and not have to call. We think it will be a game-changer as it would provide direct access to our customer base.  

We’re also creating an operational management system that will allow us to train and employ individuals and station them in other regions, while still maintaining a high level of integrity. 

With these tools’ help, we envision ourselves being fully operational across all 14 regions in the country and having multiple operators stationed in each region. 

We hope to create value and employment opportunities in the capital and other more rural communities. This will allow new graduates to have employment opportunities in their local community and not have to sacrifice family or community for work. 


Tips to other entrepreneurs in the diaspora considering tapping into Africa’s tech ecosystem? 

Ghana Houston Chamber of Commerce:

I leveraged the hell out of that connection. While I was working with the Ghana Houston Chamber of Commerce, I accompanied them up to D.C. and met the ambassador to the United States from Ghana and had the opportunity to tell him what I was trying to do.

On that same weekend, Ghana’s president made a surprise visit to D.C. to meet with all the U.S. governors to create a more vibrant relationship between the Ghanaian government and the U.S. government. 

I extended my trip and somehow finessed my way into the event using the Ghana Houston Chamber of Commerce connection. I managed to shake the president’s hand and give him a letter expressing what I was trying to do. 

I can’t say anything happened with that letter, but six months later, he had his inaugural presidential pitch competition, and we ended up being a finalist. Whether he remembered that moment or not, I have no idea, but it all worked out. 

The point is, I did leverage that tie, and I would encourage others to do the same. I know I was in a fortunate position being that the Ghanaian community in Houston is quite large, and I’ve always been somewhat involved in it socially. 

And I know everyone won’t be in the same position, but I would suggest taking advantage of those opportunities as much as you can. 


Don’t get discouraged:

With the adversity we faced early on, had I been discouraged, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. It takes a bit of a tough skull to weather the storm, so be prepared whether it’s dealing with the inefficiencies or people not being open to your ideas.

You have to trust yourself. Trust that what you’re creating is of value. I think it just comes down to having a tough skull and saying I’m dedicated to this, and I’m going to manifest my desires into something tangible. 


Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

Built In Africa, to me, means built on the ground or in the context of Africa. 

What is unique about Africa’s technology landscape is that, in some respects, we are leaps and bounds ahead of the Western world. Reflective in things like MoMo, mobile money. 

In the States, we’ve always played with the idea of tapping your phone to pay, but it’s been slow to catch on. But in Ghana, when you’re making a purchase more times than not, someone will ask you if you want to use MoMo. I think it’s because of the challenges that we on the continent face, such as an inadequate financial system.

Moreover, that’s what Built In Africa means to me, things being built on the ground or in the context of Africa’s challenges. And should we continue on this road, Africans and the world as a whole will be quite surprised by what innovations we create. 


Closing words

I would just encourage people now more than ever to keep an eye out for opportunities. I think COVID has brought about unprecedented times, but within that comes opportunities to innovate and create value. 

When you look at history, many big companies have come out from recessions or other downtimes; Amazon, Uber, Whatsapp, etc.  

So keep your eyes and ears open and reach out to individuals if you think you can add value because we’re on the cusp of some incredible innovation coming out of the continent.

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