Drone technology will fundamentally transform many industries across Africa by creating gains in efficiency and productivity. It will shift the way we transport, farm, mine, and more.
The pace at which these societal gains are realized depends heavily on drone regulation, licensing, and education. Currently, drone regulations are still in the development stage in many countries; there are limited licensed pilots and only a few training facilities in Africa.
Moreover, as the industry continues to expand, the need for streamlined training and regulation has become paramount. For that reason, Global Air Drone Academy wants to provide learning and training experiences that will help pilots become licensed professionals.
Founded in 2016 in Baltimore, MD, Global Air Drone Academy is on a mission to prepare underserved youth with STEAM education and entrepreneurship by giving youth a hands-on and engaging look into the emerging world of drone technology.
Some of the key outcomes include basic drone flying, coding/programming with drones, drone engineering/manufacturing, and insight into careers and entrepreneurship.
I spoke with Austin Brown and Eno Umoh, founders of Global Air Drone Academy, about expanding from Baltimore, USA to Lagos, Nigeria, the importance of drone training and education, and their vision for the Academy.
How did your journey lead you to create the Global Air Drone Academy?
I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD, and Eno was as well. We went to high school together, then went our separate ways for college, but reconnected after.
In 2015, Eno and I both had the idea of starting a commercial drone company. We did some research and saw the different applications like real estate, industrial inspection, and disaster relief.
We wrote our business plan, got ourselves some drones, and started shooting real estate production videos. That was our first opportunity in the industry. However, our ultimate goal was always to get into the data side, whether it was mapping for construction or using drones for industrial inspection.
In 2016, during the civil unrest in Baltimore due to Freddie Gray’s death, we got an unexpected opportunity to teach kids how to fly drones. We were tasked with occupying their time during spring vacation, so they weren’t subject to the influences of the street.
It was at a place called Kids Safe Zone, which was a stone’s throw from where the CVS famously burned down. And it was meant to live up to its namesake and give kids a safe place to hang out.
By the end of the week, people in the neighborhood were stopping by, as did the news media. After that experience, we realized that training and education in the drone industry was a huge market, which has led us to teach all over the world.
My spark actually came during my trip to Nigeria. My father’s from a place in the southeast region called Akwa Ibom State. On that trip, I saw a drone in use at this outdoor stadium event, and it was my first introduction to drones on a commercial scale.
As an entrepreneur, I knew it was a viable opportunity. Coming back to the States, I did some research, and I learned how drones were being used in so many different industries.
We didn’t know we would be in drone education when we started, but over time we realized that the industry wasn’t going to grow unless more people understood what drone technology is and its value.
Lastly, we want to build a workforce and get our people licensed to ensure we’re taking advantage of this new technology.
How is Global Air Drone Academy involved in Africa’s tech ecosystem?
We’re doing a lot when it comes to education. Earlier this year, we won the grand prize at The African Drone Forum on the platform that we’d build an academy in Lagos, Nigeria, to get people licensed.
We were hoping to get things started in April/ May, but COVID pushed everything back. I’m heading there in October to get everything finalized regarding paperwork and licensing. By early next year, we’ll be ready to launch, and hopefully, we’ll use this as a springboard to other countries.
Last week we had an event called Drone Hackathon Zambia. We essentially brought together 30 finalists to participate in a five-day virtual hackathon where the top three teams won professional grade drones to start their own drone business.
This was in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy, The Zambia Civil Aviation Authority, and our local partner Bongo Hive.
Last week we were also awarded a similar grant to do the same program in Nigeria. Our focus is the sub-Saharan region, specifically, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa, but our strongest presence is in Nigeria and Zambia.
How do you see drone technology impacting Africa?
I don’t think there’s a single major industry drone technology won’t make an impact on whether it’s entertainment, mining, security, medical, construction; there are so many different applications. Getting people to understand these opportunities and trained with the proper safety protocols is at the core of our mission.
Agriculture is huge and will probably make the biggest use of drones as it will help farmers identify and pinpoint areas requiring attention. Last week, the Zambia drone hackathon we ran, the top seven finalists, had business plans with agriculture applications. Moreover, our goal is to train, educate, and get them licensed to operate legally.
How do you see Global Air Media evolving over the next 3-5 years?
Domestically, we want to have a permanent facility to provide youth with STEAM education and exposure to modern technologies.
We want to bridge the racial and gender gap in STEM careers and education. Statistics will show that black youth are less likely to have access to STEM-related activities. To counter that, we want to build a facility that will offer a fun way to engage youth and teach them about STEM.
Internationally, we want to start working with different Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA). Our goal is to set up a system for training people on drone technology that is Africa wide and help CCAs draft a plan for testing pilots.
With our experience here in the U.S., and the FAA being recognized as the gold standard, we know we can provide valuable consultation to countries.
Lastly, we’re also building a continent-wide network of drone pilots to standardize the training because currently there’s a lot of different standards. By creating a centralized place where people can learn, we’re hoping to get everybody to buy into the same system.
Tips to other entrepreneurs considering tapping into Africa’s tech ecosystem?
There are tremendous resources that the State Department provides to U.S. companies who want to grow internationally. In each country we have diplomatic ties to, we have an embassy, and they often have programs for U.S. companies.
There’s a program run through the U.S. Commercial Service called the Gold Key Program. It’s a service that you pay for, it’s a small fee in the grand scheme of things, but they essentially act as your liaison to entities that you want to connect with in a specific country. We’ve done this in Ethiopia. Austin, I’ll let you explain that.
A few years ago, Eno was invited to speak at a Smithsonian event, which led to our connection with the State Department. That connection allowed us to learn how the embassies, State Department, and Department of Commerce work together to disseminate a message of entrepreneurship across the globe.
As far as how Ethiopia went, it was amazing. We met with several officials from different organizations the whole week. The Commerce Department and USAID helped facilitate and escort us around. There were days where we started meetings at 7:00 am and didn’t finish until it was dark. They even do background checks for you.
This is an opportunity we want to highlight. If you are a U.S. based company, and you want to do business in Africa, or anywhere, there are services available to you at your disposal.
Lastly, research, when you connect with the State Department, the first thing they’re going to ask is, did you do your research. So make sure you research whatever product or service you’re trying to sell. Make sure you know that there’s a viable market for it.
Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?
Built In Africa is the idea that we need to pool our resources together, as the diaspora and Africans living on the continent, and prioritize tech. Our generation’s responsibility is to come back and commit to building businesses and alliances centered around Africa.
So come back and build Africa up, but realize it only works with the input from those on the ground. Case in point, the Zambia Drone Hackathon. Austin and I were probably the only non-Zambians there. We didn’t come in and say this is how you do it; instead, we facilitated the conversation. Our goal is always to come in and involve the community.
Lastly, I want to drive home the point that Africa is open for business. Our generation needs to take a serious look at the opportunities that are there. I believe if we can all commit to doing the work, Africa will reach its highest potential.
I’m a pretty literal person, so for me, it means building Africa. But I think it isn’t just untapped potential and opportunity in the market, but a tremendous history and love for our people.
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