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The Next Frontier: Why Drone Delivery Will Happen First in Africa

Posted on 6.22.2017

Here’s something that you may not have thought of: Africa is the next frontier of product distribution. Specifically, drone delivery.

In the realm of ecommerce, drones have made the news quite a lot lately. Whether because of new developments in delivery technology or because of clever marketing hype by the likes of Amazon, there’s clearly potential for drones to take off (pun intended) in the logistics industry. Like major innovations such as the proliferation of the automobile or the Internet, certain parts of the globe tend to adopt new technology faster than others. The reasons are numerous, but a confluence of wealthy citizens and solid infrastructure traditionally leads to faster tech adoption.

Cars outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in most major US cities within a couple decades of Ford’s Model T. It was only a matter of time before America’s booming, urban middle classes of the early 20th century chose cars as their primary means of transport. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of fundamental infrastructure development and economic stability across the African continent meant that roughly 9 out of 10 African adults did not own a cell phone in 2002. That number has changed; as of 2014 only 17% of Africans are without cell phones (compared to 11% in the USA).

As the hardware gets cheaper, navigation software improves, and shopping demand continues to shift from retail to ecommerce, the public appetite for drone delivery will only increase. While the United States has typically been an early adopter of emerging technologies, drones flip some preconceived notions on their head. Instead of the developed world pioneering widescale drone delivery, it will be Africa -- countries like Rwanda, Nigeria, and Kenya -- that gets the first bite at the apple.

At this point on the African continent, a tech and energy boom has created enough wealth that ecommerce demand is high enough for offshoots of Amazon and eBay to thrive. Jumia, a startup that lets customers pay in cash (most Africans still don’t use plastic), recently became the first African unicorn. There’s no better proof of a healthy appetite for purchasing goods online. But if the only requirement for new technology to make a breakthrough was customers with fistfulls of cash to spend, drone delivery would be commonplace in Europe and the USA.

This is where infrastructure comes into the picture. Thanks to widespread and established development of roads, airports, and railways, deliveries in the developed world already happen at an extremely fast rate relative to the cost of maintaining already-built infrastructure. Sure, every few decades bridges must be retrofitted, roads need to be repaved, and rail must be inspected, but the bulk of the cost has already been paid for. Right now, it’s vastly cheaper for UPS, DHL, FedEx, and national mail carriers to stick to the status quo of conventional delivery. As it is, AmazonPrime has already cut delivery times for certain items down to a couple hours without having to invest in a completely new and as yet unproven technology -- ie, drones.

In most African countries, that level of infrastructure development simply doesn’t exist. The unveiling of a new rail link between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa was a major step in the right direction. However, the sort of ground and air transport networks we take for granted in developed countries is still decades from proliferation in Africa. On top of that, the vast majority of middle and upper class citizens in a country such as Kenya live in Nairobi, the capital. The concentration of wealth in urban zones is generally the case in most other rapidly developing African countries. This means that rather than a spread of demand throughout rural regions and provincial towns, delivery must focus on one or two dense urban areas.

Because of the concentrated density of African ecommerce customers and the current lack of infrastructure support for delivery trucks, drone delivery en masse is probably cheaper and faster to implement than building an entire network of roads and rail. We’ve already seen Africa leapfrogging outdated landline phones in favor of cell phones. Cities such as Nairobi and Addis Ababa are already making a name for themselves as the tech hubs of Africa. With such a commitment to innovation, there’s no reason why they can’t lead the way forward for the rest of the world when it comes to ensuring a faster way for ecommerce to move from Point A to Point B.

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