While the conventional aviation industry in South Africa is saturated, the drone industry has failed to soar, mainly as a result of the regulatory rigmarole and expense associated with running a business in the industry.
These were the key findings of a preliminary report titled: “Drone publication insights” conducted by entrepreneur consultancy, the African Institute for Entrepreneurship, presented at the recent SA Innovation Summit 2021.
Unpacking the research findings, Tamiko Sher, co-founder of the African Institute for Entrepreneurship, noted that despite the growing use of drones − or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) − in SA, the country continues to lag behind its African counterparts, missing out on what is potentially a multibillion-rand industry.
According to research firm Statista, the UAV market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 9.6% between 2018 and 2029, to reach $70 billion worldwide.
Sher commented that with the drone industry in its infancy in SA, this presents an opportunity for the country to open up this market through a collaboration of expertise from aviation industry veterans working in partnership with government and the entire ecosystem, to create endless opportunities to make the industry more accessible.
“Our friends from Africa are laughing at us – five years ago, South Africa wrote a wonderful piece of drone legislation and it was ground-breaking at the time, but where are we now? There is only a handful of guys making money from the local drone industry, and where are the young people, where are the women, where are people living with disabilities?
“We need entrepreneurs to help develop sustainable business models in the local drone industry. When an industry is in its baby stage, we need people to endorse it, we need venture capitalists to help fund it, we need researchers to study it and share information. And we need to develop business models that will make this industry move forward.”
While SA was the first country in Africa to approve drone regulations, subsequent international investment has gone elsewhere in Africa, she added.
This has resulted in drones being successfully deployed to support medical, humanitarian and delivery services across African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda. However, SA is not making a similar sustainable impact, as drones have not been fully integrated into mainstream supply chains, Sher noted.
The sluggish response to drone technology innovation has put SA on the back-foot and has exposed many lost opportunities, according to Sher.
Highlighting some of the challenges faced by entrepreneurs who try to break into the industry, she noted the high costs of running a business and the long waiting periods to acquire a business licence among the many dilemmas faced by newcomers.
“Drones weighing as little as 14g can cost anywhere between R200 000 and R1.3 million.
“It will take you between nine months and a year-and-a-half to get your business registration through. And in those nine months, while you’re waiting for your licence, you can’t run your business; you have to sit and wait with your drone and staff and manuals for that industry to open up so that you can take advantage of it.”
Sher pointed out that a degree is not needed to be in the drone industry. Employees could do a range of tasks, including being a maintenance technician, helping with the 3D-printing of components and working on the services side of the business – which currently provides the majority (86%) of job opportunities in the sector.
Refilwe Ledwaba, MD of the Girls Fly Africa Programme.
Also speaking at the event, Refilwe Ledwaba, MD of the Girls Fly Africa Programme, said the local drone industry has the potential to help resolve SA’s socio-economic challenges, including the high unemployment rate, poverty, social inequality and inadequate public services.
“SA has a high youth employment rate, and when you look at the capability and ability this technology can bring, you can see that we can leverage and address some of these socio-economic factors.
“But coming from a very young industry, one of the most important things we need to do first is to create an opportunity for a more inclusive and accessible industry that can benefit youth, women and people living with disabilities, as well as those within the aviation industry, who previously did not have access to such emerging technologies.”