The African Drone and Data Academy in Malawi

UNICEF Malawi and the Government of Malawi have been spearheading the use of drones and data in international development and humanitarian context. In June 2016, they opened the first drone testing corridor worldwide as a technology-friendly environment for local and international drone companies to test their solutions. Since then, UNICEF Malawi has used drones for a wide range of different applications – from delivering medical commodities, collecting aerial imagery for predictive analytics (e.g. to combat cholera and malaria or to improve food security), to supporting real-time emergency response for children and their communities. 

Drones, data and artificial intelligence are leapfrog technologies that allow more informed and agile development response and potentially accelerate economic growth in the region. To get there, we do need to overcome one major hurdle: Malawi and neighbouring countries lack the qualified personnel needed to seize the opportunities offered by drone and data technology. Therefore, education and local capacity building are needed to enable these digital advances to bring lasting change to the country and beyond. To respond to the skills deficit, UNICEF is establishing the first African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) with support from The Global Fund, GIZ, UNICEF Scotland, UNICEF Sweden, and Virginia Tech University is the key UNICEF vendor to lead the design and delivery of a new curriculum to teach young people to construct and pilot drones and how to harvest GIS referenced data out of drone imagery. The first cohort of students will begin their training in January 2020 and will graduate on 18th March 2020 at a high-level event in Lilongwe, Malawi. 

One student in each cohort will be seconded from Malawi’s public sector.  By mid-March, the students will have made a giant leap with regards to their understanding of drones and data Three more cohorts are scheduled to receive such an intense training throughout the rest of the year 2020.

What is the African Drone and Data Academy?

The African Drone & Data Academy is going to be a center of excellence that will dually equip young people in Malawi and African region with necessary 21st century skills, while strengthening the drone ecosystem for more effective humanitarian and development response. Aligned with UNICEF’s global #Drones4Good and #Data4Good vision, its curriculum will initially be implemented over four years. In the first two years, around 125 students will participate in a 10 weeks course, gaining a certificate issued by Virginia Tech upon successful completion. This certificate will enable the students to obtain gainful employment in the rapidly evolving area of drone and data technology and support the development of this sector in their respective countries. In year three, a more in-depth program will enable 30 students to receive a Master’s in Drone and Data Innovation – the first of its kind focusing on the specific needs of the global south worldwide. ADDA will be open to students from Malawi and neighboring countries with a ratio of at least 55 % female students, with all students being exempt from tuition fee and the majority receiving a full scholarship covering transport, room & board.

Students will benefit from lectures from local instructors as well as visiting faculty, who will provide expertise on drone building, operations and data. It is expected that through partnerships with universities in Malawi, the Academy will enable interdisciplinary research on drone technology, positioning Malawi as a leader in drone use for positive change. The curriculum is designed to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs and is based on the following pillars:

  • Drone Basics; drone design, building and maintenance, as well communications, flight safety and legal requirements such as permits and insurance.
  • Drone Logistics & Planning; students will participate in both simulations and practical exercises. They will also learn about drone deliveries, including temperature control, which is a vital component of vaccine delivery.
  • Data & Analytics; this part of the curriculum teaches students how to conduct building inspections and assess natural disaster risks using drones. Students will also learn how to make sense of data collected by drones through cartography and visualization, for example how to monitor rural communities’ migration trends in response to floods and food insecurity within the KUPILIRA pilot project.

The curriculum and accreditation model of the African Drone & Data Academy have the potential to be replicated and reproduced in the future, scaling and opening other campuses across Africa. Helping young people to obtain 21st-century skills and creating new opportunities to strengthen the private sector in key technologies.