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From Kyoto with Drones

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There is a peculiar new sight in the skies over Malawi, unusual flying machines, some the size of a small bird. But, do not be mistaken, these mechanised birds do not present any risk for us Malawians, in fact, UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as ‘drones’, are being introduced to help solve some of the country’s most pressing problems. From disaster risk management to agriculture, humanitarian aid to health care, drones are offering new ways to address complex development challenges.

Recently, an international team from Kyoto University in Japan, including Malawi’s very own Cornelius Chisambi, a graduate of University of Malawi, travelled from Lilongwe to Mzuzu to conduct a pilot study and engage farmers regarding how drones can help improve their yields and quality of their crops.

Their visit is in collaboration with UNICEF Malawi’s drone corridor, a 5000 square kilometre open air space, supported by the Government of Malawi, specifically designed for testing this type of innovative technology.

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On Thursday, March 23, the team visited local farmers at Mtunthama in Kasungu district where they used drones equipped with high-definition cameras to collect data on the topography, land use and crop performance of cassava and beans grown in the area.

Chisambi, who is a scholar at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, is hopeful that data of this type will bring much needed improvements to the agriculture sector in his native land.

“More than 90 percent of Malawians are practising some form of agriculture and the country is facing prolonged drought and pest infestation as well as soil degradation. Drones present an opportunity for farmers to learn more about what is happening on their farm by providing a view from above,” Chisambi said.

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With drones, he said, “we can assess soil quality, vegetation health and patterns of pest infestation like never before. It’s my hope that drones will become part of the best practice for farmers throughout Malawi. I am very optimistic.”

Farmers in the area were excited by the sight of a drone flying over their fields.

Blessings Likagwa, 28, a farm manager in Mtunthama came to investigate what he at first believed was a low flying small airplane.

“Today I saw something amazing. To see drones being tested at my farm brought me great joy. I am hoping that this technology will help me address the challenges which I am facing as a farmer, especially soil erosion and pest infestation. I would like to encourage the government of Malawi to continue to support this program throughout the country.”

Project leader and Assistant Professor from Kyoto University, Yuki Okamoto, believes Malawi is the perfect location to introduce drones for agricultural research.

“Malawi has welcomed us with open arms and has been a great place for conducting research. Many of the farmers we have met have been enthusiastic about our work and I believe we have made lasting friendships within the community. I look forward to returning to Malawi to continue our research into how drones can benefit local farmers,” he said.

The team will also travel to Nkhotakota and Mzuzu to meet with farmers and further discuss how drones can be used to improve their farming practices, before returning to Japan to analyze their data and develop new interventions. They intend to return to Malawi in November of this year.

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