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Kenyan online retailer joins vanguard of companies pushing to use drones

Vince Matinde | Nov. 11, 2014
An online retail startup in Kenya is on the cutting edge of experimentation, including tests by some of the biggest companies in the world, to use drones to deliver goods to customers.

Though bigger African countries like Nigeria have more advanced e-commerce markets due to their size, there are online retail opportunities in Kenya, said Russell Southwood a technology and broadcast analyst from Balancing Act.

Online retail site Jumia.com.ng has over 2 million users in Nigeria, according to a recent Balancing Act report. "Similar opportunities are in Kenya although the number of users will be smaller because of population size," Southwood said.

Outside of experimentation with drones, however, Southwood thinks that more online retailers could focus more on currently available, practical alternative delivery vehicles such as bikes and private trucks.

In any case, Kilimall's ambitious project faces big hurdles.

"We still face some challenges with Kenya Civil Aviation in licensing the project," Kiama noted. Kenyan aviation laws do not take UAVs into account, and there is no related legislation guiding the country's Civil Aviation Authority or Department of Defense in how to go about authorizing use of drones, Kiama said.

"However this doesn't necessarily mean it is illegal to undertake tests," Kiama said.

An earlier attempt to use drones in the country was met with opposition from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, due to lack of related legislation or legal guidance. In 2013, aeronautical engineer Chris Ghalily approached the aviation authority for permission to have drones fly at an agreed-upon altitude, for services that would monitor roads and even crime in the Nairobi.

Ghalily's request was denied, but since then various organizations have approached the Kenyan authorities with similar requests. For example, authorities are working to figure out how to go about licensing the Kenya Wildlife Service to use drones. Other companies, like DHL -- which has already launched a drone parcel-delivery service in Europe -- have also applied for a UAV license in Kenya. So it appears the time is ripe for the idea and Kilimall is hoping that, faced with the various requests, Kenyan authorities will work out a licensing scheme for UAV use.

Even with the foreseeable hurdles, the hopes of Kilimall's founders are not dampened.

"Africa is growing fast. ICT infrastructures in some of the countries like Kenya, S. Africa and Egypt among others are pretty well developed," Kiama said. "Internet usage is as high as 52 percent in some countries like Kenya. Yet E-commerce remains largely unpopular. This is an opportunity to make goods and services accessible and to keep costs low."

 

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