Leaving my technology footprint across Africa

The ADDA experience

By Naomi Kalemba
DC Mtambo, a former ADDA student now instructor at the academy addressing students, UNICEF Malawi and Malawi government officials at the ADDA flying field
UNICEF Malawi/2021
22 October 2021

Alexander Mtambo is a talented young man. He was one of the first students at the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) and one of the Academy's first two national instructors. He is a member of an innovative team at the Academy that teaches a specialized curriculum designed by Virginia Tech University to deliver practical and theoretical courses in creating, testing, and flying drones.

Alexander intended to work with drones in agriculture before becoming an instructor at the Academy. Despite agriculture accounting for Malawi's 42 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 81 per cent of its export profits, the sector still lacks modern and innovative mechanization. When we first met Alexander as a student in 2020, he remarked, "The utilization of drone data and imagery in agriculture will improve efficiency, minimize wastage, and raise yields, thus improving Malawi's GDP."

Alexander with graduating students from ADDA’s cohort three
UNICEF Malawi/2021
Alexander with graduating students from ADDA’s cohort three

"I joined the Academy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We discontinued all in-person classes in favour of online learning. It was difficult to be away from the more experienced instructors who were coaching me. Being coached and mentored online was not easy, but I quickly adapted and soon was able to teach with confidence," says Alexander.

"Being an instructor is very demanding. In addition to daily ADDA project management, I set up and teach laboratory sessions on aeronautics, mechatronics, and other subjects. This is hard, but it is preparing our team to take over the Academy after Virginia Tech leaves," adds Alexander.

"We have resumed classes and are now teaching in-person and online classes simultaneously. This is difficult because the coursework is rigorous, with short breaks in between the cohorts. The short breaks are because of the high demand for the skills that we offer at the Academy. We get over 100 applications every cohort and have space for only 20," says Alexander.

So far, Alexander has participated in training 370 students from 23 African countries in drone, data, and entrepreneurship. He says the most rewarding element of his job has been seeing students with no prior flying experience assemble drones, control and fly them, and obtain their Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) certification in a matter of weeks.

Influencing the youth of Africa

"The youth are growing up in a world that is rapidly changing. The advent of new technology is altering our way of life and necessitating the acquisition of skills to assist young people to survive and prosper in this new world. Through the training that we provide at the ADDA, the youth gain job-specific skills which are currently scarce but critical in Africa. We help them become innovators who can launch their own drone and data companies, as well as prepare them to fill jobs that would otherwise be done by foreigners," adds Alexander. "Being a national instructor at the ADDA means I'm positively affecting the youth throughout Africa and leaving a technological and economic footprint," Alexander proudly states.

ADDA students fly drones for a variety of commercial and charitable organizations. Others have launched their own drone businesses, offering services that would normally be offered by "experts" from the west.

In addition to being an instructor at the ADDA, Alexander owns his own drone firm. When the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions were implemented, his drone company teamed up with another local firm, HD Plus Creations, to photograph World Bank road development projects in five districts across Malawi. "The images that we provided were fantastic! While in Europe, the World Bank project managers were able to use them to gain a solid idea of the progress that had been accomplished and address technical issues and difficulties," he adds.

Alexander was also involved in drone training for lecturers at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture (LUANAR). "The lecturers training was extremely rewarding because of the trickledown effect that it will have. The lecturers will pass on their new skills to their students," he adds. In addition, he worked with the Liverpool Welcome Trust on a Malaria project and with PRIDE, an agriculture organization, where he provided drone imagery to aid in the development of irrigation systems.

"In the next five years, I would like to see drone, data and entrepreneurship curriculum incorporated into primary, secondary and university studies. The African Drone and Data Academy is an example that this can be done successfully and benefit Malawi and Africa," concludes Alexander.

UNICEF Malawi country representative, Rudolf Schwenk with ADDA cohort three students
UNICEF Malawi/2021
UNICEF Malawi country representative, Rudolf Schwenk with ADDA cohort three students

By investing in the ADDA, UNICEF Malawi and its partners are investing in Africa's youth. The

skills gained from the Academy will help them develop solutions that fit their local context, which is often very complex and challenging.

UNICEF Malawi and its partners are supporting the government to exploring the adoption of ADDA as a technical college for vocational training, as well as including ADDA course material into some of the degree programmes at the university level.