African businessman turns dreams into drones in Niger
Apr 15, 2021 - 09:19 AM
NIAMEY, NIGER — From the outside, the house is a typical upmarket residence in Niamey, but inside it looks like no other.
Three drones straddle large tables with their albatross wings, amid improvised building materials and tools.
Aziz Kountche, a grandson of Nigerien general and former president Seyni Kountche (1931-87), is an obsessive aeronautical entrepreneur who launched his civilian drone company, Drone Africa Service, in 2016, pledging aircraft that are “100 percent Nigerien”.
“We import products that are not found here such as fibreglass, carbon, but everything else — design, modelling, manufacturing — is done here,” said the stocky craftsman with the delicate fingers of a jeweller. “I build them all myself.”
From childhood dreams during weekends at the Niamey flying club when he was not on the benches of Niger’s posh French high school, he has created a company that claims a turnover that doubles every year.
Kountche accepts that his family heritage opens doors, while rejecting talk of nepotism.
For lack of means, he says, he did all his studies in Niger and it was evening classes for fellow students at the French high school that paid for his first hours of flight.
After further hours spent on the internet and at the flying club, Kountche built his first drone in 2009, without really wanting to make any money from it.
But with national security deteriorating because of jihadist incursions on the borders with Nigeria and then Mali, fewer and fewer civil servants and NGOs could venture to carry out field assessments.
‘Right niche, right time’
Aziz Kountche and his drones then provided an opportunity to continue mapping work, monitoring the pastoral movements of nomads and their livestock and preventing poaching.
Elsewhere, it is Western firms that win contracts for lack of local know-how.
But Kountche has “been able to exploit the right niche at the right time, and then, donors love start-ups in conflict zones,” said the manager of a non-governmental organisation in Niamey, who is familiar with the work of his company.
Kountche works only for the Nigerien state and its partners among NGOs and in the United Nations.
In a country where both France and the United States operate armed drones, he denies any military interest for his aircraft, since there is a large enough market in other sectors.
His first major success was a contract in 2016 with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UN agency needed to map out reception zones for displaced people in the southeastern Diffa region, battered by the incessant assaults of Boko Haram jihadists from Nigeria.
Kountche’s drones were used to monitor human movements and host villages in the affected region, where thousands of people have been uprooted.
The activities of consultants have since multiplied in Niger and in the west African region, including anti-poaching surveillance in the W national park in Benin, monitoring the movements of giraffes in Koure not far from Niamey, and the mapping of flood zones in the heavy rains of 2020.
The entrepreneur is now seeking to expand his services.
Gone are the days of simply renting out technical know-how. The time has come for Kountche to sell drones and train other people.
Material is already waiting in crates in his workshop and “serial” production will begin within a month.
“We already have four or five orders to deliver,” he says, happy with a flourishing business but stressed by the challenges ahead.
“Opening a business here is easy and it does not cost a lot, but making it work, that’s another matter.”
The business climate is not good in Niger — one diplomat called it “catastrophic”.
Kountche says he has to pay 50 percent of the value of his imported products in customs duties, but relocating is not an option.
“It makes no sense, that’s not why Drone Africa Service exists.”
He also employs three people full time and his head is full of ideas.
He is thinking of opening a “drone academy” in Niamey, but in the immediate future in a poor country where overland access is often difficult, he considers using drones to deliver vaccines against the Covid-19 virus.