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.
Kilimall, founded by three local entrepreneurs and a Chinese businessman to bring together a broad variety of vendors onto its e-commerce platform, aims to be the first site in the East Africa region to achieve commercial use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles System (UAVs).
Drones have been promoted as effective alternatives for surveillance, agriculture and transportation work. Probably the most high-profile experiment using drones to deliver merchandise has been conducted by Amazon, which is testing its Amazon Prime Air service.
"Joining the 'big boys' such as Amazon, Google and Ebay, who have recently been engaging in testing drones for online orders, we at Kilimall believe this project will transform e-commerce in Kenya and Africa at large," project manager Qin Wen said.
Kilimall's platform was founded by three Kenyan entrepreneurs and a Chinese businessman to bring down the cost of e-commerce and create a platform for retailers to sell their products online.
"It was more of a need than an idea -- the need to access quality and accessible goods and services," says Robin Kiama, Kilimalls' marketing manager. "We learn a lot from other global e-commerce sites like Taobao, JD among others," Kiama said, referring to large Chinese e-commerce sites.
Drones could make goods purchased on Kilimall more easily accessible and boost the site's popularity, Kiama said. Orders can take up to four days to reach customers within Kenya. Drone delivery promises to cut deliveries down to only 30 minutes within the capital of Nairobi.
E-commerce in Kenya has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of parcels delivered by the government postal service and private couriers, according to a recent report from the Communications Authority. The agency's statistics show a staggering 96.3 percent quarterly jump in items delivered by all courier and postal services, reaching 937,619 items in the Postal Corporation's fourth fiscal quarter ending in June, up from 477,526 items for the third quarter. For the entire fiscal year, the number of items delivered was 2.6 million, up 72.8 percent year over year.
Kilimall is doing a private test run with UAVs sourced from the company's investors in China. The company is using DJI Phantom 2 UAVs from China-based DJI Innovations. One DJI Phantom 2 is priced at more than 125,000 Kenyan shillings, or (US$ 1,400). The DJI drones can carry one kilogram of cargo, but DJI is developing a drone that can carry 10kgs.
Kilimall plans to have several drop-off points across the country where buyers will collect their goods. The company is set to do a public demo test launch next week. "This will mark a major milestone in shaping the rather young but promising commerce industry not only in Kenya but the rest of Africa as well," said Titus Kisangau, PR Manager for the company. "Kenya will join other successful tests from the world."
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."