A lack of accurate maps is a big problem in parts of Africa: for disaster relief agencies, local authorities and people looking for safe places to build homes. Could cheap survey drones and local volunteers help plug the gaps?
Khadija Abdulla Ali is an unlikely drone pilot in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar.
Conservatively dressed and from a traditional Muslim background, she is a member of the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative, which since its inception in 2016 has become a poster-child for how African nations can approach the urgent geospatial challenges they face.
She never dreamed that her career would look anything like this.
“I worked so hard. I was working 24 hours a day taking pictures, processing the data. My family wondered what I was doing it for, but it’s so worth it.”
Behind these drone flights is Zanzibar’s charismatic Minister for Lands, Muhammad Juma Muhammad.
An architect by training, he’s grappling with urban growth and the needs of the tourists that prop up the local economy. Sprawling settlements are in no-one’s interest on this idyllic and space-conscious island.
“In Africa, we don’t create space for human beings,” he says. “To walk in the street in Zanzibar you have to negotiate with cars. We need to have pavements, space for children to play, for the old, for disabled people.”
He believes maps can engineer social change.
“We want to get to the stage where we can plot our hospitals on the map, where we can issue building safety certificates, where we can tell people where the local schools are.
“We might even be able to start taxing people on their property because we have a better sense of who owns what now.”