Abiri – The space-tech start-up mapping rural communities in South Africa

Source: Abiri // Initial Households Identity Process (to be followed by the plugin of Census Household number)

Abiri is a South African start-up providing digital mapping services in areas Google Maps cannot reach. Launched in 2018. Abiri uses drones equipped with advanced cameras to map rural and peri-urban areas, and then converts these images into digital maps. In a review of space-tech companies based in Africa, Space in Africa interviewed Tswelelo Mashita, the co-founder at Abiri. Below is the interview. 

What was the idea behind the establishment of Abiri?

We were inspired to develop the Abiri Solution back in September 2016 to digitally map peri-urban and rural areas in South Africa. My friend and I had travelled to a wedding in Soweto, in Gauteng Province. We were part of the VIP guests and my friend was the best man, playing a major role in the wedding. We left Johannesburg using the conventional navigation but as we approached Soweto, the navigation could not locate the venue. After more than two hours of asking around, we finally arrived, only that the wedding had started and we had missed part of it.

What services are you hoping will be enabled by mapping these areas?

We are looking to link the peri-urban and rural areas with cities. So the gap we are looking to fill is in the provision of emergency services, tourism, and business travel to these settlements.

Who are your main partners?

Because our work is based on a very local level, we engage municipalities and local governments for authorization to map these settlements, in some cases even local kings and chiefs in rural settlements. We do this to ensure that our activities are in line with the proper protocol and to acquire the unique housing numbers which are available in the census data. We also engage with members of the communities to learn more about their neighbourhoods. We aim to create accessibility to these areas, so that makes it easier to collaborate with public administrations and communities at that level.  In most cases, local governments are excited about such innovation because it is beneficial to them as it helps identify households and regions in most need of service delivery.

So far Abiri has managed to map 100 sqkm, comprising two communities. How long does it take to collect the data and process it to get mapped?

Currently, the process is mainly manual, through our data scientists and engineers. From this perspective, it takes about 4 -5 days to acquire the data that we need, clean it, then process it before we can bring in the household identity numbers. We are working on automating some processes and incorporating some aspects of Artificial Intelligence.


You are expecting to map about 2,000 sqkm in the next year. How long will this take assuming that you are using drones to capture images and there are only so many of these devices that you can put out there, not to mention the manpower? Are drones sufficient?

Source: Abiri // Fuel Consumption Estimates

In terms of scaling, we realized we might need more capabilities because at the moment, mapping an area of 50sqkm will take 2 – 3 hours. The images also have to be processed and the unique house numbers are incorporated into the map. It takes a lot of time, compared to conventional satellite imagery. What we want to do is partner with satellite providers to build on the areas that we are still lacking capacities in. We are talking to a few companies and will soon be creating a framework to see what synergies will be achieved.

We used drones to build a minimal viable product and demonstrate the potential of the product. Now that we have achieved that, our next phase of expansion will be guided by incorporating other relevant technologies. 


Which companies are you speaking to in regards to satellite services?

During the Boostup Pitch Bootcamp Competition in Finland, we had a chance to interact with a number of satellite providers. Those are some of the companies who we are in talks with. There are three companies; one in Germany, another in Finland, and one in Poland. Automation is a big part of our agenda, and satellite imagery will enable this.

A lot can change in a settlement over a period of 5 years, more so in peri-urban areas. Given that census is conducted every 10 years, how do you account for developmental changes and how does this impact your data, if say, there are new settlements that were not there before, do you issue new household identity numbers?

In terms of new settlements, we would engage relevant parties (municipalities) and get the confirmation to continue from the last number, therefore generating sequential numbers, and if not, we regenerate our own identity number for that particular household, then present them with that digital identity.

How have you been able to monetize the maps? Who are your clients and what partnerships have you formed this year?

Well, we target courier companies looking to scale into slums, townships and rural settlements in South Africa, and we are monetizing our maps by giving them access to these maps. Similarly, we focus on local businesses, where local businesses can be pinned on our maps and users can search for their locations by simply typing the services/products they offer on the maps. Lastly, we also offer advertising slots on our platform. 

Abiri is part of this year’s Space-Tech Challenge, congratulations on this. The competition will include participation from a range of stakeholders including accelerators and early-stage VC investors. How much funding are you looking to raise?

We are trying to raise Seed Capital, between USD 0.5 Million and USD 1 Million to help us scale our operations.

In general, how was 2020 and how did COVID impact your business?

2020 has been extremely tough for us as a start-up. We had to adapt to new ways of doing things like working from home. The lockdown restrictions also impacted our ability to scale our mapping process in the first part of the year, but we are slowly resuming the operations despite the current business climate.

What can the market expect from Abiri the coming year?

We are currently an eight-member team. In the coming year, we are looking to expand our team to be more technical; data scientists and developers, as we automate our processes and expand our reach.

Africa doesn’t own the majority of its mapped data, and more times, we do not have the capacity to collect and update the data as needed. As we come to the end of this interview, what are your sentiments on this issue?

I think it’s about time Africa began to invest in ways to own its data because we are running economies which are slowly proving that data is at the core of decision-making and growth. It is the new oil, if I can say that. We need the capacity and expertise to build data centres and cloud infrastructure. 

When I was in Finland for Slush 2019, I met a great gentleman by the name of Gilbert from Cameroon. He said these words and they stuck with me, “ As African entrepreneurs, we can come up with all sorts of exciting innovations and solutions, but until we own our data infrastructure, we are enriching the West and the East with our exciting solutions and products”.  I will add on to this and say that Africa should have its central data centres as a continent or as regional blocks; then own and manage the data generated from its countries’ innovations and technologies. The time when Africa was known as the consumer-based continent is over, and it should start with us creating our own data collection and storage infrastructure.


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