“It’s easier to find funding based on a product rather than an idea”: How Swift Geospatial is Thriving in Africa’s NewSpace Sector

Michael Breetzke, co-founder, Swift Geospatial || Swift Geospatial, LinkedIn.

Swift Geospatial is an African geo-Newspace startup, providing services across Africa. The startup provides clients with geospatial solutions derived from Satellite collected data. This data is transformed into geospatial knowledge through Remote Sensing and GIS analytics.

In this interview with Michael Breetzke, a co-founder of the Newspace company, we discuss the challenges and opportunities in the African space industry, especially for a geospace startup.

Can you give us an overview of what you do at Swift Geospatial?

Basically, our main goal is to convert raw data into information so people can then use it for decision support. The company is founded and developed around satellite imagery. We partnered with “Planet” as well as “Maxar”. Rather than handing off information to organizations or clients, we dive deep and draw out information. For example: if we are looking at encroachment on a mine site, we process imagery and run analytics to show them where the encroachment has occurred, another mining example; we show them the growth and spread of… mining activities, such as artisanal mining operations, so that’s what we do, we hand over this information so they can use it for decision support.

This seems like a very elaborate and futuristic plan that you have at Swift Geospatial can you shed some light on the driving forces of Swift Geospatial in Africa?

When we started Swift four years ago, we were nervous because we were moving away from the traditional methods of information and analytics. Today we process in a cloud environment and produce web applications & online dashboards so clients can access information from anywhere. The goal was to make information tangible to have it wherever they are. Since then, we have seen quite the uptake in agriculture, environmental, forestry monitoring and mining applications. Today we do more work within Africa and outside South Africa borders; it means we must be doing something right, we, therefore, are on the continuous path to partner with like-minded technology companies because we do realize, you cannot do it all in your own, Particularly, in the African continent, which has really helped in knowledge sharing and moving into the cloud and provide resources for development.

Who are the founders and operators of Swift Geospatial?

We are a small group, we are not large, we do large projects, but we are not huge yet. But the 3 founders are Michael Breetzke, Douglas Bradley and James Saunders. We had the idea to create Swift GeospatialWe newly hired a product manager, Nyasha. The team is growing; we are expecting big things in 2021.

As a Geospatial company in Africa, what are the peculiar challenges that you currently face that you believe countries in other parts of the world would not face?

It’s a little bit of everything; obviously, infrastructure is a massive problem. When our company is built on cloud processing and delivering the analytics via the internet, the person on the other has to have internet connection in other to receive it and a lot of the remote mines we monitor do not always have the type of infrastructure set up or the bandwidth available. This is a massive stumbling block with regards to how we deliver our product. The bright side is that all of the stumbling blocks that we have encountered can easily be overcome because of the spirit of the people of Africa, they are willing to collaborate, partner and the general willingness to learn. This positive angle has definitely outweighed the challenge.

Can you elaborate on how your insurance services work as a geospatial company?

Instead of doing continuous monitoring, what we prefer to do at Swift is to offer subscription-based monitoring products. Looking at insurance, for instance, we look at agriculture, particularly the African context, we get a lot of small-scale farmers, we spread out to difficult hard to reach areas just from infrastructure standpoints. Hence, our insurance monitoring works in a way that we can monitor these farms on the desired frequency whether weekly or monthly; we can tell you if those fields are there; if they are ploughing or harvesting or growing and at what stage. We ensure that their business is secure, that the money they are providing to local farmers is being used. It is also to protect those farmers, for instance, in a case for hail damage or fire, we can source satellite imagery to show the before, and after the event, a disaster did occur in that area. These farmers have lost their livelihood; then from a support point of view, we can say that these farmers need to be paid this X amount or that amount. That is a product that we are still developing, we’d love a partner or an insurance company to come and jump on board, but for now, that’s the idea; Agriculture monitoring and Insurance is a massive push for us in 2021.

How have you been able to access a profitable market for the services you offer at Swift?

One of our main things initially was to move away a little bit from UAV, what we realized is UAV is obviously a great technology and the resolution with which one can draw information is really staggering. But from our perspective at Swift, what we realized is that it is difficult because it requires a lot of people to go to the site and it’s not very cost-effective. We also looked at it from a satellite perspective; the problem is education and training; we got these different satellite stations and constellations all over that it was hard to convey that message. We’ve seen a big uptake in forestry monitoring, gold mining in West Africa. Where we are struggling is breaching the gap into looking at the local municipalities within the African continent in the government spheres to try and use this technology for infrastructure and monitoring.

Regulations across the African space industry are not uniformed, has there been a hindrance to your access to the market based on the various economic policies and regulations across the various African countries’ economies that you’ve worked in?

On that front, we are still very inexperienced. Most African space agencies don’t have great funding. Some of them do not even see the value just yet in having this type of working agreement where we can use satellites. Moving to a pandemic environment where everything is stressed and movement is limited, using satellite imagery like a sensor to ascertain COVID related impact like food security and for many government organizations… we struggle to reach that area, and we would have to continue our campaigns and marketing. Hopefully, we can get engagement and provide our services to them.

How have you been able to access funding and develop the goals you have at Swift Geospatial?

I think we have been a little bit fortunate that we have not gone out to look for funding. We worked on all our research and development internally, a lot of our revenue goes back into research and development. We keep on pushing those boundaries to go above the curve. When we started Swift, we got financial backing from investors, but thereafter we haven’t actively looked for funding. That said, we face challenges that put out for many different organizations like Maxar, European Space Agency, where we pitch certain ideas and technologies which can push your startup to the next level. However, this is incredibly difficult for startups to gain funding to develop the product. The advice I would give is to have the product beforehand or a kind of working example of something before going out to find funding. It’s easier to find funding based on a product rather than an idea.

At Swift Geospatial, what are your future projections at the startup and do you have any product you are developing that you would like to share?

Moving into 2021, we are looking to push agriculture & insurance monitoring further into the industry, particularly in the African continent; this is the main driving force. We also want to look into mining and see what applications can be developed there. Having said all of that, I think where we are most excited about is the internet of things (IoT). So, combining remote sensing GIS and now IOT, we are moving into space where we do not have to be reliant on cell phone signals or anything like that. IoT Is one of those white elephants in the room, and we are actively trying to move to that section not only to say what is IOT but find out from our current clients to ascertain how we can incorporate IoT as well as satellite imagery in developing a more robust product. So we continue to try and innovative, and those are the main sectors we see ourselves moving into.

What do you think about the future of the African space industry?

I think Africa is the future, whether it be the space industry or infrastructure if you look across the world. Africa has the people and resources. This is a booming continent. I think a lot of industries, not just the space industry, is really primed for an explosion. I would encourage any youngster out there to look actively into space technology. Africa has always been the sleeping continent, but I think it’s time to wake up. Africa is prime for an absolute explosion.