OEA Consults- An Indigenous Company Providing Novel Geospatial Services across Africa

Joseph Aro, Director of Operations at OEA Consults

Observatory Earth Analytics (OEA) Consults is an indigenous geospatial services and drone mapping company headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria. They specialise in providing novel and innovative solutions using drones, GIS and artificial intelligence in data collection, analysis and visualisation.

Space in Africa had a chat with Joseph Aro, the Director of Operations at OEA Consults, on the state of the African geospatial industry.

What do you do at OEA Consults?

OEA Consults is an indigenous geospatial service and drone mapping company. We believe in the potential of geospatial and allied technologies and leverage them to solve development problems. We ease the data gap by providing professional services in drone mapping, geospatial intelligence, satellite image acquisition and analysis, spatial data infrastructure, data collection, analysis and insights, spatial data analytics and modelling, business intelligence, and market fit analysis amongst other applications.

OEA Consult was set up to be a decision-maker data plug. However, there is a lack of actionable data, primarily spatial and earth observation data. This realisation has made us develop solutions to tackle these inefficiencies. We use data to generate actionable insights for decision-makers; we collect satellite imagery and data from drones and translate these data into actionable intelligence for day-to-day operations. 

For example, if there was a potential for a flood event, we would determine the particular regions that would be affected and the corresponding impact that it would have on the environment. These and more are generated using satellite data. We also incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms to back up our solutions. For example, If we generated data in a particular region, in that case, we can categorise based on roof type, building type, building size, etc., and we can also estimate the area’s population density. With this data, we can easily generate insights. 

In Abule Ado, Lagos State, for instance, in March 2020, a gas explosion occurred, which took the lives of some 23 persons and destroyed many houses. Our team, in collaboration with Aerial Advantage Global, carried out a robust damage assessment and mapping of the blast site, estimating property loss to about ₦ 6.7 billion (USD 16.3 million)

Damage Assessment of the Abule-ado Gas Explosion. Source: OEA Consults

In 2019, we carried out extensive mapping of the Lagos lagoon using bathymetric survey tools, ML and AI. However, when we started this project, many people were sceptical about our solutions- they found it hard to believe that we could conduct a comprehensive analysis without employing the traditional survey methods.

To ensure that we accounted for every scenario, we reached out to people who have employed satellite-derived bathymetry (SDB). As a result, we learnt of their challenges which we used to develop solutions in-house to handle these challenges effectively. 

To test the accuracy of our survey method, we:

  • We conducted the survey using traditional tools and equipment and kept the data;
  • We also used satellite imagery and data from drones to populate the second batch of data; and 
  • We then compared the two results, and we had a 98% fit.

With a combination of high-resolution imageries, in-situ data and AI, our bathymetric surveys of the shallow – near deep water bodies reflected the rigorous methodologies we employ in service delivery.

And since then, we have conducted several other bathymetry tests in different areas with increasing accuracy, better results and a faster timeline.

Also, OEA, in the last six months, has deployed drones to map over 100,000 hectares of land. Of course, If you want to buy 100,000 hectares worth of satellite images, it will cost a considerable amount. But we have democratised the data such that we only charge based on the actual deliverables that a customer wants. We pride ourselves on delivering spatially and temporally accurate data, using EO data and emerging technologies like machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence to generate actionable intelligence.

OEA Consults has many services, spanning geospatial intelligence, drone mapping and surveys, spatial data analytics and modelling, and training. So please give an overview of your services.

At OEA consults, we deliver innovative solutions that are cost-effective and efficient to meet the needs of our clients. So a lot of them are custom-built, tailored to tackle a particular problem. 

We are also looking to innovate new and improved methods to make mapping and survey easier. At the moment, there are problems around the satellite ground control points (GCPs) and other challenges associated with getting to a specific terrain and much more.

At OEA consults, we also conduct a lot of training. In 2019, we trained people from over 15 Nigerian states on drones and geospatial intelligence. We have also trained personnel from the Nigerian Army, the Department of State Security, and the Nigerian Police Force.

We have also conducted remote training, tailor-made to address specific challenges. For example, at the Lagos State Building Control Agency, we trained 25 personnel on using drones to predict building collapse, rather than the reactionary way of determining why it happened. We also taught them how to effectively determine building tilt, building positions on the ground, and determining cracks using thermal infrared sensors to develop precautionary measures – either by pulling down the building or adding the necessary support systems to the affected structures to ensure that it doesn’t lead to a disaster.

We have also trained personnel in the oil and gas sector on using drones for surveillance and monitoring. OEA Consults also recently conducted training for the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) staff on using drones for underwater and aerial surveys,  search and rescue missions, wreckage identification, and much more.

Over the past few weeks, we have also conducted training on geospatial data analytics, primarily using Javascript and Python and translating the data to actionable inputs. A lot of GIS solutions are in the form of maps. But for solutions that are not in map form, it might be challenging to acquire actionable intelligence from such datasets. For example, with 103 GB of raw satellite or drone data, very few persons/ organisations have the software required to access this information. So what we have done at OEA Consults is to simplify this information so that anyone, irrespective of their background, can access this information to make decisions.

A lot of people are beginning to recognise how vital earth observation tools are to sustainable development.  How would you describe your access to the African GIS market and the people who need your company’s services?

The market for EO derived intelligence for decision making is increasing rapidly. We have executed a few projects that have cut across several African countries- mostly in West Africa in the last year. We have also offered consultancy to other parts of Africa where we currently don’t have the ground infrastructures to operate in. 

Access to the African GIS market is still in its infancy; there are many untapped potentials in the sector. And we have many companies competing for the visible tip of the business. However, OEA Consults is poised to take control of these emerging businesses because we have shown time and again that we understand the technology and how to translate these technologies into actionable intelligence to cater to everyday needs. 

OEA Consults has been involved with many projects; what would you say are the highlights of your activities so far?

One of the most exciting projects for us is the underwater bathymetry survey that we conducted on the Lagos lagoon. That project has enabled Lagos state to open the waterways further, and it is driving Lagos states interest in exploring the waterways as an alternative means of transportation.

Bathymetric Survey of The Lagos Lagoon. Source: OEA Consults

Furthermore, our feedback when we delivered the project was a morale booster for the entire team at OEA Consults. And that was made possible because we could distil the data we acquired to the simplest format so that the users (our client) would have no problem navigating through for their day-to-day activities.

We are also involved in mapping a new area under development in Lagos State, Nigeria. We have successfully mapped the environment using state-of-the-art equipment and methods, and we have also generated the necessary insights. We pride ourselves as the go-to geospatial data plug. We develop insights that would be useful at different development phases and valuable insights on disaster risk management and other environmental solutions. 

Covid-19 Geospatial Response & Live Prediction Dashboard. Source: OEA Consults

Also, to effectively monitor the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria, we developed a robust system for mapping the spatial spread of the virus, tracking cases, and integrating a live prediction model to predict the rate of transmission and case confirmation with an 80% accuracy.

We are currently in talks with different stakeholders to get the necessary backings to scale our solutions to other areas.

How did OEA cope with the pandemic and the effect of the lockdown?

The Covid-19 pandemic affected businesses all over the world, and we were not an exception. At the start of the pandemic, we missed out on what would have been one of our biggest deals. The project involved a lot of international partners. It has to do with improving certain areas in Nigeria. The project is still on hold, and we hope to go back to it once normalcy is fully restored.

However, immediately after the Covid-19 ban got lifted in most parts of the world, many people reached out to us to deploy solutions for them. Since the ban was lifted, we have successfully mapped over 100,000 hectares of land for different organisations. We have also surveyed over 10,000 square kilometres of assets for clients. One of the reasons we have been able to do so much after the ban is that, during the ban, the Managing Director of OEA Consult, Adekunle Osude, and the entire management of OEA decided to keep all the staff on their salaries, irrespective of whether or not they were engaged in any work. So we all saw that as an opportunity to catch on to the latest skill and techniques. So immediately the ban was lifted, and we got back to work, we were able to translate the new skills into better and improved solutions.

Also, because of the travelling ban in some countries, we can’t travel to those countries; we have had to outsource those projects or simply consult. In all, we are still grateful to God because, despite the setbacks, we have consistently seen growth in all our operations.

Can you discuss some of your partners? What source of funding is available to you?

We have worked with several industry giants such as Dar Al-Handasah Consultants, First Metroline International, etc. 

We are 100% self-funded; all of the projects we have embarked upon thus far have been self-financed. Fortunately, we have developed services and solutions that have consistently brought clients to our door.

Considering the ad hoc, part-time and full-time staff, our current workforce consists of about 18-20 personnel.

What projects should the industry expect from OEA?

We are working on deploying several solutions, hopefully before the end of the year or during the first quarter of 2022. One of the most exciting projects currently in the works has to do with providing solutions for farmers. We are looking at opening up an entirely new world for small-holder farmers. Some solution providers make the mistake of making complex solutions in the form of apps that small-holder farmers would have difficulty accessing. But we are working assiduously to generate solutions that are easily accessible. Apart from providing them with actionable intel to help improve their crop yield, by exposing them to insights on when best to plant certain crops, an estimate of the fertilisers that farmers should get, soil tests, and much more, we are also looking at providing credits to these farmers to make it easier for them to purchase all the necessary tools and products to reduce farm losses and increase productivity.

We have built a prototype that worked beyond our expectations, and right now, we are trying to scale it up. For this, we might have to seek funding at some point to ensure that we can share these solutions with as many farmers as we possibly can.

We are also looking at deploying solutions around the drone industry. Everybody wants to buy a drone, but some regulations make buying and using drones difficult. There is also the problem of getting a license to use drones in Nigeria, and there’s also the challenge of gaining access to quality training and access to the drone market.

So we are putting together a comprehensive solution, which will include how to get in touch with the right persons to access and use a drone, how people can effectively utilise the drone to get the desired result, and how to convert the raw data to actionable information. 

Also, we have a few projects with our other international development partners, although some of them are at the infancy stage.

What do you think about the current status of the African space industry vis-a-vis regulations, economic advancement and projections?

The space scene in Africa is still miles away from the level we all hope it attains. However, the international development partners and agencies, the Digital Earth Africa, Africa Geoportal, and several other initiatives across the continent are focused on improving the use of earth observation data across Africa and driving sustainable developments from the solutions.

One primary concern is the lack of talent. In Africa, for example, the tech space is developing speedily. We have talents being churned out daily from programmers to developers. But in the geospatial industry in Africa, geospatial developers are few and far between. And even when you get these few talents, the African market is not welcoming enough to translate their efforts into the right source of revenue.

As a result of this, we have many solutions reliant on other continents-Europe, North America, etc. They develop the software and the algorithms, and we use that here. One thing that I have realised is that “if someone cooks food for you, he/she will do that according to his/her specification”. So there’s a need to have a continent-wide talent acquisition and talent grooming in different industry sectors.

I am the country director of the International Association of Young Geographers (IAYG) and the project coordinator for West Africa, and I can say that in the last three years, we have tried with very little success to sensitise students in universities and secondary schools on the importance of earth observation data for national development. 

There is also the need to have a geospatial data standard – geospatial data is generated in different formats, and there is a need for a standardisation initiative in Africa. The Africa Geospatial Data and Internet Conference (AGIC), for example, is trying to harmonise this data, but then, the process is slow because governments and the private sectors are not willing to cooperate to achieve this.

The African Union also needs to do a lot more to ensure that the geospatial industry blossoms. They have to champion regulations that would be void of any interference from other continents. We need to start improving our continent by first understanding that there would be certain peculiarities in different regions and that we need to develop solutions that would cater directly to these regions.

In terms of drones, it’s an open secret that countries worldwide are reluctant to accept the use of drones for security reasons. Still, we have seen positive results in Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa; they took the bull by the horns to create a welcoming environment for drone business to thrive. In Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority is also not doing badly. A few weeks back, we had a symposium centred around drone applications in Nigeria. However, we need to move away from talks and start implementing solutions. We also need to understand that the more players we have in the industry, the more groundbreaking the solutions will be.

African governments also need to understand that the route to economic advancement in a nation is primarily through making the right decisions at the appropriate time. You can’t make the right decisions without the right data, and you can’t generate the right data without access to the right equipment. 

For example, how do you plan for a particular region without the right data? How do you prevent disasters in an area without the knowledge of the specific area? How do you solve traffic challenges if you can’t effectively track road users?

We need to realise that economic advancement will not happen overnight. Therefore, we need to carefully plan for it by giving people the right opportunity to deploy solutions to drive economic advancement.

In the next couple of years, however, I hope to see an entirely different industry. Elon Musk is an African and has completely revolutionalised the global space industry with SpaceX. I  can only hope that Africans would replicate what he did and develop solutions that will transcend Africa. I would like to see Africans design and manufacture space products locally and on a very large scale without foreign support. Only then can we truly develop solutions that will be focused on our traditional problems as a continent.

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