How this South African startup goes where Google Maps cannot

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South African startup Abiri is providing digital mapping services in areas Google Maps cannot reach in order to better link rural and peri-urban areas with cities.

Launched in 2018 with the mission of creating digital integration to unlock township and rural economies, Abiri uses drones equipped with advanced cameras to map rural and peri-urban areas, and then converts these images into digital maps.

The startup, which has so far mapped two small villages and considerable township areas, does this in order to enable easy access for things like emergency services, tourism operators and business travel to these settlements. 

“During our mapping process we engage communities and explain to them the importance of digital maps and how they can foster change and shorten response time of core services, which would normally find it hard to locate houses and streets in these regions,” founder Tswelelo Piet Mashita told Disrupt Africa.

“This also serves as part of the marketing strategy. We also collaborate with local government as our digital maps are crucial to their service delivery programmes.”

Mashita was inspired to develop the Abiri solution back in September 2016, when he and a friend were travelling to a wedding in a township called Seshego in Limpopo Province.

“We were part of the VIP guests, and those who will give speeches on the day. We left Johannesburg with excitement, using the conventional navigation, but as we approached the township we realised the conventional navigation and maps couldn’t locate the proper venue,” he said. 

“After what seemed like two hours of word-of-mouth directions from strangers, we finally arrived, but the wedding had started and we missed part of it.”

The lack of digital integration in peri-urban and rural areas, especially digital maps, which affected Mashita and his friend that day also affects various core services. 

“We have noticed in particular that local businesses in townships, slums and rural areas are unable to compete and scale because they don’t have a digital presence,” he said. “We created a platform to give them the opportunity to expand.” 

Though technically Abiri’s competition includes the likes of Google Maps, their focuses are very different. Mashita thinks Abiri’s focus on remote areas means it has carved out a sizeable niche.

“We provide digital maps to remote areas – linking them with cities for seamless travel, easy mobility of services and goods, and promoting economic activities in these places. With more than 200 million people living in slums in Sub-Saharan Africa, we are rightly positioned to offer digital integration and maps to this fast-growing region in the continent,” he said.

For now, as mentioned above, Abiri has only mapped a handful of settlements, with a total size of about 20 square kilometres, while it has gained over 3,500 active users. In addition to its mapping service, Abiri has developed a commuter feature where users can identify locations of taxi ranks and get directions to them.

“People from areas mapped are very excited about the digital presence and opportunities this has brought to their lives,” said Mashita.

“There are many people calling for our speedy mapping process so that they can also be part of this digital integration. We have requests from 2,000 people per area, with over 15 of these areas and regions in Limpopo Province alone.”

The startup has been self-funded until now, but is engaging with potential investors in order to expand and reach more areas of South Africa. It also hopes to expand into other Southern African Community Development (SADC) countries.

“Currently we are focusing on local businesses within peri-urban and rural areas,” Mashita said. “In South Africa alone the total value of the township economy was estimated to be about US$10 billion by the World Bank. This is the market which has been ignored for years, and as a result most businesses here are unable to scale and expand due to lack of proper digital integration. Our plan is to digitise these regions through our maps, giving entrepreneurs and local businesses a platform to advertise, promote and scale their services and products.”

Abiri’s one-year plan is to map an area of over 2,000 square kilometres, beginning in Limpopo Province. The startup monetises by selling adverts on its platform, and also offers directions to their businesses.

“From the areas that we have already mapped we have gained about 50 clients who are excited about advertising their businesses on our platform,” said Mashita. 

“In the next five years we would have covered an area the size of over 20,000 square kilometres within the SADC. Our long-term plan of ten years is to cover the entire Africa continent.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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