Upande: We turned data into a multi-million-shilling idea

Upande founder Mark Deblois. He started the company in 2009. (Standard)
Everything is going digital. It is difficult to imagine how we ever survived without mobile money or Google Maps. And rapidly joining the digital age is spatial information.

“Spatial information is basically data that identifies the geographical location of features or boundaries. In our case, we take this data, splice it with geomapping and load it onto digital platforms for our clients’ easy and instant access,” explains Mark Deblois, the founder of Upande Ltd.

It may sound complicated, but it isn’t really.

Speaking to Hustle, Mark broke down how Upande is helping companies better manage their resources through map-based data by identifying where losses are incurred or where efficiency can be increased.

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Mark, 46, founded his company in 2009. Today, his clients include the World Bank, United Nations, and horticulture and water companies.

In layman’s terms, what exactly does Upande do?

Let me give you a practical example using a water company.

Water companies have pipes laid out over vast tracts of land. In the past, for them to monitor water usage or inspect their pipes, they would have to physically go to the ground.

The maintenance crew would also need physical maps to locate the pipes.

Upande lays out an intelligent data system that does a few things. One, it maps out the location of the pipes on an online platform so that this information is accessible to anyone in the company at any time – so no physical maps are needed.

Secondly, we place sensors at strategic places along the pipeline. These sensors indicate water flow, telling us if there’s a leak or a spike in usage.

The system also indicates how much water is being used by suppliers, from the bulk tank storages to the individual consumers.

The biggest benefit of a company being able to track this is that it reduces the possibilities of fraud – for instance, water being dispensed without the company getting compensation for it.

Another benefit is, in case of leakages, the company can identify exactly where and how much, and fix the problem. It’s about efficiency.

The fact is 42 per cent of treated water is lost in transit to consumers in Kenya. That accounts to an annual loss of Sh8 billion! That’s not acceptable, especially with the current water shortage around the country and region.

How did you come up with the idea?

It’s a system that is used around the world; we were one of the first companies to do it in Kenya.

I was working with Google Maps and people would ask me if we could map out their piping or land or some specific project. This was beyond the company’s scope, but it was a problem that wasn’t being solved. 

In 2009, I decided to step down from my job and start my own mapping and data platform company, which would specialise in offering local solutions for local problems.

Give us more examples of solutions you offer

Let’s look at counties tasked with verifying land ownership.

When someone walks into the office and wants to do due diligence on a piece of land, spatial information can easily show where one parcel of land ends and where another begins, who owns it, and the entire documented history of the parcel.

This information is available in hard copy, yes, but imagine the efficiency if anyone in the office could access it immediately via an online platform.

It reduces the paper trail and manages the frustration that potential buyers or sellers go through with ‘lost documents’ and so on. Our mandate is efficiency.

Upande’s latest product is called Vipimo.io, which is a sensor-based system that can measure and correct a multitude of functions remotely.

You can sit in an office in Naivasha and, through our sensors, be alerted if one of your flower trucks in transit is too hot. You can have a farm in Narok and monitor and adjust the watering systems from Nairobi.

This method of technology is the Internet of Things (IoT). That’s what we do; we implement IoT for all things.

Upande’s mission is to enable smart, transformative, reliable, data-driven decisions for its diverse customers across Africa.

How much did it cost to set up your systems?

My start-up capital was $10,000 (Sh1 million), which wasn’t nearly enough. But I had a good team behind me, starting with my longest-serving colleague, Luchiri Omoto, who left Google Maps to join Upande in 2009. I want to say we were lucky, but I think we targeted the correct problem long before anyone else did.

We got instant clients for long-term projects, including grants from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and UN-Habitat, which was doing a municipality programme for the urban poor.

Upande has also worked with the World Bank in approximately 10 countries on data-driven story telling.

Another big project was the Maasai Mara Citizen Observatory, which brings together policy makers, citizens and data aggregators together on issues like the balancing of livelihood and biodiversity in the Mara Basin.

Through locally built apps, data on biodiversity, weather, challenges like poaching can be collected and queried.

What’s the largest grant you’ve received?

It was $200,000 (Sh20 million). Apart from grants, we also have many paying clients. In year one, our turnover was $100,000 (Sh10 million).

Last year, our turnover was $600,000 (Sh60 million), despite not taking on any investment to date.

It really validates the fact that what we’re doing is meeting demand, is scalable and hopefully life changing.

The reason I got into this business was to create solutions for people or products that might otherwise be overlooked, but which are needed to grow our economy and protect our agrobusiness and environment.

What are some of the projects that have impacted you the most?

I think one of our best moments was working with the Stockholm Environment Institute in 2010 during the Google Earth Tour.

They were mapping out the world environmental status, particularly tree cover and forests, and showing the negative effects urbanisation had brought to our natural resources.

We were a part of the team collecting data. Prof Wangari Maathai did the voice over for the video promoting this project. It was an honour to work alongside her.

Another project would be the Danish Government initiative called ‘Virtual Kenya’. This project aims to put all of Kenya into an online platform that citizens can interact with.

If, for instance, a bridge collapses near the Maasai Mara, a resident can take a picture and post it on this platform and Government officials can easily verify the information and fix it.

The same goes for dwindling forests, rise in water levels, human-wildlife conflict and so on. Anything happening on the ground can instantly be reported. 

Somebody reading your story might think it’s been an easy journey for you. Has it?

I don’t think any business journey is ever easy. Challenges are inevitable. And despite the fact that we have had work since inception, we still have a long way to go. We’re currently looking to expand and are looking for viable investors because technology is expensive.

Our products to date are the Vipimo.io sensor system, the water sanitation hygiene management information system (Washmis), a drone system used to enhance precision farming and a fish farming product that keeps daily records for fish farmers, Samaki.ke.

You’re Dutch and had lived in Kenya for less than two years before you started Upande. What have been the best and the hardest parts for you as a foreigner in business?

Ironically, the best and toughest parts are intertwined. Kenyans are incredibly industrious. I’ve found this invigorating and we never lack bright minds to work with.

On the other hand, because Kenyans are so industrious, it’s sometimes difficult to find people who’ll work with you long term. The good ones want to go off and do their own thing or fear sharing their ideas because they think they won’t get the right compensation for this.

I believe if we can learn to put our innovations together more often and work with, as opposed to compete against each other, we would accomplish far more, far quicker in Kenya.  Brilliance isn’t a unique quality here; its implementation that challenges us. We can and should get that right.

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