The Africa-Centric Approach at the Heart of Kate Kallot’s Bold Vision for Amini
In this interview, Amini CEO Kate Kallot talks about her vision for Amini. Kallot wants to build a satellite data company with technology designed specifically for the needs of communities in Africa.
August 28, 2023
With the world facing a series of environmental and climate changes, satellite companies will play a vital role in combating climate change. Satellite startup Amini has the potential to be special. The company could help make a difference in Africa as it looks to be a player in the development of African data infrastructure by launching a series of IoT-integrated nanosatellites that could have an impact for African farmers.
Amini CEO Kate Kallot says “We are not building technology, and then applying it to Africa, we are building technology that is designed specifically for Africa.” It is an inspiring new company led by an inspiring CEO. Kallot, who has worked at the likes of Intel and nVIDIA in the past, has ambitious plans for Amini. In this interview, Kallot talks about her vision for the company to help people in Africa prosper.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the vision behind Amini? A lot of companies talk about solving the data gap in Africa. What is different about Amini?
Kallot: We have looked at completely inverting the known model of satellite providers. Companies like Planet for example, built hardware, but did not really take the time to understand the local context. It's important to work with local populations to understand the different topologies and grasp how small African farmers in small holdings are growing crops. That is not something that these companies have taken time to do. They have built technology and then tried to apply the technology in Africa, not understanding that it is one of the most complex and difficult places to build things. What you see in Africa is not the same as what you see in the United States.
A LandSat or Sentinel would be enough to look at mega farms in the U.S. growing one single crop at scale. In Africa, you are looking at 1 square kilometer farms, growing multiple crops, no boundaries, no barriers. So, it is looking at that local context. That’s what is different about us, we are all coming from Africa. We want to go deep into the local context and build something tailor-made. We are inverting the model. We are not building technology, and then applying it to Africa, we are building technology that is designed specifically for Africa.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the 12- to 24-month technology roadmap for the company?
Kallot: We hope to be a single source of truth for environmental data in Africa. We need to prove the model, validate the problem, and prove the solution to get to customers. This is why we are focused on aggregating different types of data.
We are already hosting satellite data, weather data, and historical data on many different aspects of environmental and climate challenges. We are providing that kind of data. We have paying customers, so we are now moving into the second phase of our company, which is becoming the single source of truth for environmental data in Africa, and being able to provide that data in a granular way. We want to offer that data to more businesses and expand beyond agriculture and insurance, which have been our first markets. Now, we want to expand into markets such as monitoring the last mile of the supply chain, because regulations are coming to this area, or companies that are looking to expand their services into Africa, but do not have access to that kind of data.
VIA SATELLITE: You have just closed $2 million in seed financing, what does the funding roadmap look like for the company?
Kallot: We are using the 2 million euro ($2.52 million) in funding to scale our team. We are hiring more people to grow our business and expand beyond agricultural insurance, which was our first market. So, we are now supporting food and beverage companies, FMCGs [fast moving consumer goods] companies that are expanding their supply chain into Africa. We are scaling our platform to more and more use cases across different types of data.
VIA SATELLITE: Who do you see as the main customers for Amini’s services and solutions? What is the balance between government and commercial? When do you hope to sign your first commercial customers?
Kallot: We will be announcing deals with our first commercial customers over the coming weeks. The first segment we tapped into was agricultural insurance. 60 percent of Africa’s population are small hold farmers, yet only 20 percent of them have access to insurance. That becomes really important when you think that agriculture is the backbone of the African economy and climate change is real. This is putting a lot of pressure on those farmers and leaving them vulnerable. It is impacting everything from economic development, livelihoods, food security, etc.
We really looked into how we could reduce the coverage gap there is on an agricultural insurance standpoint and help businesses that are looking to expand and give them the appropriate data. This was really the first market we tackled. We have paying customers in this market, and we will now expand to food and beverage companies because 80 percent of the data we collect for the agricultural insurance is the same as those food and beverage companies looking to track their supply chain and reduce their carbon emissions at the last mile.
The third one we will expand into is carbon monitoring. Africa is moving toward being a carbon economy, and understanding the extent of carbon. A lot of countries are looking to invest in that, but lack the tools or the technology expertise to do so. We are positioning ourselves as a partner for these countries to measure the carbon across their countries, and potentially help them create carbon credits. These are the three big segments over the next few months.
VIA SATELLITE: When will Amini become profitable?
Kallt: We are hoping to become profitable within a year. With the contracts we are signing right now, we are already getting to that stage. We need to expand our team more. The money we are making, we are then reinvesting into building and solidifying our company and technology. We want to address more markets so we hope to become profitable over the next one to two years.
VIA SATELLITE: What difference can Amini make in markets like Africa with satellite data? What are the practical problems it solves, particularly in areas such as agriculture?
Kallot: Agriculture is the backbone of the African economy. When you look at the development and the transformation of the African economy, it is all about agriculture, natural capital. Africa is the backbone of the world for that. So, being able to apply those very advanced technologies, whether it's AI, ML, or space to solve this for Africa is important. The world is being fed on the basis of what we do here. Most of the coffee we drink, the chocolate we eat, comes from Africa. It is really making sure that we can help Africa to create this data revolution based on environmental data, using geospatial technology and advanced ML to do that. We hope this will be the start for Africa to digitize and transform an economy for an entire continent. That is where we are aiming to go.
From a practical standpoint, the first use cases have been smallholder farmers at the farm level. We are able to look at crop and soil health. We are able to collect data on soil moisture, humidity, water management etc. We can expand that to things like floods and droughts. This is where our platform is best applied. So, taking this data, extracting insights, getting analytics out of it, you can build advanced flood models for example, and understand the extent of drought throughout the Sahel. We are looking at how farms can better manage their yields. So, bringing these insights to insurance companies that are providing services to the farmers, we are hoping that it could help Africa move towards regenerative agriculture and better farming practices for the environment. So, it is really about using data as the start to transform everything that is around it. In Africa, this is environmental and climate data.
VIA SATELLITE: If successful in Africa, could you look to export this to other markets beyond Africa?
Kallot: Some of our customers are looking to expand into Latin America and Southeast Asia where you also have large populations and smallholder farmers. The beauty of our platform is that it is scalable, but we want to focus on Africa first. We have built our platform and company to address the entire continent. This is a big, big challenge. We have the potential to expand into other emerging markets and could consider this, but it would likely be a partnership with local companies. One of the things that makes us unique is that we are all Africans or grew up in Africa. We have taken everything we have learned from some of the biggest tech companies in the U.S. and Europe and applied it in a local context. So, if we ever decided to go into other markets, we would probably look to partner with a similar type of team and apply it in that context.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the role of AI in the space industry? How does AI make a difference in terms of what Amini is doing?
Kallot: For me, living away from all the noise, we are using AI in not that different a way than it has been used previously. We are making sense of data, and being able to forecast things. So, for example, using the data we collect, we built a crop-yield model that can help understand and predict the yields of the farmers on maize, rice, wheat etc within a specific season. We take our data, build the analytics and use ML, so we can predict what can happen at a farm level for a small holding farmer in season. We have used AI to apply to the data that we have. I think one of the beauties of AI/ML is to be able to make sense of enormous amounts of data and begin to apply data for the greater good of the people.
There is a big conversation happening on the regulation side on access to large models such as Chat GPT. We are looking at using AI/ML in a more traditional way right now and need to make sure it benefits the population we are working for.
VIA SATELLITE: There is so much talk of AI recently. How do you see things like AI and Chat GPT impacting the satellite industry?
Kallot: LLMs [large language models] have been around for a long time. What is new is the democratization of it and we are putting it in the hands of many people across the world. With every technology like this, there are pros and cons. On the positive side, it helps smooth the work process. For example, if you have to write something that time sensitive and intensive, I can rely on Chat GPT to help. The danger would be to rely solely on Chat GPT without thinking through things. So, just like with every technology that has been put in the hands of people, there are positives and negatives. The burden is on the industry to educate people and make sure the technologies are used in the right way.
Now coming to the space industry and the use of geospatial data, I think there will be some interesting use cases that start to emerge. We have seen Bloomberg releasing Chat GPT for finance, for example. So, we will see many LLMs being focused on geospatial data, but can push the boundaries of how we understand geospatial data. So, for example, having an LLM that can pull data from many different satellites/providers and being able to extract insights and forecast from this data without us having to process all of it. But, then again, do we solely rely on the data coming from that one system or do we, as technologists, add another layer and look at whether those insights are true or not? I think there will be some interesting use cases. But let’s not solely rely on those insights we are getting from those systems. There are weaknesses and downsides to every technology.
VIA SATELLITE: As someone that has an AI background, what is your take on recent developments in AI technology?
Kallot: AI has been around for a long time. It just hasn’t been as mainstream as it is today. One of my philosophies is to build a proper AI/ML learning system, you still need people. People are still going to do the coding and building the software. It still starts with us and the intent we are putting into the technology. As long as the intent is good and we are educating people around it, I am less concerned. What I am concerned about is putting out tools without making sure people know how to use them in the right way. I am still not alarmed about what is happening today. The truth about AI is now really coming out into the open, but we need to educate the broader population and the masses to use these tools and how to apply them in the right way.
VIA SATELLITE: Finally, what represents success for Amini for you?
Kallot: In 10 years, I’d like to look back and see that Amini was the start for others to build upon. Hopefully new types of companies will emerge and create services based on our data. So, you could have new ML or deep tech companies across Africa, that would be a huge success. We want to take on the burden of building the data infrastructure so others can build on top of it. And really help build the continent and the ecosystem.
On the other side, we want Amini, directly or indirectly, to impact the entire continent and the lives of our people. We want to move the continent from survival mode into the next stage, which is being able to create and sustain a new economy, and using the most advanced technologies to do that. This is what success looks like. VS