Geomatics and spacial industries: Geomap experience An interview with Piedad Cubillos

Piedad Cubillos is a Business Administrator, who is specialized in public management and administrative institutions and social evaluation of projects. She has more than 30 years of professional experience, 17 of them in management positions. Also shared with us her experience building companies in Colombia in the aerospace sector.

Tell us about your experience!

I am a partner of Geomap, a company born in 2012. The company is in everything related to geomatics (spatial issues), from satellite images to issues of land measurements, which can nourish information systems (georeferencing), cross-sectional in all economic sectors. For example, cadastral management, environmental impact analysis, or related to electricity, transportation, hydrocarbon, and security infrastructure. When I became a partner, we had the idea of working on this spatial component in land use planning, environmental plans, etc. My partner had won a hackathon in the United Kingdom and had the idea of creating a tool called Agrospacial, which is for monitoring crops with geospatial technology.

I was at the Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi (IGAC), a cadastral authority in Colombia, as Head of the CIAF, Center for Geographic Information Systems (training and instruction on cadastral and geospatial issues). There I got to know ArcGIS, a platform distributed by Esri, at that time the licensing was obtained with the company Procálculo (before the creation of Esri Colombia).

All entities that use ArcGIS technology are extended invitations to attend the international user conference in San Diego, California (USA), so I had the opportunity to attend and learn a little more about its applications. This conference brings together for a week about 30,000 users from around the world. In Colombia, this tool is used in about 1,100 public and private entities.

In 2017, I met Adrián Alejandro Gonzalez, my partner, and he told me that he had won a hackathon and that he had the idea of Agrospacial as a platform that would provide information services to small and large producers and investors in the agricultural sector. So, I went to Esri Colombia, exploring how I could be a partner of Esri because, just as you can be a partner of Microsoft, Amazon, or Google, I went with Geomap to be an Esri partner. We managed to make Geomap S.A.S. an Esri partner, and through that platform, the Agrospacial concept and developments were set up under that platform. In the technology world, it is not necessary to invent what has already been done but to apply solutions for companies according to what they already have. Especially with these issues of free software or free licensing, there is a restriction, which is the issue of technical assistance. That is why, when these software updates or developments occur and the people who worked on them leave, the developments achieved are truncated, so it is better to have licensing rights and to have permanent assistance.

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With all the trajectory you have, what are you focused on now?

As soon as I became a partner I had some alternate jobs, but today, after five (5) years, I am now fully dedicated to Geomap. In addition, during the pandemic period, geospatial technologies were promoted a lot. Thus, during this time we were able to support the Agrarian Bank in the review of projects invested in agriculture with the special credits they gave, all through geospatial technologies. On the other hand, before the pandemic, we created a company called Agro Fintech, a subsidiary of Geomap, which has a satellite monitoring platform to provide information on losses that may occur in crops and/or mitigate risks.

Agro Fintech was born out of the need for crop monitoring. Large-scale crops in Colombia, such as bananas, cocoa, or coffee, which are exported, are insured, financed in a large percentage by Finagro (Fondo para el Financiamiento del Sector Agropecuario), and the other percentage is provided by the farmers. In these cases it is very important to have a monitoring system that allows us to know what the causes of a loss were.

We created Agrofintech with other partners, one who was the ex-president of Banco Agrario, and another person from an investment fund, but the pandemic restricted us a lot. One of those people left and the whole issue passed to us, and we started working in Geomap focusing on drones. My partner has a specialization in drones and we started to see more of their applications to geomatics. Then, during the pandemic we started to give virtual courses with drone operation certification, applied to engineering.

Our first diploma course was born a little over two years ago, a drone operation course applied to engineering in general, focused on photography (cadastral or mapping issues). This is because I had an acquaintance of special projects of the Sergio Arboleda University and worked in training to the territories in cadastral management. Later we began to have others with the Universidad de Cundinamarca, Universidad Distrital, and Universidad Santo Tomás but applied to environmental issues.

With the training, we found a good line of business: drones. We were asked for assistance on the subject of drones and their applications, today any person and many companies buy drones, ranging from the small ones for recreational purposes, or our core, which are business drones. In Colombia, under regulations of the Administrative Unit of Civil Aeronautics UAEAC, require that anyone operating a drone for economic exploitation purposes must have completed at least eighty (80) hours with aeronautical, safety, and operational components. Thus, through Geomap, in alliance with an Aviation School, with CCI of the UAEAC, we have trained and certified a little more than 400 people, either directly or through the diploma courses we conduct. Geomap is a company with many applications in geomatics and different areas, we have a line of services and equipment since there is a lot of demand in what is called precision agriculture.

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What services does Geomap provide, what products do you have and in which sector do you operate?

Our specialized services are in the area of geomatics, multipurpose cadastral management, design, and implementation of geographic information systems, sale, implementation, and training of ArcGIS licenses, specialized topographic surveys, sale of business and consumer drones focused on the area of cadastre, sale, and training of specialized and consumer drones, training and academy under university agreements that we have today with public and private universities.       

In addition, these images can also be used for mapping and, hand in hand with a thermal camera can detect people for example in pipelines, to see vegetation issues in agriculture (with multispectral images). Another line we have are drones for precision agriculture, with this you can make very focused and efficient spraying in crops, these drones do not have a camera, they are only for spraying.

What has the process of starting a business in Colombia been like? What have you thought about growing in other countries?

To be an entrepreneur takes guts and risk, not everyone does it. What pushed me to do this is that I am no longer active in the labor market. This is because you reach a point where you had so much dynamism and job growth that you start a stage of decline. Doing business in Colombia is very difficult, the tax burden is very high and so is compliance with regulations. For example, we have done some business in Ecuador, and there are great needs and demand there, in Peru there is demand, in Panama too, then here comes an issue that requires resources, because we are only two partners, although we could have many partners, there comes a time that requires a lot of investment and has a lot of working capital. At this moment we are looking for partners who are investors who are attracted to the business, who have relationships, and who help us to open markets. 

We believe that in Colombia and the region, there is a great need for land. In the case of Ecuador or Peru, there are many barriers, these are governments that have had a lot of left policies, contrary to Colombia. Then the tax burden is very high, for example, in Colombia, you only pay VAT in Colombia, which is 19%, and there are no tariffs, but in Ecuador, the same equipment has a tax burden of 63% (between VAT of 12% and other tariffs), this slows down development, which is what certain protectionist economies called leftists do, they contract the development of progress by placing high tax burdens. Something that happened to us in Ecuador, due to ignorance on my part, is that providing a drone operation service, I did not know that there any service that is provided by a foreigner has an automatic retention of 25%, which does not exist in Colombia either, because the only ones who pay taxes are nationals, not foreigners, so it has been difficult to enter there.

This technology also applies to monitor the issue of green bonds and their conservation, since there does not have to be any combustion issue, everything must be electric. With drones, efficiency is generated, because there is no spraying of crops that do not need it, and drones with multispectral sensors are used to measure changes in vegetation and detect weeds or pests in crops, there are many opportunities for this in the region, such as in Panama, Ecuador and Peru.

Looking at the bigger picture, how is the situation in Colombia for entrepreneurs today?

It’s like a vicious circle, it makes me laugh because you have to prove to a bank that you don’t need the money to get a loan. That is to say, you have to have a certain level of income for them to lend to you. At this moment we only have a very small credit that we contracted with a private company, which we are paying, for the investment we made of 160 million Colombian pesos. The truth is that it is very difficult to access credit. There are no soft lines that provide financing, the banks will demand many guarantees where, if you are not a company with a turnover of more than 500 million, say, they will not lend you or they will lend you very little.

If there is no financing, where do you get the capital from? From savings. Then, you have to look for someone who is willing to risk their capital, making you a partner, or someone who wants to lend you money, but the issue changes because of the way the company works, when you are a consumer services company, like a bakery, you make bread in the morning and you sell it in the afternoon and you recover, but in these technology issues it is not like that. You have to finance the purchase of the equipment 100%, make the import, and pay for everything, and generally, you have to give credit for the sale. These types of equipment, as they are high-cost, cannot be kept in inventories, we are not yet in that capacity because we do not have the cash for that. There is a need, but investors are required. There are investment funds, but they also have a projection of a certain order of the business, company, or project, they always see the issue in the medium and long term and always want to see high profitability flows. This market niche in Colombia is growing, and an analysis made on these issues, says that all technologies applied to agriculture and geospatial are in vogue.
I have had to overcome many circumstances in Geomap, for example, for a piece of equipment that I have in a demonstration, a policy in Colombia cost me about 30 million pesos, and also did not insure me when the drone was flying. We had to create a company in the UK to get a policy at a lower cost. On the other hand, there are other limitations with the UAEAC, when you have an asset worth 160 million Colombian pesos, you must submit to the UAEAC a policy of tort liability that covers 2 million dollars for risk in operation, but also as a businessman you must cover this asset in case of any claim, and in Colombia, it is very difficult to get this type of property coverage for large unmanned aircraft. In Colombia, there is only one insurance company that provides property coverage for the asset in the operation but only offers coverage on the ground of the drone, helmet, and cameras.

The use of geospatial technology allows the capture of images with drones and their processing with software that has already created algorithms to process the images under the control of specialized photogrammetry technicians. In Colombia, the Cadastral Authority IGACm under regulations already issued allows under certain standards the use of this technology for cartographic production in cadastral formation or updating processes, at a lower cost, with higher productivity and therefore greater efficiency.

Now that everything can be done with drones, geospatial technologies are not only drones, there are also satellite images, but they are more expensive. We also distribute satellite images that are taken daily to the Earth, these images have several applications: in security and defense, precision agriculture, cadastral management, training or updating cadastral, environmental, risk, or natural hazards.

Anything else you would like to share with us?

I am doing many things, believing in God and strengthening myself. Trying to look beyond, above all, I do this not because I dream of being a millionaire, it is because I dream of making a contribution to society by generating employment. Today we have three people directly linked to us and many service providers. The fact that I can generate employment through Geomap is my grain of sand to contribute to our society, to our nation, and the region, it moves me a lot and I would like to transcend. It is the legacy that I leave to my daughters, not that they look at what has been done, but what gives me the impetus to do it: the purpose…