Taking Flight: The Story of Aeroshutter — Ghana’s First Drone Company
How Ghana’s first drone creative agency is using unmanned aerial vehicles to support local businesses and capture Ghana in a way you’ve never seen before.
— Ghanaian Entrepreneurs #3 —
Ghanaian Entrepreneurs is an interview series celebrating Ghanaian business owners at home and abroad who’re building businesses, making moves, and making Ghana proud.
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If you happened to be at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival last year, you might have noticed a curious object flying over the crowds. That object was an unmanned aerial vehicle (commonly known as a drone) and the pilot was Kwamena Hazel Junior, CEO of Aeroshutter, Ghana’s first drone-powered creative agency.
In this conversation, Kwamena shares how he and his drone fleet are supporting local businesses and creating never-before-seen images of Ghana.
Thanks for joining us today, Kwamena. Kindly introduce yourself!
Thanks for having me! I’m Kwamena Hazel Jnr., a banker and entrepreneur at heart, an only son with three beautiful sisters, and a graduate of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology with a Computer Science degree. I’ve worked in Ghana’s banking sector for 6 years, and I’m also co-founder and CEO of Aeroshutter, a local drone company here in Ghana.
What exactly do you do with your drones at Aeroshutter, and why did you decide to start a drone company?
We use our drones primarily for aerial photography. As the drone flies overhead, we take photos and videos that show Ghana from an angle that no one has ever seen before.
It all started out of curiosity. I love gadgets and electronics, so I bought my first drone and started flying it for fun. At some point, I realized the business potential of drones. My boss Samuel is as excited about drones as I am, so we decided to start Aeroshutter together a year and a half ago.
One year later, we‘re now a team of six, three doing it full time. We own our own fleet of drones. The thing that excites me most about Aeroshutter is how we can use this technology to grow Ghanaian businesses.
Who are your clients? Who needs these kind of photos?
Our first assignment ever was taking photos for a real estate developer. He used the images to better understand his plot of land, and also used them in marketing material to increase sales. We’ve found that beautiful aerial view of properties can increase sales by as much as 40%.
We often shoot footage for music videos (such “Tonight” by Kwamz & Flava and “Skin Tight” by Mr Eazi feat. Efya), movies, and other content for media outlets. Event organizers frequently book us for weddings. Imagine a drone dropping the ring during the wedding ceremony. Weddings work very well for us, because when people see our drones at a wedding, they want it at their own wedding, too.
Finally, we have a banner ad service called AeroAds. Our drones fly overhead with advertising banners to help businesses promote their products and services. Since drones are still so novel, they get a lot of attention and drive more awareness than a boring billboard on the side of the road.
We think of these products as just a stepping stone, however. We have plans to expand the range of drone-powered services we’re able to provide.
What kind of new applications are you thinking of?
Our drones can help mining, construction, and agricultural companies in West Africa boost their productivity.
In the agricultural sector, our drones could fly over your farm to check the crops and immediately tell you which part of the land needs attention. We’re looking at producing simple visualizations that provide instant information to farmers. The latest drone models on the market could even be used to spray crops.
In the mining sector, our drones could fly over an extracted ore and actually give accurate data on volume. Nobody is doing this in West Africa yet and we want to set the pace. Last year, we ran a pilot project with Newmont, the large mining company, and it looks like they want to continue working with us in 2016.
What does it take to start a drone business?
First of all, you’ll need starting capital to buy your first drone. They’re pretty expensive.
You’ll also need to learn how to properly fly a drone. It takes practice to get an instinctive sense for how high and far you can go, how to navigate obstacles, and how to handle different wind conditions. I highly recommend practicing a lot with a cheap model, so that you don’t lose too much money when you inevitably crash it. I’ve lost two drones so far, which cost us $3,000 in total.
Once you’ve learned the basics of drone flight, you’ll need to learn how to both fly and take good photos at the same time.
Finally, you’ll need to build your fleet, which requires even more capital. We invest our earnings into more sophisticated drones, so every drone makes money to buy the next one. If you know how to code, you can even start programming the drones to use them for literally anything productive. This is something we want to look into in the future.
And what if I just want to fly a drone for fun?
That’s great! Anyone who is interested in casual drone flying should join our drone racing club, Aero Arcade. We fly small, crash-proof drones through an obstacle course and compete with other drone fans. These races are big in the U.S. already, and we want to make them just as popular in Ghana.
What’re some of the most memorable flights you’ve done?
I particularly remember a flight over Takoradi Market Circle. No-one at the market had ever seen a drone before, so I was quickly surrounded by over 100 people. It was amazing!
The most scenic flight was along the shore at Busua beach.
Another time, I met the president while flying a drone in Ho. His security wanted to stop us although we had the necessary permission to fly, but the President was pretty relaxed and just said “Leave him, let him fly.” [laughs]
Talking about safety, are there any regulations around drone flights in Ghana?
The GCAA and National Security are currently drawing up guidelines for drone pilots guidelines. Aeroshutter has pioneered the creation of a drone pilots association to help promote safer flying among local drone pilots. The group will also help us speak as one voice when necessary.
When we do flights over areas like Cantonments, where the U.S. Embassy is based, we seek permission from the security service responsible for that area. When we go to them for permission and tell them that we want to fly a drone in this area, people sometimes don’t really believe us. [laughs]
What can we expect from Aeroshutter this year?
A lot more requests are coming through, sometimes for jobs we didn’t even know drones could help with. So we’re planning to expand the team to ten people this year. We don’t want to disappoint clients.
We’re looking for capital to fuel this expansion, and we’ve started talking to investors. We’ll use the funds to expand our fleet, hire more pilots, and buy more sophisticated equipment.
We’ve also had inquiries from Nigeria and South Africa, so we are looking into international expansion as well.
Basically, you can expect to hear a lot about Aeroshutter in 2016. [laughs]
You’re a serial entrepreneur. Tell us a bit about your other businesses.
In addition to Aeroshutter, I run a sock fashion brand called HueMan with my cousins.
Then there’s another project called Mo’Go!, a ride-sharing app. The name means “Let’s Go” in Ghanaian pidgin English. This app helps people lower their cost of transportation by sharing rides. Both taxis and private drivers will be able to use the platfom. I’m running this project with Fiifi Nkum, and I’m excited for when it launches in a few weeks.
Finally, there’s Echo House, which I started in university with Beryl Agyekum, Kofy Hagan, and Bright Ayaaba. Echo House helps large companies like telcos do campus activation through our student workers. Our students gain valuable work experience with multinationals such as MTN, and Coca Cola. I think of Echo House as a youth empowerment program.
Echo House actually began as just a student publication called Echo Magazine. Now, we’re almost 50 people strong and have almost 700 student members. I’m no longer actively involved with the company, but still sit on the board. Echo House’s CEO Beryl Agyekum is doing exceptionally well. Kudos to her.
Those are some of the things I have a hand in [laughs]. I have so many ideas in the pipeline that I often wish I was more than one person.
What inspires you?
I love reading about where the world is going. I keep up with the latest tech and business trends, because I don’t want to lose out. I also have a network of friends who always share the latest news from Silicon Valley and we’re always talking about the newest gadgets.
Another important inspiration is my family. The Hazels are all about entrepreneurship. My mum is from Kwahu and the people there are famous for being very entrepreneurial. We’re always on the internet and talk about new ventures over dinner. Paa Kofi Hazel is a top-notch wedding and celebrity photographer, my cousin Priscilla Hazel is working on an amazing app called Tress, and Kwesi Hazel is great at animation and tv editing. I promise, you’ll hear a lot more from the Hazels in the future.
What is it like doing business in Ghana?
It can be difficult to get started. I found getting my company registered very painful, and the frequent power blackouts didn’t help. I’d advise anyone thinking about starting a business in Ghana to save a fair bit of money before starting — funding isn’t easily accessible.
That said, I’m optimistic about the future. I see a growing consumer class, and I see people becoming more technologically savvy. I think the most interesting sectors are Information Technology, Agriculture, and Retail in that order.
How did your parents support your entrepreneurial drive?
I am thankful to my parents for allowing me to explore my interests and supporting me as I pursued them.
My dad sparked my curiosity for Computer Science and programming at a very young age. He was a programmer at a bank and could afford to get us a computer. My mom taught me the importance of discipline and working hard to attain my goals.
My parents fully support my work at Aeroshutter. They see that I am passionate about it and now that it’s starting to generate revenue, they’re encouraging me to take it further.
What advice would you give to a Ghanaian abroad who’s thinking about returning home?
I have numerous relatives abroad who want to come back to start something here. For example, a cousin is a sports scientist who wants to build a sports facility in Ghana to nurture sports talent.
I’d advise you to first do a short visit to lay a foundation before actually making the move. Network and leverage your existing relationships. Whatever you do, don’t make the jump blindly.
To give an example, another cousin, Dr. Kweku Hazel, is a surgeon in Colorado. He wants to come back for good and help with healthcare at some point. Whenever he comes to Ghana, he lays the groundwork for the move by visiting hospitals and talking to doctors. Those relationships will be priceless when he finally returns home.
Is there anyone, you would like to thank?
Yes! I’d like to thank the whole Aeroshutter team: Samuel Dakurah, Caleb Kwei, Derrick Cobbinah, Caleb Amoakohene, and Kwame Kino. They’re amazing, because they understand our vision and bring so much passion to the business. I owe them a lot.
I also want to thank Justin Edwards of Drone Above for helping me get started with aerial photography. He sent me very insightful books.
And of course, I want to thank my parents. They are my backbone and they have been with me through many ups and downs.
Thank you for chatting with us, Kwamena.
Thank you for having me!
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