She started her career in the mining industry working for De Beers and Anglo American. She joined the Department of Science and Technology (DST) keen to contribute to rebuilding the science system. At the DST she led various initiatives including championing the establishment of the South African National Space Agency, Co-chairing the Science and Technology Committee of the Group on Earth Observations, Chairing the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites and serving on the South African Council for Space Affairs for more than 7 years.
She joined the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) as an executive, where she eventually became responsible for a portfolio of more than 160 investments in ICT, Energy, Advanced Manufacturing, Natural resources, Agricultural biotechnology and Health. During her time at TIA, Pontsho introduced a new ‘seed’ fund targeted at supporting early-stage technology ideas at universities and start-ups looking for less than half a million rand to prepare them for further funding. Since joining SKA over a year ago, she has introduced an internal entrepreneurship initiative to support employees with innovative ideas on a journey to commercialisation. She is one of the most sophisticated and qualified Space professional in Africa. In this interview, as part of the Women in Africa Space Industry series, we discuss her role in the African and global space industry.
You started in the mining sector and then went ahead to become an important part of the South African Space Agency, how was this transitioning and development for you?
Just a correction, while I worked on establishing the Agency, I have never worked there. I am however the chair of the Space Council which is the regulatory body for Space activities in South Africa. When I left the mining sector, it was because I wanted to be part of rebuilding the South African science and technology system. At the then Department of Arts Culture Science and Technology, which later became the Department of Science and Technology, I was fortunate enough to work on re-establishing South Africa’s space programme. In the beginning, the transition was tough since I did not have experience of working in the policy environment, but it was also exciting to be part of shaping the future science and technology landscape. From working on the establishment of the Space Agency to now chairing the Space Council, it has been exciting to see the developments in the sector locally but throughout Africa as well.
You have worked with the UN on peaceful uses of outer space, are there distinguishing factors on the groundwork needed for African countries to reach outer space?
In my view, the are four critical requirements for African Countries: a) a clear vision with an associate policy that says this is where we are going b) an implementation framework – strategy of how to get there, c) political will – this is what determines the citizens’ ability to stay on course, and d) competent leadership. A typical example I can use for this is the SKA project in South Africa. When the country decided to bid for the project, the vision was clear, the strategy to win the bid was clear and throughout its ten-year history, the project has survived five different Ministers with unwavering political support. For this reason, the leadership responsible for SKA were focussed on delivering a successful project without any concern for lack of support.
What has been the UNCOPUOS impact for Africa, and how can we motivate other African countries to join?
Outerspace is complex from every aspect – technical to governance. The Outer Space Treaties create a governance framework that has resonance with the African Space policy with space being considered a domain of all countries. UNCOPUOS offers a valuable platform for all nations interested in space to engage in space governance in a multilateral environment. This is probably the most valuable aspect for African nations. In addition, partnerships and programmes have been developed to increase access to space for developing countries, and some African countries have taken advantage of these. UNCOPUOS serves as a useful platform for various countries to collaborate and learn from each other. Through the UNOOSA, various training programs are also made available to African member states. The UNCOPUOS is now working on a Space2030 Agenda to ensure space supports development even more. While it is challenging for African states to actively participate at UNCOPUOS due to lack of technical resources and experience, African states can focus on a few areas that have the most impact on their future participation such as sustainability of outer space. African countries can, therefore use the momentum provided by the establishment of an African Space Agency to develop regional positions that can be shared throughout the continent to collaborate better in space governance and diplomacy.
Can you tell us about your role at the SKA project? And what role does astronomy play in African development?
Up till now, my role at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (which manages the SKA project) has been to commercialise technology that we develop in the astronomy field for applications outside astronomy. As an example, radio telescopes produce a large amount of data that needs to be processed and stored. The computer and storage solutions we have developed can be used in earth observation, financial services, etc. From 1 September, I will be resuming the role of Deputy MD responsible for operations and business processes.
The role that astronomy plays in African development depends on what you do. In South Africa’s case, we design and build instruments (SALT and MeerKAT telescopes), undertake research (even established research chairs), do extensive training (this includes scholarship programs at universities and an internship program), inspire young people to have an interest in STEM (dedicated program on public understanding of science). I do believe that the more engineers and scientist we have in society, that more who have people who can use their skills to contribute to development. A recent example bears this out – engineers at SARAO have led the National Ventilator Project to support local industry in the development of ventilators during the pandemic. The same Systems Engineering approach used to build one of the most powerful radio telescopes was applied to developing local ventilators.
You have a flair for enterprise and supporting the growth of start-ups and innovations, tell us about this passion of yours?
I think technology can play a huge role in development, and Africa does not always take full advantage of this. Since I have worked in a lot of technology areas, I am passionate about supporting people with ideas to get them into the market. While advancing science is important to society, it is when we translate this knowledge into useful solutions that science adds the most value to society.
Many countries are racing to outer space, including South Africa. Still, no African country at this time, despite over two decades in space-faring, has the capacity to launch a rocket or satellite from their home soil. What do you think has factored into this challenge?
The simple answer is that launching is by far both expensive and risky. Even though the private sector has developed technologies that have significantly reduced the costs, it is still mostly out of reach for most African countries. In South Africa, the previous government had a rocket program, which was dismantled during the transition to democracy. There have been smaller teams from private and academic circles working on small launchers but no dedicated program as yet. Long-term, I think an opportunity exists, maybe to have an African launcher, but it requires significant funding. I dream that we will have a spaceport in Africa in the near future.
You are one of the most successful persons in the space sector in Africa, and I daresay, in the world, what has been the highlight of your experience?
Thank you, that is very gracious. If I were to choose one, I would say working on the establishment of the South African Space Agency ranks up there. A very close second would be a meeting I had with the founders of Astrofica (Jessie Ndaba and Khalid Manjoo) whom we recruited into the Sumbandila satellite project as interns when I was responsible for the space program. Years later, they have become seasoned professionals who are ready to make an impact. This makes me super proud.
You have positively influenced the growth of the space industry in South Africa, how were you able to do this and what notable happenings fostered it?
I really believe that more than anything, it had more to do with timing. The opportunity to get involved in the space sector happened at a time that I had a very supportive environment to try new things. From the beginning, I was willing to take on the challenging assignment and had the tenacity to see them through no matter the obstacles. Through that time, I also developed an extensive network that allowed us to tap into existing knowledge throughout the world. There were challenges too, some people wanted the government’s support but did not want to see things change, to allow new players in but we persisted by insisting on inclusiveness.
If you could go back in time to advise a teenage you, what would you say to her?
I would tell the teenage me:
- Everything that matters to you will work in the end, keep believing in yourself.
- Trust your instinct and take more risks – it is only through trying new things that we learn the most. Don’t let fear hold you back!
- Always enjoy the journey – don’t be is such a rush to finish that you do not appreciate where you are and what you are doing, even if the task is not done. Take it all in.
- The most important advice which I practice every day – be grateful!