Astrofica’s Internship Program Is Building A Talent Pipeline For Africa’s Space Industry

Blaine Lomberg, Intern at Astrofica
Blaine Lomberg, one of the interns with a PhD in Nuclear Physics, does a presentation to the team around a workshop he attended on VC investments into technology startups. Photo Credit: Astrofica

Astrofica, a fully blacked-owned satellite technology solutions provider with a core capability in the assembly integration and testing of satellite systems, has set out to nurture the much-needed talent pipeline for Africa’s burgeoning space industry.

The Cape Town-based company launched a 12-month industry-tailored internship programme late last year in collaboration with industry partners in the South African fast-rising space cluster in a bid to source, train, and absorb young talents into its workforce. With over 60-80 applications received in its first open call, Astrofica has kicked-off the internship programme with the first cohort of 29 energetic young talents from South Africa and one international student.

Inspired by their internship experience in 2006 working on the SumbandilaSat program, South Africa’s second locally manufactured Earth observation satellite, co-founders of Astrofica, Jessie Ndaba and Khalid Manjoo consider it a life-long passion to help develop young talents for not only South Africa’s space industry but also across a broader spectrum of Africa’s emerging space ecosystem.

In a recent interview with Space in Africa, Khalid alongside three interns in the pioneering cohort discuss the internship, industry support and longterm goals of the programme.

How did you start the internship program, and what was the inspiration behind it?

Khalid: It was quite a… I won’t call it coincidence… but I think the universe converged nicely on our end. At Astrofica, Jessie [my CEO and co-founder] and I have always, since our entrance into the space industry back in 2006, had the passion for human capital development and giving back in terms of socio-economic development. In mid-2019, when we attended a 4IR conference at the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, we bumped into an organization called MICT SETA. They are a media and ICT skills development agency. They were excited about what Astrofica did. It was the first time that they knew about the thriving space industry in South Africa.

MICT SETA traditionally invests in internships and skills development programs in the ICT sector, with the likes of companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Vodacom, and others. When they approached us with this opportunity of an internship program together with them as the primary sponsor, we were very excited. Given their mandate was to be in line with the fourth industrial revolution, along with advancing of the local workforce and local expertise to benefit ways to interact with our national development plan and vision 2030, we saw it as an ideal opportunity for us to take this on considering that Astrofica was at the time, looking at developing critical mass on our path to scale. 

It worked out quite nicely for us, and we signed the contract at the end of 2019. We started the advertisements online and across the university landscape in South Africa. The response was overwhelming from all over the world. Unfortunately, the MICT SETA mandate for the internship was that it had to be 100% South African, so we were bound by their criteria. We ended up with 29 interns, 25 graduates and four final year students completing their work-in-service training. The Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT) also came on-board as a co-sponsor for the programme. Besides, we just recently signed our first international addition to the internship program from the University of Illinois together with an organization called VACorps, bringing our 2020 intake to 30 interns. 

We had a lot of interest from various African countries such as Nigerian, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It got us thinking about running the current internship as a proof of concept for a flagship program that we would like to open to more international participation in the future. So when VACorps, the company that facilitates international internships in Cape Town, approached us with the opportunity during the current lockdown to support with the addition of an intern from the U.S, we were extremely excited as it aligned with our plans. 

Interns writing down 1 goal they would like to achieve after the 12 months program. Photo Credit: Astrofica
Interns writing down 1 goal they would like to achieve after the 12 months program. Photo Credit: Astrofica

How do you rank potential candidates, and what are you looking out for in candidates?

The outcomes of the selection were multifold, but the criteria for the intake was simple. We did not want to go down the traditional route of disqualifying any of the interns based on the fact that they did not hold a traditional engineering degree.

I think given the global economy and the trends in terms of transitioning from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy and one that is supposed to embrace 4IR and the digital economy now, we wanted to break down barriers for entry into the Space industry. There are no limitations in terms of what kind of qualifications and background prospective interns have. What we were looking for was passion, and in all 29 finalists, passion did come across quite strongly and which is why we selected the current intake. 

Does it mean that you’re not looking at academic certifications such as an undergraduate degree? What minimum requirement are you looking out for in the internship application?

For the current programme and as per the criteria from our sponsors, we require NQF level 5 or higher. This requirement means the interns needed to have a tertiary degree (Diploma upwards) or completed accredited short courses post matriculation. Our goal for future programmes is to establish the internship akin to a Space academy that offers various levels of skills development, training, mentorship, short courses and accreditations, professional development programs and full satellite value chain development programs from building satellites to end-user applications. It’s been a shared vision for both Jessie and myself, and we have tried it in different formats in previous experiences.

As mentioned before, for this internship, MICT SETA came on as the main sponsor with DEDAT as a co-sponsor. In addition to the sponsors, there are up to ten companies in the local Space economic cluster in South Africa that have also come on board to support the program. We have broken up this 12-month internship into key value chain areas, and we are taking our interns on a journey through Space alongside our industry partners.

For the first quarter of the internship programme, we have covered the overall introduction to the Space value chain along with a focus on the upper upstream space segment (systems engineering, mission analysis and design, space products and components, orbital simulation). We are currently busy with the project management of Space programs and new technology trends. Over the next quarter, we will focus on the ground segment and the downstream sector followed by Space entrepreneurship and business development. 

We are also allowing our interns to spend up to three months at different partner companies. These include upstream companies like Denel Spaceteq (SOC satellite manufacturer), SARAO (radio astronomy, system engineering, software development and ground antenna design), Simera (Space optics), DeltaV Aerospace (propulsion and mechanical design), CubeSpace (ADCS), Newspace Systems (major components and subsystem manufacture), Southern Space (system and power design), Cape Peninsula University of Technology/AmayaSpace (CubeSat design), and downstream companies like Cognitive Systems (artificial intelligence and machine learning) and Southern Mapping Geospatial (data processing and end-user applications and solutions). Covid-19 and the lockdown have somewhat disrupted the timing for the industry exposure phase, but we have adapted nicely to explore options with the partner companies. We are grateful to some of the companies like Newspace that have taken on some of our interns already. In a way, this internship is also bringing the Space community in South Africa together. 

Also, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has come on-board in support of this program. They have provided a shuttle service for the first three months of the program as well as sponsored laptops for the interns. So it is a very collaborative endeavour to not only get this program off the ground but also to see that it succeeds in terms of achieving its mandate and vision.

Interns visit NewSpace Systems. Photo Credit: Astrofica
Interns visit NewSpace Systems. Photo Credit: Astrofica

Great to hear about these collaborations and growing achievements with the first cohort of interns. Let me invite the interns to share their experiences and what they are learning.

Intern: Kelebogile Letshwene:

The internship has been exciting. At the start, we were working at our offices at Spaceteq in Grabouw, and it has been a huge learning curve learning about the South African Space industry. We didn’t even know that Spaceteq existed where they build satellites in South Africa. I chose systems engineering and policy because I’m interested in learning how to implement policies in the scientific and technological environment. After all, that would be an essential skill as we head into the fourth industrial revolution. I wanted to learn more about it, especially in the Space sector.

When lockdown happened, I was kind of in a position where I felt alienated from everyone. But the global space community has helped provide online webinars. I remember the last one I attended was the Africa Needs Space workshop series, where we learned about Space and its opportunities for entrepreneurship and economic diversification for Africa. COVID-19 put us into space where we were not used to before in the workplace. But the internship has been able to adapt to the changing climate and introduced remote work.

I’m looking forward to seeing more developments throughout the internship.

Can you briefly explain what you’ve been learning and why it is crucial to your career goals?

Intern, Ricardo Salambi:

At the start, I was very interested in the Space industry, and that sparked my interest in joining the internship. I like that Astrofica didn’t treat us so much as interns; instead, they let us become involved in real projects. So if you wanted to be working as a software engineer in the space industry, you could join projects that were software related. If you wanted to maybe go into the ground sections segments, you could join the ground segment and projects that are related to the field. 

Astrofica provided us with a lot of industry experts in terms of AI experts from Cognitive Systems; optics experts from businesses such as Simera, Southern Space and Denel Spaceteq. I learned they also intend to expose us to business development. I am enjoying the diversification and the various career paths covered in the internship program thus far. 

What are your expectations in the coming months?

Intern: Andre Williams: 

In terms of expectations, I know there was a bit of reshuffling of the original plan, so I’m not 100% sure what is planned for the coming months. But I’m looking forward to being more involved in projects that are related to data applications and collection of geospatial data from satellites. 

In terms of what I have gotten out of the internship experience, I think Khalid and Jessie are genuinely interested in giving us real responsibility, and that has helped build my confidence. Initially, when someone presents us with so much responsibility, it might seem scary, but I have come to learn and develop myself in the process. I think what I have gained most is just being able to be more confident in presenting my ideas and working on projects.

Great! Thank you for the response. Khalid, Is there something else you want to add about what the interns are learning?

Khalid: We’ve got a great group of interns in terms of the social dynamics of the cohort. Jessie and I are happy with the composition, and we are excited about the proactiveness from the interns. It has been four months, three of which have been disrupted by COVID-19 and the lockdown, but thankfully we’ve managed to realign ourselves and overcome the challenges quite nicely. I think what impressed Jessie and me was the proactiveness and eagerness of our interns not only to learn but also to get hands-on and support us to grow Astrofica. All our interns are currently busy helping Astrofica on different work packages within the company for our investment cases for satellite projects into the future.

A group of interns came to me during the lockdown to say that they would like to look into supporting the shortage of ventilators as part of the national ventilator projects. The medical sector has been something that was never on Astrofica’s radar, but we gave them the scope to go ahead and request from us any guidance and resources they needed in this regard. I was quite impressed when they came back to me with a non-invasive ventilator design, very similar to a space helmet. There is already an interest in the ventilator device from a private clinic in the medical sector. We are exploring the manufacturing of a prototype and funding opportunities. This will be a tremendous value-added achievement if we can take it from ideation to commercialization. 

Also, we have been approached by a company in the renewable energy sector, which is very much even an early-stage startup, and they have a fantastic design for solar PV systems. We allowed some of our interns to support them over the past couple of months. The interns are helping this company out with both the design optimization of their solar systems together with the automation and some general business development. The feedback that we have received so far is very positive.

What challenges have you faced in implementing the internship program, and what impact is the COVID19 pandemic having on the internship?

Initially, we faced a small challenge in covering the full cost of the internship with funding from MICT SETA, which then led us to explore the landscape for co-sponsors. We were quite fortunate in a short time to come across DEDAT in the Western Cape and their interest in co-supporting the stipend. With sponsorship from MICT SETA and DEDAT, we shall fund the entire internship program for the 12 months with the majority of the sponsorship going towards the monthly stipends for the interns. Also given the fact that many of our interns are from outside of the Western Cape, having to leave their homes and make the sacrifice to come down to Cape Town with the additional expenses of accommodation and living costs, we saw the need to give the interns a monthly stipend that was market-related and attractive. 

Those were some of the initial challenges we faced; then came Covid-19. Some of our industry partners were also affected. July to September was supposed to be the industry exposure period. A few of the companies have told us that they prefer if we postponed this component for the new year, which is understandable. But others like NewSpace Systems have indicated their interest in some of our interns starting with them immediately. The beautiful thing about this program is that it’s customizable and can be adapted based on the situations we find ourselves in.

Interestingly, you mentioned MICT SETA and DEDAT as co-sponsors of the internship program. Other than being host organizations and potential employers for the interns, are there other contributions from the industry partners?

For SANSA, I think they are still exploring ways of coming on board to increase their support on this and future programs. Given the short turn-around time, the agency has already been quite supportive in their sponsorship of the laptops for the interns, as well as a shuttle service that allowed us to overcome a transport burden in terms of getting all of the interns from the different localities to the Denel Spaceteq facility. 

The private sector partnership allows companies the opportunity to leverage the three months our interns are with them to benefit their business at no extra charge to themselves. The benefit for Astrofica is obviously that these established companies can provide much more in terms of the real-world industry exposure in the different verticals than what Astrofica would be able to accomplish on our own.

I must also say that the state-owned company Denel Spaceteq came on-board as a supporter by allowing us to use their satellite integration facility at Houwteq for the full 12-months free of charge as their contribution to supporting this internship. We are grateful to all our sponsors and partners in making this internship a reality, and we are committed to make the 2020 program a success and continue growing it, not just for South Africa, but Africa and the rest of the world.

© Space in Africa 2020

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New Report: The African space economy is now worth USD 7 billion and is projected to grow at a 7.3% compound annual growth rate to exceed USD 10 billion by 2024. Read the executive summary of the African Space Industry Report – 2019 Edition to learn more about the industry. You can order the report online.

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