Jessie Ndaba is setting the pace for Aerospace Engineers in Africa

Jessie Ndaba
Jessie Ndaba

At a time when there is huge advocacy for NewSpace Africa, a bid to promote the commercial space ecosystem in Africa, Jessie Ndaba is paving the way by demystifying all odds to establish a space start-up. The Alumnus of International Space University has a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.

In 2006, she met with Khalid Manjoo while doing an internship on the SumbandilaSat program, the first government satellite under the directorship of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in South Africa. They always shared similar values, aspiration and enthusiasm for how space science and technology could impact socio-economic and human capital development on the African continent. Little did they know, the plan of the universe to converge their dreams under the Astrofica banner more than a decade later.

In this interview with Space in Africa, Jessie talked about her amazing journey and how she became one of Africa’s finest aerospace engineers.

How was it like growing up? Tell us about your educational background

I was brought up by my grandmother, who was a single parent. She was a brilliant lady who instilled the culture of learning and that of hard working in our home. When other girls were playing with dolls, I was playing with puzzles, pencils and books. We had bookshelves in our bedroom. My gran bought a lot of books for us, encouraging us not to rely only on books provided by the school. I started reading encyclopaedias at an early age. I guess you could say that shaped my life into knowing who I am and what I want to do. When I was a freshman at high school, I came across a rocket engine design from one of the many books she bought for me. It is then that I made a decision that I want to be a Space Engineer. I didn’t even know of any space activities taking place in South Africa. When I look back now, I realise that it is true that there is power in what you speak out. I pursued a career in engineering at Wits University, then joined the Space Internship Programme, which was sponsored by the South African Department of Science and Technology, Stellenbosch University and SunSpace & Information System.

You are one of the leading women in the African space industry, what does this mean to you?

It means a lot to me. To be honest I’m grateful to a lot of people in our industry that contributed to my career. It will only be an honour, the day I see a change in our continent. I believe that God had a plan for all of us and His plan for me was to contribute towards making a change in people’s lives using Space, Science and Technology.

How does it feel like building space systems and working on components that are being flown into space?

Like every engineer, we get excited seeing what you have worked on taking form. However, it doesn’t end there. I get the fulfilment knowing that the eye we have placed in space is actually delivering what you expect it to. A lot of people misunderstand space and still believes that it is for the developed nation and not realise that with the challenges we face, we need to get out of our planet to be able to see our blue marble clearer and be in a better position to see or even tell where we need to improve and how. People haven’t realised that in this day in age we use space technology daily. We rely on space for disaster management, weather forecast, security, banking, etc.

Tell us about your work with SCS

My experiences at SCS have been great. SCS/Sias Mostert has offered me an opportunity to not only grow as an Engineer but as a business person as well. My being involved in Business  Development and Programme Management has given me a background in everything required to run and sustain a business

You recently co-founded Astrofica Technologies, tell us about the journey

Astrofica would not have been a reality if we didn’t have the support we got from the South African Space Industry as a whole (SANSA, DST, DTI, SCS, CPUT, amongst others), contributed or assisted us. It has not been easy but knowing you are not taking the journey alone, really helped me and my partner, Khalid Manjoo to change our dream into a reality.

What do you enjoy most about working with Astrofica

Astrofica has given me an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and strive to do what I believe I was born for. We plan to use Astrofica as a glue to the Space Industry. We believe with all the challenges we face specifically in our continent, if we join forces and work together, we too will someday have a bright continent.

Could you share your thoughts on the commercial space ecosystem in Africa

There’s most definitely a lot that still needs to be done. Having strategic partnerships may be one of the answers from a lot of things that could be done to achieve what we need.

What role do you think commercial space companies would play in the implementation of the African Space policy

Commercial Space companies would play a big role in the implementation of the African Space Policy because they are the biggest contributors in the Space Industry and know of the red tags that are preventing Africans from achieving what can be achieved through collaboration and trading.

How soon do you think we can have Unicorn in the African Space Industry (a space company worth $1B)

Honestly, I believe competition is good for growth but if we stopped competing so much and realised that we need to support each other, we could have African Space companies worth $1B

What do you think about the gender imbalance in the Space industry?

I think the lack of outreach programmes is the major contributor to the imbalance of gender in the Space industry. A lot of people don’t know much about Space, hence a lot of females would rather do medicine if they are good in Maths and Science. Female by nature are nurturers and are peaceful, therefore they would go for professions that afford them a platform to directly help or have a positive impact on people’s lives. We need more outreach programmes, so people would know what Space is all about and what do people benefit from Space. If we can master that, I’m convinced we would have more females wanting to be involved in Space.

How do you think we can get more girls involved in Space & STEM

If we could start reaching out to girls from an early. Introducing them to STEM and making it look fun and not scary because, in the end, it is fun. We need to show them at an early age that’s there’s more to them than beauty. That beauty starts within and it is all about making a change in other people’s lives, and the best way of doing or achieving that is through technology

What advice do you have for young girls willing to pursue careers in STEM? 

I would advise them to stay true to themselves. Know what they want and stay focused. They should accept that like anything in life there are challenges in the industry but if you are focused, and you are in it for the right reasons, you will overcome any storm that comes your way.

What advice would you give a 12-year-old you?

Actually, I don’t think I have any advice I can give to my 12year old self. I have a lot I can actually learn from her. I owe everything I am and have to my 12-year-old self. She was smart enough to listen to her parents when they told her that whatever decision you take today, determines tomorrow’s outcome. It’s thanks to that 12-year old that went through a textbook and saw a rocket engine and made a decision to follow an engineering career. However, I still think she missed out on other things as well because she was shy and never played a lot with her peers, so the older me is still very fragile and sensitive. Sadly I can’t change that. So, I think I may have a bit of advice after all, hahaha. She needed to learn how to balance life. Work hard and play hard.

Lastly, what keeps you moving forward in your career?

I’m very passionate about my work. I believe there’s so much improvement we can have through Space, Science and Technology. I live to see all kids getting basic needs like education and health care, and because Space knows no boundaries, no discrimination, we can reach out to the most remote areas and provide basic necessities for humans to survive.