A week ago, the South African National Space Agency( SANSA), in a glamourous unveiling event, announced the launch of ZASpace Inc, a broad-based industry forum designed to demystify space for business while developing skills and funding innovation to propel the growth of the sector across the continent – across the space value chain from upstream to end-users.
Speaking to Space in Africa on the birth of the new organisation, the CEO of ZASpace, Kamal Ramsingh, said the forum was born out of the need to maximize the impact of space assets accumulated by SANSA, pointing out the demand for an independent platform to optimize opportunities and build collaborations between commercial space actors, government institutions and the consumers of geospatial products.
The forum’s objective is to nurture South Africa’s geospatial technology and analysis industry through education, training and skills development – as well as funding, while building a comprehensive geospatial ecosystem that benefits the space industry, government and end-users.
Although ZASpace’s objectives align with SANSA’s mandate to create a broad-based industry forum led by the industry, Ramsingh says the platform is independent of the space agency or the government. However, he acknowledges that the forum has received commendable government backing and will build on that to foster collaboration with various government departments and the space agency for the benefit of the industry.
“As we went through the process of understanding the needs and requirements of the industry, it became very apparent that we needed to do a couple of things. We needed to operate as an independent not-for-profit organization to drive the interests of the industry first and to capitalize on the growth of the geospatial knowledge market,” Ramsingh said, emphasizing that the decision to operate as a non-profit gives the organization a “purpose that is focussed on coordinating and stimulating the industry rather than profiting from it in itself.”
“While ZASpace exists outside of the government institutions, it needs to work incredibly closely with the Department of Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry and potentially others, academic and research institutions such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), because these are key and critical elements of our institutional framework, which we need to use in order to partner with the private sector,” Ramsingh said.
ZASpace has already identified two fundamental areas of focus which include accelerating capacity in the geospatial sector through skills development, and facilitating innovation-based funding opportunities for SMMEs and start-ups to access capital from private and institutional investors.
“We want to add to innovative skill development programmes, by building capability and capacity in the geospatial sector, not just in GIS and downstream segments, but broader and beyond.”
ZASpace plans to develop and distribute enriched learning contents and academic curriculum on geospatial science and technologies in collaboration with secondary schools in South Africa in order to broaden awareness for career opportunities in the sector and develop a talent pipeline for the industry.
On the second objective, ZASpace has also committed to formalising the methods and opportunities for private equities and venture capital firms to fund geospatial innovations. The ultimate goal is to improve South Africa’s geospatial readiness to the point where local companies and skills are available and able to support the local market as against being renowned as an import market in the geospatial sector.
On the current stage of operations, Ramsingh said the organization is at its infancy, noting that although incredible progress was made leading up to the launch event last week, there is still a lot of work ahead in putting an operational structure in place. ZASpace currently carries out its operations with the help of supportive industry leaders who form part of the working committee with none employed full-time.
Ramsingh says the working committee is a “coalition of the willing, comprising of people that bought into the noble objectives,” pointing out that through the course of next year, they will create a permanent structure, including a permanent secretariat to run the operations of the organization.
The working committee draws expertise from the industry, government institutions and international partners. The committee includes Charmaine Houvet from Cisco, Davis Cook from RIIS, Imraan Saloojee from SANSA, Pieter Coetzee from SelfTrack, Rebatho Madiba from Transnet, Robert van Zyl from Amaya Space, Seshan Krishnamurti from Dimension Data, Sives Govender from EIS Africa, Thuli Khanyile from NkaThuto Edupropeller, and Kamal Ramsingh from GeoInt.
“Our job, today, is to start building a strategy on how we can go forward with our objectives, including building a funding strategy as soon as possible,” Kamal said, adding that as part of the working committee, they have appointed people to take accountability for innovation funding and for skills development. “The appointees are highly regarded as professionals and are expected to bring onboard a profound understanding of the science of funding and the science of skills development.”
ZASpace plans to deliver quarterly milestones, with programmes for 2020 already in the pipeline. A more immediate outcome in the first half of next year is to build learning contents and introduce geospatial skills into schools in South Africa. The skills development programme will promote skill-based education in secondary schools while building job readiness skills in tertiary institutions with the goal of bridging the skills gap in the industry.
Speaking on expanding these programmes to other African countries, Kamal said the forum looks forward to doing this through existing inter-governmental relationships and space agencies.
“We won’t assume that Nigeria, Morocco or Egypt do not have such programmes in place, but if there be a need for that, we will.”
Kamal envisages building a formidable geospatial ecosystem in South Africa within a short target of about two years with the goal of replicating similar success in other African countries through a collaboration with existing space agencies and inter-governmental relationships.
It is important to point out that Kamal does not think of ZASpace as a typical space-focused innovation hub, as I may have erroneously assumed in my previous article.