Meet Pontsho Maruping who is driving the commercialization of the SKA South Africa project

Pontsho Maruping

Ms Maruping’s career spans both private and public sector at executive level as well as a working knowledge of various sectors. She currently heads up commercialization at South African Radio Astronomy Observatory where she is responsible for driving the transfer of technologies developed for the MeerKAT project into different applications. In addition to this, Ms Maruping is the chairperson of the Council for Space Affairs (SACSA) which is responsible for regulating space activities in South Africa. She chairs the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful uses of Outer Space for 2018-2019.

In this interview with Space in Africa, she gives insight about her work and her opinion about the different aspect of the African Space Industry.

Can you share a little bit about your current work?

  • UNCOPUOS – I am the current chair of the scientific and technical Subcommittee and my role is to enable exchange of views amongst the 92 member states of the committee and the representatives of the international organizations and facilitate agreement on S&T issues that have an impact on space exploration. One of the issues for example is the Long-term sustainability of outerspace activities.
  • South African Council for Space Affairs (SACSA) – SACSA reports to the Minister of Trade and Industry and is responsible for creating an enabling legislative environment for space activities in South Africa through licensing activities, advising the Minister on matters that affect the industry and taking care of the interests, responsibilities and obligations of South Africa regarding its space activities in compliance with Conventions, Treaties and Agreements. I also chair this committee, which is made up of representatives from government and industry experts.
  • South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) formerly known as SKA South Africa – at SARAO I head the commercialisation division where my role is to drive the commercialisation of technologies developed in radio astronomy and geodesy into different applications areas for the benefit of South Africa. I am also responsible for economic development of the Karoo towns closest to the SKA site in Losberg.

Can you share a little bit about your background?

My career spans both private and public sector roles as well as a working knowledge of various technology sectors. My passion is in innovation and space and I am fortunate to have a role where I can combine both. Prior to joining SARAO, I was an executive at the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) responsible for Innovation Funding and Pre-commercialisation Support. My other previous roles include as the CEO of the Mine Health and Safety Council and a Chief Director for space science and technology at the department of Science and Technology where I spearheaded the establishment of the South African National Space Agency. Before joining public sector, I worked for Anglo American and DeBeers consolidated mines.

My educational qualifications include an Executive Masters in Business Administration (IMD, Switzerland), Masters in Space Systems Engineering (TU Delft, Netherlands), Bachelor of Science(Hons.) in Management of Technology (University of Pretoria), Bachelor of Science (Eng.) in Mineral Processing (University of Witwatersrand).

Can you share more insight on the commercialization of Square Kilometer Array (SKA); what sort of projected revenue is expected and where will these come from?

I would be wary of giving projected revenue at this early stage of our commercialisation journey given that commercialisation of new technologies is complex, often takes long and relies on the existence of a supportive ecosystem. During the construction of the MeerKAT telescope, we developed technology solutions related to dealing with large amounts of data such as low cost storage and compute solutions that can be used in other industry sector. What we are doing now is exploring lead projects/customers in those sectors.

Talking about space regulations; can you share your thoughts on the recently adopted African Space Policy?

I think it is exciting that Africa has a space policy as it sets a vision for the continent to drive a cohesive strategy. The policy goals are appropriate for developing economies as they include using space to derive socio-economic benefits and the development of the necessary indigenous infrastructure to service the African market. The policy already set in motion the development of the strategy. The other major developments include a recent AU decision to establish an African Space Agency, hosted by Egypt and the establishment of the Pan African University Institute of Space Science, hosted by South Africa. All these steps combined will ensure Africa advances faster in developing space capabilities beyond being just a consumer of space products but also a contributor.

What sort of growth do you project or see in the African Space Industry in the next 5 years?

I don’t even know how to answer this question since we do not even have reliable figures on how big the African Space industry is at this present moment. Globally, the industry was valued at $360 billion in 2018 and projected to grow at an annual average of 5.6 percent and reach $558 billion by 2026. Growth of the industry in Africa will depend on investment, mainly by governments but also private funds and where this invested is spent. Consideration for spending should include:

  • Development of broadly-applicable technologies that can service multiple customers;
  • Targeted but competitive selection of research and development by academia and industry, driven by technical merit.
  • Focus on creation of a pipeline of innovators trained to serve future African needs.

Technology advances that have resulted in for example, reusable launchers and small satellite constellations have reduced barriers to entry for new entrants and hence will also fuel growth.

Your thoughts on the implementation of the African Space Agency

My view is that this will boil down to how well the partners in the African ecosystem collaborate. That should be the first priority for the Agency, to establish strong mechanisms for collaboration. With varying levels of technology readiness of the African public and private stakeholders, differences in investment levels and uncertain political commitment, the agency will need to be excellent at stakeholder engagement to achieve the goals of the African Space Policy. I am therefore, optimistic that with the right leadership, good progress can be made.

Have you ever faced an undue challenge while climbing up the career ladder because of your gender?

Sure, but fortunately, I started my career in the mining industry that is as hostile an environment as you get for a female, black professional. Up until the 1990s, South African legislation did not even allow women to work underground. While there were challenges, there were plenty of mentors who also paved the way and gave me the confidence to stand up for myself. My very first ‘management’ role was enabled by another female professional, Dr. Hanna Horsch, who appointed me to head up the electron microprobe at the Anglo American Research Laboratory very early in my career and I have not looked back. While a lot has improved, there are still not enough role models to inspire female professionals working in the science and technology sector.

Do you notice a lack of women in space and astronomy industry in Africa? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

Yes, the representation of women is still not where it should be compared to the demographics. Do you know that in the 1950s, before any American had been to space, women were considered good potential candidates for spaceflight? Randolph Lovelace, tested female pilots at his clinic in New Mexico in 1960, subjecting them to the same tests the male candidates faced  and found that 13 of 19 women passed the tests, compared to 18 of 32 men. Nonetheless, the honest answer to why is that it is complicated.  My believe is that it has a lot to do with limits and expectations that society has on females. It is changing, just not fast enough .

What advice would you give to policy-makers and industry stakeholders to improve women participation in space and STEM career in Africa?

My only advice is to create targeted programs that support every aspect of the development of a career. From targeted scholarships, mentorship programs, early career support, popularizing to flexibility and support for career reentry when they take time off the raise families. Without all this, it is unlikely for this picture to change significantly.



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