Prof Melvin Hoare is Driving Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy

Prof Melvin Hoare with the first cohort of people he trained in Ghana in 2015. Most of that cohort are now studying for PhD in the UK or Africa.

In 2014, a human capital development project was initiated through a joint UK-South Africa Newton Fund to help drive economic development in Africa. Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project aims to develop high tech skills using radio astronomy in some African countries and also provide a pool of talented young people who have been inspired by astronomy to play a leading role in the emergence of new economies.

Space in Africa had a chat with Prof. Melvin Hoare of the University of Leeds. He is leading the DARA project and related projects that provide training and entrepreneurial skills to the first generation of radio astronomers in Africa. With a research interest focusing on the formation of massive stars, Prof Hoare is on the Science Working Group for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project and chair the Consortium of Universities for Goonhilly Astronomy (CUGA) project.

The hosting of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in South Africa played a crucial role in Professor Hoare’s decision to set up DARA. A precursor project, the African VLBI Network, includes the deployment of a network of radio telescopes across the eight countries (SKA AVN partners of South Africa are: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.). The first of these radio telescopes, upcycled from a defunct 32-m telecoms dish, was inaugurated in Ghana.

In 2018, the DARA project won the Better Satellite World Award alongside Goonhilly Earth Station, its commercial partner. The SSPI’s Better Satellite World Awards programme celebrates innovation in space and satellite sector by honouring established companies as well as disruptors globally, and particularly in the UK and Europe, for their role on helping make our world a more prosperous, healthier, better-educated, more sustainable and inclusive home for all humankind.

What initiated the DARA project?

I was following the whole SKA project, and from a scientific point of view, I was interested in the array of dishes proposed to be built in Africa. Then we started looking for collaborations in Africa from that perspective. A couple of us visited Africa to make the collaboration, and we saw the whole idea behind the radio dishes network project which got South Africa and Ghana talking. Around that period, I got an email regarding a UK-Ghana collaboration grant and thinking about what Ghana and South Africa were doing; we set out to fill the gap in training people to operate and use telescope dishes across Africa. South Africa was already training some people from the partner countries, but not enough for sustainable radio astronomy groups.

It was an opportunity to combine my deep interest in Africa with my day job at the University. Ever since then, it has been an exciting journey. After checking the guidelines with the UK Royal Society, we applied for the grant, got it and started implementation with Ghana. After this period, the British government launched the Newton Fund for developmental projects and programs which you can use for scientific collaborations as far as it is addressing a development problem. We then started trying to figure out how training radio astronomers will help the economy. We were already involved in a project turning a dish into a telescope in the UK, and we have seen companies do this around here, which was like the Ghana situation.

We linked the whole project with commercial space sector and brought in one of the companies named Goonhily Earth Station Ltd. We then teach people in radio astronomy and train them to translate the knowledge into other industries such as SatCom, Remote Sensing and Big Data industry.

Please give us an overview of your activities and success stories

We started with Ghana, then expand to 4 countries, and now we operate in eight countries in Africa. DARA currently runs a basic training programme in radio astronomy in Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia and Ghana. Today we have trained up to 260 people across the continent; however, things are currently on hold due to the ongoing pandemic.

At the top level, it’s a joint UK/South Africa project because South Africa provided resources to match the UK’s Newton funding. In each country, we take ten students per year, people who have already graduated bachelors; and then we give them an introduction to radio astronomy course. The basic training is eight weeks, spread over a year, including four weeks at the telescope site for hands-on experience. We also give computer programming skills in Python. In the final weeks, we go out and apply these to teach how to perform data reduction for radio astronomy using Linux, Python and other software. We also fund masters and PhD in the UK. We have about 20-30 now.

Group photo from the latest DARA Annual Network Meeting in 2019 where all 60 current trainees gathered to hear about potential next destinations in research, space industry, business start-ups, development or outreach.

What do you consider as the most significant contributions of DARA project to Astronomy development in Africa?

Capacity development is vital, and we have made a significant impact on this. Some of the PhD students are rounding up now, and they are returning to their respective countries. We hope people come out of the program and work at regions where these telescopes are being developed. Hopefully, the Universities across Africa will also be hiring these people so they can start implementing academic astronomy programs across the countries. The goal is for them to be self-sustainable, so they operate the facilities in Africa, create related business and create jobs.

We are also committed to addressing developmental challenges in these countries with knowledge of Astronomy and associated skills. For example, we had one of the training in Zambia, and one of the participants with a background in environmental engineering realized he could use data from satellites to improve his company’s business operations. He literally got the job because he was trained on the DARA project, which impressed the selection panel. We have another person in Zambia trying to improve GPS connectivity in the country.

We have also hired a part-time business consultant who advises DARA trainees who have gone through the training to develop their business plans and all.

Are you incubating startups from this program?

We are not incubating, but advising, we have worked with Office for Astronomy Development (OAD) in the past to provide some funding like £5,000 to execute projects. In Kenya, for example, a project implementing Astro-tourism got the grant.

Why the eight countries and not entire Africa?

The countries were pre-selected due to the SKA partnership. Ghana is the only place with a dish; other countries are still waiting. The initial plan was to convert some of the dishes in other countries.

What role do you think Astronomy plays in the development of the African region?

It is one of those topics that get young people excited. Astronomy is a perfect tool to get young people interested in science, and you can use it as a hook to get people into STEM.

Most people who study Astronomy and Physics in Africa end up jobless and some transition into other fields because of limited opportunities in the area. How do you think this can be addressed?

It surprised me when I first went to Africa, and I’ve also heard this from professors in Africa. It is similar in Europe but maybe a little different. For example, we graduate 40 students in a year in my program in the UK, and most don’t end up in the field. Even in Europe, they all go up into various things, some start their business, some transition into other industries and all. There is a lot of talk about Africa skipping into the 4th industrial revolution, going into the world of big data and all and I think Astronomy can play a useful role in this primarily because the knowledge can be used in other industries.

What are the future plans for DARA project in Africa?

We are coming to the end of the funding, but due to the ongoing pandemic, we expect it to be extended by a year till 2022. We need to find more funding if we want to continue, and we are still waiting for the UK government to set out their future spending plans. So far, we have had basic training and gotten people into masters and PhD programs. In the future, we want to fund Post-doctoral fellowships.

We also want to work more with African universities, support in supervising master’s and PhD projects, help develop curriculum and do other research with them. Due to the SKA project, Africa is where radio astronomy will be in the future. We believe SKA should not be some giant project dropped on Africa and used by wealthy nations across the world. We want to ensure Africa has the needed talents for the project, create a bunch of jobs and high-tech industries.

To learn more about DARA project and to explore potential collaboration, visit the DARA website.


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