Women participation in economy and technology is a prerequisite to the actualisation of the Sustainable Development Goals( SDGs) as women form a large percentage of the populace and contribute significantly to every sector. In the space industry, some women have taken the bull by the horn by making giant strides while advocating for diversity in the sector. Takalani Leago is one of such women.
Before setting up her own space engineering company, Leago headed different segments of the industry, namely aerospace, satellite communication and telecommunication. As head of the Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company of South Africa’s Technology, Research and Development division, Senior Manager of Technology (R&D), Takalani made significant strides in positioning ATNS as a global thought leader and a front-liner in air navigation innovation.
With an experience that spans for many years arising from her involvement and works with various cutting-edge technologies in several African countries, Takalani is actively involved creating awareness in the space industry and the numerous career opportunities it holds for women, and this has increased with her venturing into the private sector.
Takalani is currently the founder and CEO, Luvhone Engineering and Consulting Partners, a South Africa-based technology engineering company that specialises in providing core engineering and ICT business solutions with a focus on satellite communications, aerospace and telecommunications sectors.
Space in Africa had a chat with her at the recently concluded International Astronautical Congress in Washington, on several issues bordering on her startup, gender challenges and the industry in general.
Could you give a background to your work in the industry and when you started the company?
Before the company started, I worked in three industries. My career started in Telecom- GSM Telecom- and from there I went into aerospace where I worked predominantly in air traffic management. I also worked in satellite broadcasting. In 2015, I took a leap of faith to start a space engineering company focused on the three areas I predominantly headed, so Aerospace, Satcom and Telecom. So fast forward, the journey has been four years; we are on our fourth year in this business and it’s been a good journey so far. On our areas of different business like telecom, we focus on measurement, R.F- predominantly R.F related work- measuring radiation. So we invested in equipment and then on also aerospace, we do ground segment -ground system integration and space engineering.
Are you developing hardware and software? Or you’re offering management?
We do system engineering and system integration which is putting all the pieces together, for example, for a ground system to function and tell exactly where there’s a satellite in space, that’s what we do. Sometimes, we also assemble antennas on site. We buy materials and components, assemble integration of systems, so all the pieces are put together.
Did you start this alone or there are other co-founders?
I am the founder.
What is your academic background?
I studied Electronic Engineering with a Masters in Technology Management and executive programmes in international executive development. So, I have all side: the technology side, management and executive leadership, which is what you need if you want to start a business you want to build to be successful.
What stage of business are you in?
We are the commercial stage because we went to the capital market and in the capital market, you have to put up a case that demonstrates what you have done before.
Just to create a picture of your growth timeline, how would you describe your growth stages?
So, in the first two years, we focused on building the foundation. Building the foundation means to find partners to work with, local and international partners; co-signing cooperation agreements with our engineering partners. The second date for a major milestone was to get accreditation, regulatory approvals, that ensured we have a license to operate. So that was the work that was done in the first two-three years and finding projects. So after three years, we started new projects. We also raised external investment in the third year. We are now in the fourth year.
Have you raised any investment?
Yes, most of the investment came from my savings because initially when we started we had to operate for a while before investors came on board. We raised investment from the capital market. We had to do a proper application and prove we have a sound business.
Are you going to raise more investment?
So, what would you consider a major milestone that you have achieved?
The first one I would say is the launch of the ZACube-2 nanosatellite by Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). We were contracted to do the ground system work for that satellite which was launched in December last year, so that was a milestone. The second milestone is that we introduced R.F products such as antenna, accessories for antennas, etcetera, which we have launched nationally in South Africa. To this end, this development has seen the company appointed as a preferred supplier of Multichoice. With these milestones, we are looking forward to exporting outside South Africa as well.
Your primary market is in South Africa, have you got any markets outside of South Africa?
It’s predominantly South Africa, but we are looking forward to growing outside South Africa.
Are there specific new markets in your radar for expansion?
We are looking at Sub-Saharan Africa, but we are also looking to cooperating with international players outside the African continent because system engineering services are portable services. You can implement services in any area, so that’s what we are looking at, and I think that what is key is research & development. R&D is key because for you to strive and be sustainable in the space industry, and as you can see from the conference here in Washington, a significant amount of work or the products we see today is as a result of investment in R&D. I think for African space companies, R&D is a real need if we must compete on an international scale. So, we are continuously looking for opportunities to find R&D partners to work with as well.
For the three segments you focus on, which would you describe as a leading segment from what you have seen in the last four years?
Aerospace is the leading segment for us, followed by telecom. However, if you look at it, there’s a convergence of technologies these days across industries and application areas. We find a lot of that convergence in the three segments we focus on: aerospace, telecoms and satcoms. From a long-time perspective, we are studying the market to understand and adapt sustainably.
How many people work at the company?
Currently, we have a mix of 10 part-time and full-time employees, but we hire part-time based on ongoing projects. We run our business based on project-phase type of approach. That makes it more sustainable, especially as we are in a growing stage and running a lean model. This is where we are, and most of the team are professional engineers.
How do overcome the challenges of scarcity of talent in the space sector?
Yes, there is a challenge but how we approach the challenge is that we look for people that have the right attitude and at least, right basic qualification in the engineering fields. This helps to get the employee to the level we want them to get to; but remember aerospace is an advancing industry, you need someone who is willing to learn, someone with the propensity to advance their intellectual ability. To find someone who has all the skillset is difficult because people who are matured and fully-fledged in the industry are in a more stable environment, whereas, the younger generation with the right qualification is more open to learning. And that’s where we need to invest, bring the two together: the experienced and young ones. Even in cases where there are retired personnel, we bring them to work with the young ones.
Where do you see the company in the next five years or a decade? Are there specific projects or facilities you would like to work on or have?
So, in the next five years, I see us anchoring the export market because we would have established a local presence. Hence, we are in this exhibition- at IAC- to present our brand and engage with the global community. So the nature of our business is an international one; it is not isolated. You have to have an international presence and global engagement, especially working with other multinationals. As a startup, we found out that engaging with international actors is key to finding partners so that they can cross-pollinate with your know-how and improve your brand If you want to be known from outside where you are operating.
How would you describe your experience with government support in South Africa? Do you think there are government policies that have enabled your growth or are impediments to scaling?
Our government has really given us great support. I must commend the policies that are in place, especially our Department of Science and Innovation, the space agency and then the private sector, have given us tremendous support. Really, I think we are fortunate. This is the right time for any South African to start a company within the sector because the support is there. Having said this, I think the issue is the willingness to work and chart uncharted territories and be formidable.
Would you describe the government as a paying client? The government does some of the space programmes in South Africa, are there specific projects you have been involved in?
Most of our business has been with the private sector, but I must say that our ministry as a stakeholder, have state-owned entities and those have been our customers- the state-owned entities. So it has really had a good impact on where we are today, together with the private companies that support us.
Do you think you have gender-based challenges as the aerospace industry is said to be a male-dominated sector?
Well, there will always be those challenges peculiar to gender, particularly as you mentioned, the industry is a male-dominated one. My challenge as a woman is to bring onboard more women into the industry, and that’s been a challenge because if you try to look, even at this exhibition, how many women are here? You can count them on one hand. So I think the particular challenge for me is to understand what is limiting our women from progressing in this industry and how one can address those challenges, especially young women, even the young ones in the universities, there are still a small number of those coming, which means as an industry we have to work on awareness, more work on demonstrating that if you are brave and bold, you can make it here.
Have you had cases or instances where you could not break through or was denied access based on your gender?
No, in our country, our policies really promote the advancement of women. I think the challenge is getting skilled diversity in the workforce and access to startup capital for high-tech businesses. Besides, given the scale and the number, the more women we have, the more we can have diversity and ability to help advance inclusion in the industry.
In your current workforce, what is percentage are women?
60 per cent.
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I’m very glad to hear there are Africa engineering firms in the aerospace industry. I’m hoping to one day manufacture rocket engines in Africa.