“The Space sector is Developing and this Means We can Contribute to its Development” – Patrick Kalonde

The Africa-Based team, winners of 2021's Copernicus Masters University Challenge

The Copernicus Masters is a global innovation competition concerning Earth observation (EO) data utilisation. It awards innovators that foster new solutions and concepts that demonstrate the European Copernicus services’ benefits to everyday life. An extension of the award is the Copernicus Masters University Challenge. The challenge seeks students and research associates to compete for the chance to transform their stellar ideas into successful commercial ventures.

For the first time in the challenge’s history, an Africa-based team won the 2021 edition of the challenge. The team comprised Patrick Kalonde, Regeza Kamunga, Alick Chisale Austin, Treaser Mandevu, Fred Sajiwa, Tadala Makuluni, Dr Suresh Muthukrishnan, under the St Cloud State University & Nyasa Aerial Data Solutions umbrella. Their entry was “Carbon Monitoring Using Earth Observation Satellites”.

Space in Africa met with Patrick Kalonde to discuss the team’s winning journey.

Can you explain a bit more about your professional background?

My name is Patrick Ken Kalonde. I attended my undergraduate studies at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR). After my undergraduate studies, I had an opportunity to get introduced to drone technology. At that time, a humanitarian drone corridor was established in the Kasungu district by the government of Malawi and the United Nations Children’s Fund. As a result, I was selected to participate in training for drone building from Virginia Tech (a US university). Since then, I have worked on several projects that utilised drone and satellite data. In 2020, I got a Fulbright study grant and relocated to Minnesota (US) to pursue a Master of Science in Geography (Geographical Information Science). I also serve as a National Point of Contact for Malawi in the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). I am also a co-founder of Nyasa Aerial Data Solutions Ltd, a multi-award winning Malawi startup company.

Your team recently won the Copernicus masters contest; how do you feel about it?

Wining the University Challenge of the Copernicus Masters program is a significant milestone. Especially when Dr Thomas Beers (the expert who was presenting the results for the university challenge) indicated that it was the first time in the history of the competition for a team based in Africa to participate and win in the competition, I realised that the success was beyond individuals in my team. I realised that we had set an example that would inspire other teams of young people across the African continent to develop products based on space technologies and data science to develop ideas and business services that compete internationally.

How was the team’s preparations for the contest?

The preparations took a lot of effort from my team. My role was to coordinate the efforts and contributions of my peers, and we truly worked as a team. We made a submission for the University Challenge and also a regional challenge in Baden-Württemberg. Both challenges required us to participate in an oral interview and prepare a video pitch for our ideas. The jury in the interviews had experts who asked numerous technical questions. The pitch had different time requirements. Thanks to our mentors, they provided us with a lot of feedback. Friends also helped; they gave us time to practice delivering the pitch and receiving peer feedback. This enabled us to polish our videos.

Did the team face any challenges while preparing for the contest?

The team did not face any significant challenges when preparing for the contest.

How does the team intend to leverage the opportunity the award gives you for yourself and Africa?

We would like to use the Copernicus Award to access data from Copernicus contributing missions to finalise the development of our Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Furthermore, winning the award has positioned us in the network of actors in the space sector. For example, in 2020, we received an invitation to participate in Space pitch Night in Germany. We did not participate in the event, but we know that such opportunities are key to helping us establish strategic business partnerships or tap investment opportunities.

What advice do you have for other African youths in the space industry?

Our continent is unique. We are presented with unique opportunities. In most countries (in Africa), the space sector is developing. This means that we have opportunities to contribute to its development. Let’s take the small steps to organise ourselves into teams and start leveraging openly available satellite datasets to develop business services that can accelerate the utilisation of satellite observations for the advancement of sustainable development across the continent.


About the team’s solution

The team’s solution utilises Sentinel-2 data to monitor, measure, and verify carbon storage in forests at a low cost. It quantifies above-ground biomass and estimates carbon sequestration based on drone and in-situ field measurements. This makes it possible to verify and calibrate the carbon storage of forests while enhancing related satellited-based estimates. Furthermore, partnerships are being developed with local communities and non-profit organisations across Malawi to incorporate them into tree maintenance and field data collection processes. Online GIS platforms are also being provided for field data collection and the communication of the results.

The revenue from carbon storage verification for clients will then compensate local community members. Meanwhile, the team behind this solution is developing training programmes for local community members to provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary for this project. This will allow local communities in Africa to participate in the global carbon trade while promoting transparency in carbon monitoring, helping address climate change by expanding reforestation, and promoting sustainable development.

According to Dr Thomas Beer, Space Consultant, former ESA EO staff, “the idea of using Copernicus sensors to assess and verify the presence of carbon dioxide in forested areas in Malawi has convinced us with these three winning elements: it makes it possible to precisely quantify the vast CO2 reservoir stocked in forest canopies, it will permit public and private forest owners on the African continent to finally access the global carbon markets, and it contributes towards mitigating climate change.”