In 2022, Zimbabwe will join Africa’s growing list of nations to have put a satellite in orbit. Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, disclosed that the locally assembled nanosatellite – ZIMSAT-1 – has reached an advanced development stage. The President disclosed this at the launching of a new complex for the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA). In addition, flight readiness and review will occur in December 2021, and its launch in Japan in February 2022.
The following interview between Sifelani Tsiko (ST), Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor and Dr Electdom Matandirotya (EM), acting chief scientist of (ZINGSA), provides more insight into Zimbabwe’s Space Agency.
ST: In 2018, President Mnangagwa launched ZINGSA to advance the country’s interests in geospatial science, earth observation and satellite communication systems. How do you feel about the opening of the complex housing ZINGSA? What does this demonstrate?
EM: To me, it’s a dream come true. I have always hoped that Zimbabwe would fully explore geospatial and space technologies to solve socio-economic issues in our nation. When dreams come true, then one is happy. The opening of the complex is just a demonstration of another adoption of the Education 5.0 philosophy and, in this regard, innovation through space exploration. At least, now the nation is aware that there is innovation and industrialisation through exploration of the geospatial and space technologies for the betterment of people’s livelihoods here in Zimbabwe directly or indirectly.
ST: What is the primary purpose of the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency?
EM: The Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency was launched by the President in 2018. This was a strategic move as the government recognised the need to tackle socio-economic problems using geospatial and space technologies. It’s essential to note that the innovative research activities happening at the agency have and will cover a lot of research gaps that existed before this initiative. All this will be in line with vision 2030 — “Towards a Prosperous & Empowered Upper Middle Income Society by 2030.” Therefore, the agency’s launch demonstrates that Zimbabwe is ready to create and sustain a vibrant national geospatial and space science and technology programme. This programme will respond significantly to the changing needs of humanity. The nation will also increase its global space market share and global competitiveness and create a more significant self-dependence in the space arena and be among the leading innovators.
ST: Which are the main areas of focus for the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency?
EM: ZINGSA has four technical departments and one administrative department. The technical departments are Geospatial Sciences and Earth Observation, Space Science, Space Engineering and Space Operations and Launch Services. These departments have several mandates. For example, the Geospatial Sciences and Earth Observation will conduct specialised research and development on projects and activities on geospatial applications and earth observation, including mining and mineral exploration, disaster management, weather, climate, geospatial intelligence, agriculture and ecosystems.
The programme is responsible for developing and promoting Earth observations products for socio-economic development and improved livelihoods in Zimbabwe. The programme will also develop and maintain a long-term archive of satellite data for national benefits essential for change detection to better understand our heritage and environmental change in time and space. Construction of core facilities will be done. Apart from this, we have the Space Engineering department responsible for engineering advice and assistance to the ZINGSA programmes and projects, innovations for space from concept to applications, educating scientists and engineers, and inspiring space research to better understand the Earth, our solar system and beyond.
We envisage manufacturing earth observation satellites, communication satellites, navigation equipment, mechanical ground support equipment, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The Space Science Department will focus on applied space physics research such as Space Science, Astrophysics, Space Weather and Planetary Science. It will facilitate research activities and the hosting and management of several data acquisition units to provide high quality and relevant space science data. The Space Operations and Launch Services department will prepare and implement earth observation missions, satellite command and control, and other communication centres.
ST: How do you intend to access, use, and harness space technology and innovation for the country’s benefit?
EM: The starting point is creating a platform where ZINGSA engages with its stakeholders. These engagements create a platform where proper methodologies are formulated to ensure cost-effective and useful the end product. Different sectors will require different inputs from ZINGSA, and an appropriate geospatial technique will be applied. Some methodologies will require setting up a network of instruments for various parameters, both ground-based and space-based. And while doing so, laboratories for developing such instrumentation technologies will be set up. The whole process yields outputs such as improved laboratories, job creation, capacity building.
ST: How much has been invested so far in establishing the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency?
EM: I cannot say much on this, but the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science Innovation and Development is better positioned to answer this question.
ST: Zimbabwe and most other African countries are still lagging when it comes to space activities. What are the main reasons for this?
EM: There may be more than one reason for that. I may think of the fact, the initial cost for space exploration is very high. So probably most African countries would divert the resources that they had to immediate problems. However, Africa has also realised that space exploration has many benefits in the long run and investing in such an initiative is worth it. This eliminates the situation whereby Africa depends entirely on foreign-based space programmes for some of its problems.
ST: The Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency is housed at the University of Zimbabwe. Can you tell us how the UZ and ZINGSA are moving to promote space higher education to ensure Zimbabwe has the requisite skills to play an active role in the field of space science?
EM: The University of Zimbabwe is currently playing a significant role in anchoring the activities at the agency. Already the institution has qualified space scientists, space engineers, GIS and earth observation experts. These experts partner with the agency for various projects.
During the re-programming season that happened in 2019-2020, UZ introduced the Department of Space Science and Applied Physics. Two of the undergraduate programmes within this department, namely, the BSc Honours in Space Science and Technology (HSST) and BSc Honours in Meteorology and Climate Sciences (HMCS), are strategically designed to give adequate undergraduate skills in the field of atmospheric physics, ionospheric, space weather analysis, astrophysics, satellite communication and so on. The university also offers a BSc in GIS and Earth Observation, one of the fundamental foundations in remote sensing and earth observation technologies. From its engineering faculties, there are undergraduate programmes such as BSc Honours in Mechatronics. BSc Honours in Electronics and Electrical Engineering, BSc in Electronics and Telecommunication, Bsc Honours in Computer Science also contribute significantly to the capacity building of graduates who can make a significant impact at the Geospatial and Space Agency.
ST: As of June 2020, 11 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan) had successfully launched 41 satellites into orbit. When do you expect Zimbabwe to launch its satellite into orbit?
EM: Plans for launching our Zimbabwean satellites will be guided by the strategic plan, and once ready, I am sure the nation will know.
ST: What steps are you taking to promote gender parity in enrollment and the agency to ensure more women get involved?
EM: The space agency has four female junior scientists in the technical departments, two in the Space Engineering Department, one in the Space Science department and one as a communication engineer. I am here too to provide mentorship to the junior scientist, thus taking the number of females in the technical departments to 5. Of course, more work needs to be done to encourage young women to join the space industry. We hope that the International Space Week Celebrations themed ‘Celebrating Women In Space’ will have activities that inspire more young women to passion about the space industry.
ST: The development of Zimbabwe’s space agency requires a considerable capital outlay. How are you mobilising resources for the agency?
EM: At the moment, ZINGSA is government-funded
ST: Many say the development of the space agency only offers elitist benefits. Are there any massive economic benefits at local levels? Give a few examples.
EM: There are a lot of economic benefits from harnessing space technologies. The projects that ZINGSA has so far completed are a typical demonstration of how the nation can improve its planning based on accurate and recent data. Here, I am referring to projects such as the revision of the Zimbabwe Agro-Ecological Zones, which give a proper insight into the relevant agricultural activities that each zone can support. We also refer to the Zimbabwe Wetlands Master Plan. The project has sufficiently mapped the nation wetlands, and every stakeholder can access the data and apply it wherever appropriate.
ST: As Zimbabwe and most other African countries join the race to harness the space industry, how do you see the industry moving in the coming future? Do you think Africa will move significantly to bridge the digital and technological divide on the continent?
EM: Africa, through different service providers, has accomplished some notable milestones to cover that gap. And if anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has also left Africa at that point where there is no room for relaxing. And I hope that the space programme will contribute significantly to cover that gap.