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South African National Space Agency zooms in on African development

(24 May 2017 by Sarah Wild) Agreement will see the South African National Space Agency provide Earth observation products and services to Nepad.

SA’s space agency has its eyes on Africa and a new memorandum of understanding with the AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) paves the way for it to expand its footprint. But it takes more than data to create evidence-based policy.

The agreement, signed in April, will see the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) provide Earth observation products and services to Nepad.

Africa is the second-largest continent and its size and paucity of infrastructure makes it difficult efficiently and cost-effectively to detect changes in natural resources and land usage. Governments, business and landowners can use satellites to identify these changes and to compile data that they can use to guide their decision-making and policies.

“It’s increasingly apparent that quality and legitimate data and information is one of the most valuable resources in Africa’s development agenda,” says Martin Bwalya, a senior adviser at Nepad.

“Space science and Earth observation capacities are critical in generating information that directly affects development initiatives.”

Sansa — which has been in existence for seven years and has no satellite of its own — buys all of its satellite imagery through agreements with other countries. The memorandum of understanding “enables Sansa to provide Earth observation products and services that support the implementation of key programmes, such as sustainable agriculture and food security, integrated water resources management, as well as urban planning and infrastructure monitoring”, says Paida Mangara, acting MD of Sansa’s Earth observations unit.

Satellites have certain payloads — sensors or cameras — that allow them to view different things on Earth’s surface. Some cameras have a higher resolution and can see fine-grained details, while some sensors can see outside the visible spectrum and report back on water quality or plant health, for example.

A few products have already been agreed upon in the Sansa-Nepad memorandum of understanding.

Mangara says that Sansa will derive maps that “show the location of water bodies such as dams and rivers at a national scale. [This] is important for identifying seasonal and permanent water resources, as well as indicating whether the water levels in dams and rivers are increasing or decreasing.”

They are also able to monitor the growth of human settlements from space, displaying built up areas and city growth on a national scale.

Sansa will also offer a service to monitor the health of countries’ crops.

“These are satellite-derived parameters that assist with crop condition assessment, crop monitoring and crop damage assessment,” Mangara says. “These are key in the assessment of food security and sustainable agriculture on the continent.”

Mangara says that the costs for the products and services will be determined on “a project-by-project basis, depending on the requirements of each country”. The implementation plan will involve pilot studies to determine the costs of projects.

SA has been using satellite data for a number of years. Most national government departments have a unit using the data for planning — such as indigenous forestry protection at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and human settlement spread at Statistics SA.

SA’s satellite, EO-Sat-1, has been in the pipeline for several years and officials hope that it will be launched in 2020.

While it is important for African countries to have data about what is happening on a national and regional level, it is of little use unless there are people available to decipher and use it as the basis of policy.

The AU — as part of its Science and Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 — established the African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI).

“The AOSTI in Malabo [in Equatorial Guinea] serves as a continental repository of science, technology and innovation statistics and a source of policy analysis in support of evidence-based policy making, thus tackling the gap in the research policy nexus,” says Hambani Masheleni, the senior policy officer for human resources, science and technology at the AU Commission.

However, repeated attempts to contact the observatory were fruitless and their website was last updated in 2014.

But Nepad’s Bwalya maintains that the continent needs more evidence-based decision-making. In terms of Earth observation, it is “in the interest of bringing genuine, legitimate and top-quality information and data into member states development planning and implementation.

“For instance, information on climate change and related extreme weather is valuable in informing development policies and investment initiatives including the allocation, use and management of Africa’s natural assets, especially land, water and forests.”

This is one of a number of collaborative projects, says Mangara. Sansa is a partner in Tiger-Net, an initiative of the European Space Agency that monitors African water resources; as well as the Monitoring for Environment and Security in Africa project, another Europe-backed initiative.

Sansa CEO Val Munsami said earlier in 2017 that he planned to position the agency to expand into Africa.

“If you look at the space policy space, there’s a transformation happening in terms of how much the governments are actually spending on science and technology.

“A few years ago, some African governments weren’t spending anything. Africa should be playing in this space.

“We don’t want foreign entities coming in and determining how things should be done. Africa needs to do this on its own,” said Munsami, who also chairs the AU’s committee responsible for developing space plans for Africa.