Space-bound in South Africa: A Down-to-Earth Conversation With Dr. Phil Mjwara

Dr. Mjwara (2nd from right) describing new developments in South Africa to Ellsworth LeDrew, Val Munsami, and Jay Pearlman (left to right).

Dr. Mjwara (2nd from right) describing new developments in South Africa to Ellsworth LeDrew, Val Munsami, and Jay Pearlman (left to right).

This interview was originally conducted in Fall 2009 and posted on Oct. 20, 2009.

Dr. Philemon Mjwara is Director General of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, responsible for developing South Africa’s science and technology policy, managing the country’s government laboratories, and implementing a new 10-year innovation strategy. He is also one of the co-chairs for the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, and a champion of the role of developing nations in building a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) to multiply the accessibility and value of data on everything from natural resources to weather.

Dr Mjwara was already making his mark on the South African R&D scene when he arrived at the Department of Science and Technology in 2006. He taught science policy at the University of Pretoria before becoming a practising innovation manager in 2001 with his appointment as director of a newly created National Laser Centre, where he united three disparate laser research units. Within two years the organization had multiplied its cadre of doctoral students from 10 to 50, and developed a collaborative network that links comparable laser centres across Africa.

In 2005, Dr. Mjwara was elected group executive for research and development at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley reached Dr. Mjwara last month by telephone at his office in Pretoria, just days after the South African-designed-and-built Sumbandila satellite rose into space from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The 81-kg Earth observation satellite – South Africa’s second – was designed and built by Stellenbosch, SA-based microsatellite firm SunSpace & Information Systems. Its primary payload is a multispectral imager – that is, the imager has a resolution of 6.25 m x 6.25 m which is more than four times better than South Africa’s first satellite, SunSat, placed in orbit a decade ago.

Earthzine: Building local capacity for science and technology has been a big part of your educational efforts. What were you thinking at Baikonur as you watched SumbandilaSat – your country’s second satellite – rocket into the sky?

Dr. Mjwara: It was an exciting moment. To actually see the rocket lifting off and to know that it carried a satellite manufactured in South Africa. Of course it’s spectacular when you see the flames, because they do this at night and it lights up the sky. But you’re still nervous, because you never know whether the satellite will be released from the rocket safely. Since the launch, we’ve been able to establish communications with the satellite, to stabilize it, and to ensure that the camera is pointing down and the solar panels are facing the sun. So I think so far so good.

Earthzine: What will Sumbandila do for South Africa?

Dr. Mjwara: I can respond to this at three levels because we have a number of payloads onboard. There’s a communications satellite which will enable school kids and the amateur radio association in South Africa to communicate, say, between villages. That’s just to excite awareness about satellite communications. There are two experiments, one looking at the forces exerted on a vibrating string that will inform design of next-generation satellites, and a second to see whether we can pick up climate change-induced shifts in lightning activity.

Most importantly, of course, is Sumbandila’s camera. That will provide us with pictures with a resolution of approximately 6.2 meters. This is very important for us for a variety of Earth observation products that we need in South Africa, such as crop yield monitoring for farmers, tracking land use changes, or identifying the optimal sites for building, transportation, etc. And we can do hydrological monitoring. You know South Africa is not adequately endowed with water resources, so we need to start mapping water to educate the country on what we need to do in the future. Hopefully, the next time we talk we’ll be able to tell you how far along we are with these applications!

SumbandilaSat in Baikonur during integration.

SumbandilaSat in Baikonur during integration.

Earthzine: At least some of that imagery is available from commercial satellites. Why develop your own?

Dr. Mjwara: There are multipronged reasons why we want to have this capability. First, the government can achieve huge savings by not continuously buying licenses for the use of this imagery. Building this satellite cost about 26 million Rand, maybe 30 million Rand including the launch, which is about US$4 million. A multiuser satellite imagery license from commercial vendors costs around 10 million Rand. So over a period of three years this satellite will be paid off. And then we’re not losing foreign exchange. A related point is that South Africa has a capability for satellite engineering that it inherited from pre-1994 and we wanted to revive and utilize this capacity. We can use that capacity to develop monitoring devices with even higher resolution than 6.25 meters.

The other reason, of course, is that we can direct the satellite to respond to our needs. If you get a disaster in a particular area, say floods that will be developing over 24 hours or 36 hours, and you need monitoring to direct evacuations, you can direct your satellite to focus in on that area each time it passes over.

Earthzine: South Africa is creating a space agency. What is its charter and what will be the benefits to South Africa?

Dr. Mjwara: We already have, for example, a telemetry and tracking center and an assembly capability at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Satellite Application Centre at Hartebeesthoek, north-west of Johannesburg. And we have other private sector partners that are working with space. The space agency will consolidate these activities and begin to implement on three strategic areas we have identified for space: safety and security, the environment and monitoring, and innovation and economic development. We may even play an important role in launch capability.

Earthzine: Let’s now look beyond space, so to speak. Sumbandila means “lead the way” in the Venda language. Where do you see your efforts to improve science research and technology taking South Africa?

Dr. Mjwara: The South African system of innovation, its excellent universities, science councils and private sector players, has focused on basic research. What we’ve not done extremely well is to link research done at the universities with the needs of industry. In the next ten years we hope to bridge that gap. For instance, an initiative with the universities is going to emphasize the management of intellectual property, supported by a new technology innovation agency to help institutions commercialize their research.

Dr. Philemon Mjwara

Dr. Philemon Mjwara

We are also setting up centers of competence to work closely with industry and to identify new high-tech industries we can set up with our research. We would like some of the knowledge that comes from the universities to be useful, to grow sectors of the economy. We are working with the National Department of Agriculture to see what value we can add in agriculture for the next generation, and with the Department of Minerals and Energy to see which of South Africa’s natural resources can be activated to create jobs and get foreign exchange.

There is also a range of social challenges that can be addressed by science and technology innovation. We have programs marrying institutional research to the social problems we face. Broadly, we are preparing the country for future challenges and to become a knowledge-based economy.

Earthzine: Is it a challenge retaining top students and scientists for that knowledge economy?

Dr. Mjwara: Yes, and we’re addressing it with what we call “flagship” projects. To give you a flavor for these projects, consider South Africa’s bid to host the international Square Kilometer Array project, a giant array of radio signal receivers that will seek to understand the origins of the universe. We’re building a prototype telescope for which there is no off-the-shelf hardware and software to handle the large amount of data that will be received. Then there’s the Sumbandila satellite. By having these high flagship projects where the innovation is at the cutting edge, we’re able to excite and retain youngsters and to attract ex-South Africans to come back.

Earthzine: Of course, it only makes sense for countries to collaborate where possible to make the best use of limited resources. Is the international collaboration inherent in GEOSS already having an impact, both on your Earth observation plans and on the ground in terms of policymaking and adaptation to a changing climate?

Dr. Mjwara: Certainly. Under the South African Earth Observation Strategy – our response to the GEOSS process – we’re looking at how to combine in-situ and satellite data to understand the impact of climate changes within the southern African region. That inspired us to develop our Grand Challenge Climate Change, where we examined how we could use our geographic advantages to make measurements that will contribute to the global understanding of climate change. One conclusion was that the juncture of the cold South Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean off South Africa near Cape Agulhas can be an excellent laboratory for studying the interactions of oceans and the atmospheric convection currents that result. Science missions for our next generation of satellites could study those. We are also discussing a possible geostationary satellite over Africa.

Earthzine: Such specialization works if there is open sharing of data. You have called technology transfer among nations one of two major cross-cutting issues facing international negotiators in the run up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change scheduled for December. What about international promises to share Earth observation data? Is that rhetoric or reality today?

Dr. Mjwara: We really have seen a number of countries making data available to developing countries and to Africa in particular. The partnership between China and Brazil is making data from their China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite available to Africa. We have upgraded a ground station in South Africa to download that data. We have Landsat data from the US Geological Survey made available free of charge for our scientific work on climate change, including historic data for tracking changes that have already taken place. And Japan and other partners are providing digital elevation data to track changes in elevation as a result of climate change. This is all part of creating GEOSS. This is becoming a reality. GEO is also developing a data-sharing policy which would establish an agreed set of criteria for making data available.

Earthzine: How successful has GEO been to date in mobilizing resources for developing nations broadly, and what is the toughest nut to crack to really make that a reality?

Dr. Mjwara: To be honest with you, the developed nations have made some significant contributions. For instance there is a program for tracking meningitis outbreaks, which spread during dry conditions, and many, many others. And with each there are dedicated attempts to ensure that knowledge for the technology employed is transferred to specific people in developing countries. Under GEOSS, experts are giving capacity-building workshops, and some money is provided for local people to really get their hands dirty. So maybe the funds are not as many or as much as we would like them to be, but at least there have been real attempts to establish relationships between developed and developing countries.

Earthzine: Can you describe your department’s effort to translate Earth observation and climate projections into a language of risk that will assist decision-makers?

SumbandilaSat during Thermal Vacuum Testing at ISSA facility at Houwteq

SumbandilaSat during Thermal Vacuum Testing at ISSA facility at Houwteq

Dr. Mjwara: This is a legacy initiative. What we discovered was that local governments have absolutely no useful information for responding to disasters. The Risk and Vulnerability Atlas will be a single point of entry for all information and advisories to policy makers, providing access to information on the impacts of climate change in their region. Our vision is that scientists will look at areas that are going to be vulnerable to changes in climate and then would use hard copy publications and the electronic atlas to illustrate the most vulnerable areas. People at the local level could then identify potential risks and take the necessary steps to deal with that. An agricultural area that’s going to be hit with drought because of climate change, for example, could respond by favoring certain crops or by protecting land that will become more attractive for agriculture.

Earthzine: Are you saying that there will be a web portal allowing someone in a local planning office to input their postal code and get a read out that shows them the most serious threats for their area?

Dr. Mjwara: Absolutely. But there would also be people behind the web portal updating the information and making sure it’s accessible.

Earthzine: What is your perspective on where we stand in trying to slow or stop human induced climate change? UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last week that “the world’s glaciers are now melting faster than human progress to protect them.” How concerned are you as to whether something will come out of Copenhagen? What action would you like to see from the US or Europe?

Dr. Mjwara: Look, I am not hopeful that we will have major breakthroughs in terms of the major developed nations pronouncing on the binding targets required to reduce the 2 C rise in global temperature that we foresee. I do think China will probably have some targets. But I also see a very strong voice from developing nations demanding action from developed nations, and giving developing countries the space they need to grow.

Earthzine: Must climate change more drastically to convince some in developed nations – I’m thinking of the US Congress here – that serious measures are in order?

Dr. Mjwara: It’s not that people don’t see the need. It’s the reality of what it means for the current economies. And, to be frank, to also buy enough time to develop the technologies that are going to be needed to shift away from the major contributors of greenhouse gasses. To reduce the carbon footprint from cars, you need to allow time and space to develop alternatives such as electric batteries and hybrids and hydrogen cars. That’s not going to happen overnight. Imagine the investment that has gone to cars with internal combustion engines.

I think that’s the driver of the positions taken by developed nations. The effects of climate change are being felt now. The question is when do you start reducing emissions and what is a realistic time? There’s a pragmatism here that people don’t normally talk about.

Earthzine: Can you imagine developing nations—led by an entrepreneurial China—emerging as the leader of this pragmatic renewal process?

Dr. Mjwara: Yes, I think so. The developing nations have an opportunity in the development of technology because they don’t have the sunken infrastructure investments that they have to worry about recouping. We certainly have sunlight in South Africa, which presents us with an opportunity to invest huge money in research for the next generation of thin-film photovoltaics for solar panels. Without huge investments in the internal combustion engine we have an opportunity, perhaps, to develop electric vehicles or fuel cells. I do think that the Chinese may find themselves in that mode of thinking where they say ‘we could have self-imposed targets because we probably don’t have to follow the same route that the developed countries took.’

Earthzine: That’s a hopeful note to end on. Thank you very much for taking this time out of your afternoon to talk to Earthzine.

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