Taking earth observation to the continent

September 7th, 2018, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Andiswa Mlisa took the helm of the South African National Space Agency’s (SANSA) Earth Observation directorate as managing director in October 2017. Having listened to industry, she’s now ready to realise her and the agency’s grand ambitions.

Andiswa Mlisa

Andiswa Mlisa

Since taking office, Mlisa spent her first ten months in consultation with the agency’s clients, which along with her own expectations are now informing the directorate’s turn-around strategy. Having previously worked in the private sector and for international earth observation organisations such as AfriGEOSS, she says “you expect national entities will do certain activities, and then you don’t get that. And so, I’ve been wondering, what holds one back?”

The answer turns out to be funding and purpose, and Mlisa is determined to overcome both to help grow SANSA beyond South Africa.

Satellite-based earth observation has gained global popularity in recent years as a tool for economic growth and social development. But the industry is undergoing major changes such as new sensor types (e.g. cubesats), privatisation, free and open access satellite data (e.g. Landsat; Sentinels) and technologies such as cloud storage and processing – all of which bear on the traditional role of space agencies.

To ensure its relevance in coming years, SANSA (and its earth observation directorate in particular) is working on a turnaround strategy. “One of the major things that we are debating right now is going back to our legislative mandate,” says Mlisa. The reason behind this is funding. “We’re told every day that government does not have money. So now we’re talking about sector development as one of the key things for our new strategy.”

In March this year SANSA hosted the Space for National Development Week to consult industry about their needs as users. “The community has a clear expectation, and they are able to articulate the enabler and the facilitator that they want SANSA to be for the provision and coordination of satellite imagery that they want. Our task now is to say, how do we meet that requirement?”

From this consultation SANSA determined the need for high resolution (spatial, temporal and spectral) imagery. The agency is considering a multi-sensor multi-user licensing approach, but without a sustainable funding model the contracts with potential vendors have not yet been finalised. In the meantime, the directorate is developing a report on the past 12 years of the SPOT multi-user license, while the Department of Science and Technology has commissioned a report from the CSIR on the economic value of space, including of the value derived from national satellite imagery such as the SPOT Mosaic.

Mlisa hopes that the findings of these reports (scheduled to be published this year) will not only further clarify user requirements, but that it can help secure funding for high-res national imagery according to the new approach.

“We’re looking at increasing tasking capabilities for government, because then we’re supporting decision-making. The space agency’s interest is to make sure that South Africa comes first.” In this lies the trade-off between building national satellites and meeting immediate user requirements through contracts for imagery from international vendors with sensors portfolios that allow a multi-sensor approach.

Considering the major funding challenge of a national satellite programme, imagery acquisition is the more likely option. Whether through a national satellite programme or by developing earth observation services and products, SANSA plans to expand into Africa using its knowledge of a developing country: “When we develop the system in South Africa, we’re looking at developing systems that are fit for a developing country, which puts us into a neat position to take that product into the African continent. This is where SANSA wants to go.”

For now, growing the local sector is her priority. In an attempt to grow the local sector, Mlisa has been in talks with the Department of Trade and Industry to convince them to look beyond manufacturing to advancing the products and service development, “where earth observation really plays”. She’s also investigating a potential research, development and innovation fund. “That’s an instrument we’d like to sit within SANSA, because with that we can connect the research agenda, sector development, and it builds a bridge between the two.”

“If at the end of my five years we could be SANSA for the people, with the people, I’ll be very happy,” says Mlisa. “That SANSA becomes the enabler.”

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