Sesam Mngqengqiswa (pictured center) is a part of a group of South African girls who are defying tradition by doing the unusual: building a private space satellite.
On Tuesday, 16-year-old Sesam and 13 other high school girls used the satellite to curb the challenge of food insecurity in Africa.
“It’s a new field for us [in Africa], but I think with it, we would be able to make positive changes to our economy,” Sesam says.
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Sesam and her group of girls from Phillipi and Pelican Park high schools in Cape Town have designed and built payloads for a space satellite that will orbit over the earth’s poles, scanning the continent’s surface for information on agriculture and food security.
The girls are being trained by satellite engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology. With this training, they formulated a methodology of how their private space satellite will operate.
Through thermal imaging data collected twice a day, they have information that can help prevent and mitigate climate change disasters, such as floods and forest fires. The girls are supported by Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO), a South African economic development agency.
Though it is unclear what it will cost, the space satellite will hopefully start operating by May 2017, making MEDO the first private company to launch such a satellite on the continent.
Other partners of the project include a Space Programme by Morehead State University located in the American state of Kentucky. The space satellite project has also received support from BioTherm Energy, a renewable energy platform. Eventually the project might spread to Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, and Rwanda.
Africa’s Food Insecurity
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) defines food security as a state that occurs when all people have physical, social, and economic access to food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthful life.
Though FAO states that last year food security was improved in sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture on the continent as a whole continues to be plagued by food insecurity due to the impact of high population growth rates and climate change.
STEM Careers for Girls
Through the space satellite project, MEDO hopes to encourage more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. According to a report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), South Africa’s STEM education lags behind other countries due to the racial discrimination the country faced for 46 years during Apartheid, which ended in 1994.
For example, compared to the Dutch, Africans had no or limited access to STEM education. Though STEM education is gradually improving today, the racial imbalance in STEM education affects the nation’s workforce today.
And according to MEDO, while 80 percent of all future jobs will require a STEM education, 10 percent of women have an interest in it, with interest levels dropping even further in Africa.
It is against this context that Sesam and her team have the potential of making a positive difference in the continent.
“Discovering space and seeing the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s not something many Black Africans have been able to do or get the opportunity to look at. I want to see these things for myself. I want to be able to experience these things,” Sesam says.