Sunday, July 15, 2018

Why Zim needs to go into space

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Last week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa presided over the launch of the country’s first Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGASA), becoming the 12th nation in Africa to latch onto space.
The initiative gained traction six months ago when Cabinet approved a proposal that had been tabled by the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development.
In essence, the agency is expected to leverage on satellite technology in order to monitor and quantify the country’s natural resources.
So far, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa and Tunisia have successfully established space agencies.
While space agencies have traditionally focused on advanced research in natural resources, they are now increasingly being used in critical fields such as medicine.
Geospatial expert and University of Zimbabwe lecturer Mr Isaiah Gwitira, who is also a part of the ZINGASA project, told The Sunday Mail last week that a space agency naturally complements data collection in all fields critical to development.
“A space agency is a body that is mandated to coordinate activities to do with earth observation from different satellites. This involves data collection and observation of weather, among other things, using satellites which are positioned in space.
“Basically, it complements data collection in all fields critical to development such as agriculture, mining and population. Space technologies inform policy makers when they make decisions in resource management and national development,” said Mr Gwitira.
But how will Zimbabwe benefit from this initiative?
Mr Webster Gumindoga, a lecturer and PhD scholar in satellite hydrology, indicated that a space agency is expected to provide detailed research on the quantity of local natural resources.
“Look at the natural resources we have in Zimbabwe which are in abundance, but we don’t have a coordinated monitoring system for them. When we have a space agency, we will be able to know how much minerals we have and where they are and we will have a coordinated database of them,” he said.
It is envisaged that such information will help the local mining industry, which is a critical sector in the country’s efforts to revive and grow the economy.
In a separate interview, Mines and Mineral Development Minister Mr Winston Chitando said just like many of the country’s mineral resources, local uranium deposits, for example, haven’t been quantified and qualified as yet.
In addition to enhancing the demarcation and monitoring of natural boundaries, the space agency will also make it possible to monitor weather conditions in real-time, a function that might positively impact on agriculture.
The ability of this technology to harness solar energy has also been welcomed, especially by constituencies that are pushing for renewable energy.
It is believed that space agencies around the world have developed technologies that have improved people’s lives.
The European Space Agency and America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, developed the technology that enabled breast cancer detection.
Does Zimbabwe have the required expertise to run a space agency?
Mr Gumindoga said: “Partly, Zimbabwe has the expertise. It encompasses people who are knowledgeable in processing geospatial data; that’s why we have universities and colleges training geospatial students. At a single university, around 200 students are churned out every year with geospatial expertise.
“But we also need engineering services as well, civil engineers to build physical structure, mechanical engineers for the mechanical structures and also the electric engineers. In terms of technical expertise for the actual processing of space data, we have plenty.”
There are questions on whether a space agency is an urgent need for a country battling high unemployment and significant economic challenges.
Economist Dr Gift Mugano believes that research has the potential to modernise and improve output in two key sectors – mining and agriculture.
“As we move towards Vision 2030, we need to establish which sectors of the economy we are focusing on in order to get there, and mining is one such ministry.
“Our natural resources are not quantified and because of that, they become unbankable to investors. We fail to market our country if we do not know what we have. We risk getting into bad deals if we mortgage our country without knowing how much we are giving away,” he said.
Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira recently told The Sunday Mail that the space agency is being financed from the ministry’s budget allocations.
“This money has always been there, it’s just a matter of priorities,” he said.
Under the new political administration, the ministry has managed to establish incubation hubs at targeted institutions, including attracting investors for the construction of new universities and student accommodation