Interview: Tieho talks about opportunities for space in Africa

Space science and technology in Africa is an emerging and largely untapped sector. Africa continues to push awareness towards harnessing its human resources and leveraging emerging technologies to combat its pressing challenges. The space science and technology sector is not left out in this quest to find sustainable solutions to the challenges prevalent in the region. However, the sector features government domination, unlike most other technology sectors that are private venture driven.

I have been curious to understand how non-government actors can shape the future of Space in Africa. In this special edition, I am featuring Tieho’s perspective.

Tieho Mochebelele is a space science and technology academic researcher and policy advisor. He, with his team, represented Africa in the 2016 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Design Competition at The Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University.

We had a brief breakfast at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC during the 2018 YALI Summit for Mandela Washington Fellows. Less than thirty minutes was not enough time to wrap up Tieho’s insight into Africa’s space sector and growth of other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, deep learning and machine learning. However, it was enough time for us to schedule a convenient time for a follow-up interview featured in this edition.

Interviewer: What was your childhood like and how has that influenced your career choice in entrepreneurship and STEM research?

Tieho: My childhood had a mix of STEM and Economics.  All my initial introductions to these concepts came from board games that I played as a child.  I was particularly interested in the Monopoly board game which requires a lot of arithmetic, supply demand basics and investment management since the assets in Monopoly included real estate, land, logistics and utilities.  I have always been a high performer in STEM activities from as early as my primary school years.  I remember being in fourth grade crying at the top of my voice after scoring 98% on a mathematics exam and my older brother being called to explain that 98% was actually top of the class and that I had only omitted a symbol in an equation.  I have since sought to become a well-rounded person by immersing myself in Stanford’s Plato Encyclopedæ of Philosophy as well as the digital version of the Encyclopedæ Britannica.  Most importantly I have also developed a deep and much necessary appreciation for ESGs (Environment, Social Impact and Governance) in every project I conceptualise.  This also means that Impact Investing and Human Centered Design Thinking constitute the core of all my latest investment proposals.  I am thus deeply indebted to the University of Notre Dame (NDIG, Keough School of Global Affairs, Mendoza College of Business, IDEA Center and INVANTI); Takreem El-Tohamy (IBM Middle-east and Africa General Manager); NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center (San Francisco); Professor Richard Dasher (Stanford University and US Asia Center for Technology Studies) and Professor Robert Eccles (Harvard Business School and University of Oxford Saïd Business School) for exposing me to these concepts.  The U.S. Embassy in Maseru was a key component of this great learning experience as they selected me as a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow in the Business and Entrepreneurship Stream to represent the Kingdom of Lesotho.

I understand that you are a founding partner at the African Technology Institute in Pretoria. Please briefly explain the Institute and what your role is.

The African Technology Institute is located in Midrand, Johannesburg South Africa.  Primarily, the company aims to innovate African education and has recently formed a strategic alliance with an Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality company in Mauritius to help improve learning in dyslexia and ADHD learners.  The Institute also offers processes engineering for companies as well as conceptualizing new industry ventures with a focus on platform technologies.  My biggest concept venture is a research collaboration with climate actuaries at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in London where we aim to track and map risk from peri-geospace to retail business and waste management.  I call this company the Space Risk Global Consulting Group and we aim to be world leaders in Environment, Social Impact and Governance (ESG) consulting and risk management exercising the highest caution in our use of instruments such as Credit Default Swaps.  This is an effort to help large corporations such as vehicle manufactures in their Impact Investments for serving communities in MegaCities, which are cities projected to have up to 100 million due to rapid urbanization.  Traffic flow and pollution control form the core heart of our research.  Maritime and air traffic will also be at an all-time high in the age of MegaCities so all logistics systems are considered in our simulations.  As a result, the evolution of RegTech and FinTech are also on our list of priorities.

I read that you headed the telemetry systems on the University of Pretoria’s engineering team that reached the 2016 Hyperloop Research Project finals hosted by SpaceX and the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M. What can you say about the competition? Please share your experience and how participating in the competition has shaped your career goals.

Heading an engineering research project for the Space Exploration Corporation and Texas A&M was a true honour.  I was also very proud to be officially selected by Prof. Sunil Maharaj (Dean of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology) to head the telemetry systems part of the Hyperloop at the University of Pretoria.  This research competition was a global competition and therefore beating some of the best engineers and research students in the world was a true honour.  It goes without saying that some of the researchers we beat in the competition may end up as senior officials at NASA, ESA and other Space Agencies.  This means that Africa can compete with NASA and ESA if researchers take due diligence for the future and are supported with appropriate resources.  My experience has thus taught me that Africa is a sleeping giant in short supply of institutional synergy and policy design as well as sound investment cases for hyperloop and space programs.

I understand that South Africa pioneered the space science and technology movement in Africa when it launched its first remote sensing satellite in February 1999. Can you briefly paint a picture of any progress made in space science and technology sector in South Africa in the past decade?

One of the latest, and arguably one of the biggest, partnerships at SANSA (South African National Space Agency) is the MoU with ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) whereby many joint projects in space research will be conducted for the purpose of economic development.  One can anticipate projects in telemedicine and perhaps land surveying resulting from this joint research agreement.  All space programs are comprised of three main parts being System, Ground Segment and Space Segment.  If linear time is to be observed, South Africa could be decades behind in the space race since its Space Segment is virtually non-existent.  We still see major signs of “Old Space” in South Africa which are mainly characterized by technological push; government policy and funding. Irregular development and launch timelines for space programs also show signs of the Old Space. “New Space” found in developed economies is now characterized by demand pull, market forces and sustainable timelines for development.  My picture of Space Exploration in South Africa is, of course, nothing close to a Renoir but a telling window into the more developmental approach as opposed to a market-driven approach taken by the latest space programs at SANSA.

In recent time, African governments such as South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morroco, Ghana, Angola, Kenya, and Ethiopia seem to be drawn in a space race with limited resources. How best do think Africa can leverage space science and technology to solve its pressing challenges?

A space race between African countries is the worst way to conduct a space program.  The United States, Europe, China, India, Russia and Japan have all shown that budgets for space programs are more efficient when conducted for the collective good of the region.  The African space race should be a collective effort.  The African Union has a mission and responsibility to grow space science and technology in the region as opposed to the individual effort of member states.  In my view, a great way to develop space programs for Africa is to implement space satellite constellation net topologies. For instance, following the trends in satellite technologies, five or more remote sensing satellites can be used collectively by the region.

I understand that you were exposed to the Silicon Valley ecosystem and Stanford University during your tour of California recently. How do you think universities in Africa can plug into the growth drivers for the continent’s space science and technology sector?

My activities in Silicon Valley and Stanford University were really diverse, although, they are applicable and crucial to my endeavours in the African space agenda.  In Palo Alto, I was invited to stay the night with the family of a retired NASA engineer and his close friend who is a former researcher at NASA, Ames. I have been in touch with Ames and he mentors me in generic key considerations when designing policies, frameworks and investment proposals for space programs.  I was also introduced to some Google employees by IREX through the US Department of State. I had the opportunity to visit Google Head Quarters where I learned about Google X and other interesting next-generation projects at Google.  My day job in the San Francisco Bay Area was working in the Global Growth Ops department at Premise Data which is a data exchange platform doing most of its sales and business development through their Silicon Valley and D.C. offices. Premise Data has backed major government and large corporation contracts on global projects.  I was directly involved in activities pertaining to 32 different cities in four different continents.  The Global Growth Ops team at the time was handling contracts for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Bridgewater Investments to mention a few.  I learned a great deal about managing global business intelligence networks by deploying networks; detecting fraud and cleaning a large volume of data which are key components in the Big Data quality control.   This means that the management systems at the company were arguably the best in the world as far as Big Data organisations are concerned.

I attended events and did some networking with investors on the Stanford campus.  I attended a Venture Capital event by Monk’s Hill Ventures and Prof. Richard Dasher where I was exposed to major issues and opportunities in the Venture Capital landscape in emerging markets.  The event provided me with the required training to create investment syndicates for market-driven space ventures whether in Africa or other parts of the world.  I also attended an event at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco’s financial district where I learned about major drivers of the Paris Agreement and other climate policies and principal investment portfolios and corporate governance policies around the world.

African universities need to create engagement platforms and thinktanks for space innovations. I hope to leverage my position as a guest lecturer on the Deep Learning Indaba platform to raise thought leaders in space innovation.  An initiative of Stellenbosch University and the University of Oxford, the Deep Learning Indaba platform discusses Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning applications for Africa.  I spoke about “Artificial Intelligence for Economic Development, Financial Economics and Financial Technologies” on the platform.  A space innovation speaking platform and thinktank would be a great way to inspire young students and to form strategic alliances between African researchers, governments, the African Union and businesses on matters pertaining to the Space Industry.

The space sector is a highly regulated and capital-intensive sector. How do you think startups can get involved in the sector and remain sustainable?

Corporate or startup sustainability in big data networks is a practice that I have experience in and shall thus use in my rationale.  I believe that startups that do designs and simulations would be likely sustainable because their “startup launch mode” would not consume many dollars but intellect instead.  Such startups would not face the full wrath of regulators.  Other opportunities are in space waste management and space environmental friendliness since satellites collide and create debris.  Today a cloud of about 20,000 pieces of debris needs to be cleared.  Lastly, space specialized solar panels are also great because they can also be applied to use cases on land.  Space regulations and specifications for space solar panels usually require the highest quality, an indication that when used on land would claim the largest market share for efficiency.  Companies, such as Tespack, are looking deeply into this paradigm of solar panel design.  On the other hand, risk in capital intensity could be taken on by investment syndicates with common interests. For instance, data network and infrastructure providers can collaborate in constellation network topologies.  Recent examples of large private space network investments are the partnership between SpaceX and Fidelity Investments where 4000 satellites will be launched to provide data to the remaining 4.4 billion on the planet without data.  This would be a historical moment in the journey of the human race. Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm have thus followed suit with their OneWeb space program.

Space in Africa is read by an active poll of young space enthusiasts across Africa and beyond. What advice do you have for young people who wish to pursue a career in space research and policy advisory?

My advice to young people with an interest in space is to think global in everything that they do.  Space crosses paths with all global operations.  Young people must also desire to create an extraordinary impact and imagine to have their work echoed in the memory of global society for thousands of years to come.  This is what I call Astral Thinking. Astral Thinking will surely have them join the pantheon of the all-time greats.