Women in Power: Interview with Ms Andiswa Mlisa, SANSA’s Acting CEO and the first Female Head of an African National Space Agency

The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) is one of the most prominent space agencies. This is evident from its booming private sector participation and an extensive national programme that enjoys significant yearly contributions from the government to improve its capability. The space budget covers the national space agency and its astronomy programmes, including contributions to the Square Kilometres Array project. Since its inception, SANSA has contributed directly to the country’s [and Africa’s] sustainable development through innovative Earth observation, communications, navigation and space physics solutions.

Space in Africa had a chat with Ms Andiswa Mlisa on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress, which was held in Paris between 18-22 September 2022, to discuss her new role as SANSA’s Interim CEO and gain insight into some of the ongoing projects at the agency.

How is the South African Space Infrastructure Hub coming along?

Ms Mlisa: The South African Space Infrastructure Hub project is envisaged as part of the Southern Africa infrastructure programmes, which is a catalyst for closing the infrastructure investment gap and meeting the infrastructure target set out in the country’s National Development Plan. SANSA’s proposal for the Space Infrastructure Hub fell under the Digital Infrastructure sector and was selected as one of the Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPS), which forms part of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordination Committee (PICC), and was gazetted on 24 July 2020. 

The Space Infrastructure Hub is declared as SIP 22, which implies that space infrastructure is now seen as a national priority and is viewed on a similar footing with, for example, the Square Kilometre Array Project (SIP 16), another major infrastructure priority for the country. The project secured R4.47 billion (about USD 250 million) in short-term investment and additional ring-fenced funding. 

We have completed the business case on the project’s first phase, and implementation has started with detailed user requirements analysis and mission definition. The first phase, which is for three years, will be financed with R1.2 billion (about USD 67 million) and will cover critical infrastructures for the Earth observation satellite, ground segment infrastructure and data processing centre. In addition, the project will strengthen Digital Earth South African, a Data Cube platform to bring together quality EO data for public use (both government and private) in South Africa. While the agency currently has 220 employees, the number might grow to over 350 once the space infrastructure hub is fully implemented. 

SANSA is working with NASA on a Deep Space Network; what is the current status of this project?

Ms Mlisa: We started engagement with NASA in 2014 regarding hosting one of the ground stations to support lunar missions. There are three existing global stations for this, and South Africa’s station will be the 4th. Our geographical location gives us an advantage for this type of infrastructure. Furthermore, South Africa and the United States government will jointly finance it through NASA. An expression of interest has already been signed, and we are currently in the final stage of agreement signing for the ground station, which will be located in Matjiesfontein,  in the Western Cape of South Africa.

It has been in the news for a while now that South Africa is exploring the acquisition of a communications satellite. How far have you gone with this?

Ms Mlisa: We are currently developing a national satellite communication strategy that will capture our aspirations and guide our operations, after which we will develop the needed business case. In SANSA, based on the National Space Strategy, we focus on Earth observation, space exploration, navigation and positioning (of which we have developed business cases around GNSS and Satellite-based augmentation services S-BAS) and communications is naturally the next thematic area of focus. We are working closely with the Department of Science and Innovation, Department of Communications and Digital Technology and SENTECH (the state-owned company and leading provider of electronic communications network services) to formulate the satellite communications strategy and the project implementation plan.

What are your priorities in this new role?

Ms Mlisa: Our current strategy aims to foster an integrated national space capability. This means a capable space sector that can help enable the government to address the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality and make informed developmental decisions for socio-economic and environmental sustainability. We are looking to ensure that capabilities in South Africa extend to the industry, academia, research institutions and other entities of the state. Together, as a sector, we stand a greater chance to fully integrate space solutions in daily service delivery decisions by local, provincial and national governments. Also, we know that a robust industry is needed to address unemployment, and we want to export these capabilities to support other African countries. Drawing from my strength in building collaborations and fostering synergies amongst diverse stakeholders, in this role, I intend to position SANSA as an enabler and bring together the various players in the space sector across the country and create an environment of value co-creation, where each player recognises the value they bring and the benefit they derive from others. The notion of competition is central to building this national capability as we must recognise the value of cooperation whilst we create a competitive environment. Furthermore, we intend to take this model across the continent. 

About Ms Mlisa

Ms Andiswa Mlisa; Acting CEO, South African National Space Agency. Image supplied.

Ms Andiswa Mlisa grew up in Cala, a small village of about 15,000 people in Sakhisizwe Local Municipality in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Up till now, the rural village of Cala does not have running water or proper sanitation. She studied for a Bachelor of Science Degree in computer science, geology and geographical information science (GIS) at the University of Fort Hare between 1997 and 1999. She bagged an Honors in Applied Remote Sensing and GIS at the same university in 2002, graduating Cum Laude while working full time. She then got a master’s degree in remote sensing and GIS from Stellenbosch University in 2007, where her thesis focused on developing a spatial decision support tool to serve the multi-disciplinary sectors involved in integrated water resource management. In the midst of covid-19, she completed her master’s in business administration (MBA) with the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). Ms Mlisa’s strength has always lain in being good at identifying opportunities and not being afraid to seize them while always being aware of her strength and weaknesses.  

After her Bachelor’s degree, she started working as a Trainee Hydrogeologist and GIS specialist with Umvoto Africa, an all-encompassing earth-science consultancy predominantly specialising in groundwater based in Cape Town, South Africa. When the company established the GEO Informatics division, she was promoted to Head the division. In this role, she was responsible for developing a strategy for the division, managing GIS and remote sensing resources and proposing research programs to keep the company’s capability ahead of market developments. She was then promoted to Programme Director in 2006, a position she held till she left the company. Between 2014 and 2017, she worked for the South African Department of Science and Innovation (formerly the Department of Science and Technology), where she was posted to the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) in Geneva as a Scientific and Technical Officer. In this role, she led the implementation of AfriGEO (formerly AfriGEOSS) – an Africa-focused GEO initiative (the first regional GEO initiative, now GEO has four such regional-focused initiatives covering its global membership) and she provided technical and scientific support for capacity-building activities in the GEO Work Program. The implementation of AfriGEO, included reinforcing synergies among global, regional and national earth observation efforts in Africa, harmonising existing efforts within Africa, GEO and AfriGEO objectives and promoting open access and sharing of space data and infrastructure. Throughout her sojourn, she built rapport in the remote sensing community, and leadership and had years of participation in international programmes. 

In October 2017, she returned to South Africa to take up the Managing Director of Earth Observation position at the South African National Space Agency following the departure of Dr Jane Olwoch from the position. In March 2022, following the departure of Dr Valanathan Munsami as the CEO of the SANSA, Ms Mlisa was appointed as the Acting CEO, becoming the first woman to lead the affairs of a National Space Agency in Africa. She brought lots of experience from the private sector and international fora to the position at a time when building trust between the private sector and the space agency is critical.