MEDO has bought the first privately owned satellite in Africa. As predominantly an economic development agency, working with entrepreneurs and BBBEE codes, what would the benefits of such a pricey investment be? What does this have to do with young women in STEM? How will a satellite engage these young women in Maths and Science? MEDO CEO Judi Sandrock answers these questions:
Why are you doing this?
“Why have we bought Africa’s first privately owned satellite, apart from what I believe to be very cool? Well, what we do, is development. We are MEDO, the Meta Economic Development Organisation. Whether we do socio-economic development or international trade programmes, we aim to empower small businesses through knowledge management. So if we do economic development, why are we bothering with STEM? Well, what we have found is that when people need assistance in building their businesses, they need it most early on. It sounds very simple, but the most difficult thing for an entrepreneur to figure out, is what they are selling, to who and for how much. Until that is answered, you don’t really have a business, you are merely making ends meet by grasping at straws. What we have found through research, as well as our own programmes including our start-up focused programme on foundation business skills, is that we need to start assistance a lot earlier than the start-up phase. We need to start earlier because we find a lot of business just don’t have the right technical skills and this can refer to either employer or employee. So the problem we are facing on the one hand, is the need to manufacture more, but then again we don’t have the people to track those dots, as we don’t have the small business owners who have the technical ability to build those manufacturing plants to start those manufacturing businesses. So that is exactly what we are doing here with MEDO, it’s about what we are doing pre-matric so that in five years we’ve got people who are starting businesses and being employed by these businesses that have been started.
How are you doing this?
“We work closely with our partner of this project, ISUZU Trucks who are extremely passionate about the programme. It started around the issue that they are struggling to find Maths and Science interns who further become technicians they want to hire. To add to that, they are looking for bursary students, but our Science and Maths pool is just not big enough. ISUZU Trucks are busy expanding their operation, selling more trucks to the continent. Now to grow, you need more manpower, which is why ISUZU Trucks is so invested in Enterprise and Supplier Development. If you look at ISUZU, a Japanese company, it is key to look at the Japanese mentality of working 20 years in advance. So what’s happening is that the team from ISUZU Trucks are looking at what we are doing now with people who are grade 10, so that we’ve got great engineers in 10 years time who can become market leaders. Nowadays it’s not someone with a spanner who’s putting together a truck, it’s robots, with people who monitor and programme it. We need to go up the value chain, and that is why we are focusing on Women in STEM, and why we are focusing on people who haven’t entered the workplace yet.
A STEM problem?
“At MEDO we don’t like looking into something as a problem, but rather in terms of solutions. But the thing is, South Africa does have a challenge because only 7.6% of pupils passed Maths with more than 60% and only 5.5% passed Science with more than 60%. This means that unless you are in those very low percentiles, you can’t get into a technikon of university. We can’t blame the government, the education system or teachers, what we need to do is actually find a solution, and this is a private sector solution. What the programme and the satellite is all about, is to inspire so that we have more people doing well in Science and Maths at school not only to become engineers, but teachers and a whole array of other professions. It is predicted that 80% of all future jobs are STEM related, with almost double the pay of non-STEM related careers. So what we are trying to do is to give these young women the best chance out there.
So you are doing all of this with the Satellite?
“We need to emphasise that this is a long-term project, this one satellite is most definitely not just another flash in the pan. If you look at the programme, we have three stages, Space Prep is the first of those which is all about electronics and learning to put electronics together by building small robots. Stage one is to get the interest going and we will host these workshops at least once a month. The next step is Space Trek, a week-long bootcamp where we will take a group of young women to the bush to start designing and testing the payload for the satellite. We will test this by launching high-altitude weather balloons that go 30km up in the air. Finally then, we will come together with the young women who are still interested to build the final payload for the satellite to be ready for launch in 2016. We have plans of launching one satellite per year until 2019 so after next year’s satellite has fulfilled its function and has burnt out, we are not going to disappear into the sideline with this issue.