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South African Teens Design Satellite to Safeguard Continent’s Food Sources


They may be teenagers, but 17-year-old Brittany Bull and 16-year-old Sesam Mngqengqiswa have grand ambitions — to launch Africa’s first private satellite into space.

They are part of a team of high school girls from Cape Town, South Africa, who have designed and built payloads for a satellite that will orbit over the Earth’s poles scanning Africa’s surface. Once in space, the satellite will collect information on agriculture and food  security within the continent.

Using the data transmitted, “We can try to determine and predict the problems Africa will be facing in the future,” explained Bull, a student at Pelican Park High School.

“Where our food is growing, where we can plant more trees and vegetation and also how we can monitor remote areas,” she said. “We have a lot of forest fires and floods, but we don’t always get out there in time. “Information received twice a day will go towards disaster prevention.”

The girls’ work is part of a project by South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) working with Morehead State University in the U.S.

Ambitious First
The girls (14 in total) are being trained by satellite engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology in a bid to encourage more African women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs.

The satellite is scheduled to launch in May 2017, and if successful, it will make MEDO the first private company in Africa to build a satellite and send it into orbit.
“We expect to receive a good signal, which will allow us to receive reliable data,” declared an enthusiastic Mngqengqiswa, of Philippi High School. “In South Africa, we have experienced some of the worst floods and droughts and it has really affected the farmers very badly.”

By 2020 80 percent of jobs will be related to STEM, MEDO predicts, but currently only 14 percent of the STEM workforce globally are women. An El Niño-induced drought led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tons in southern Africa’s April 2016 maize production, according to a UN report.

South Africa is expected to import between 3 million and 4 million tons of maize to meet its shortfall this year.

“It has caused our economy to drop. … This is a way of looking at how we can boost our economy,” Mngqengqiswa said.

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