Young woman’s passion for technology, environment pays off

Zimbabwean student Muongeni Tamara Manda has made history as the only woman from Africa to make it to the global top 30 emerging young space leaders.

Only three Africans, Manda and two men, Donald Mhlanga of the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe, and Tanzanian national Dr Yohana Laiser, intern at the Mwananyamala Regional Referral Hospital, made it to the global list compiled by the NASA Space Collective.

Manda, 23, is studying geoinformatics and environmental conservation at Zimbabwe’s Chinhoyi University of Technology. She will be in her fourth year when the semester starts in September 2023.

“I hail from a community, Shurugwi, where education was often overlooked in favour of early marriages due to the presence of gold buyers and miners popularly known as makorokoza. This motivated me to bring change to my community by making a difference and following my passion of solving environmental issues through the use of technology, since mining activities were causing a lot of environmental issues,” Manda told University World News.

She is recognised because of her involvement in a Net Positive Impact (NPI) on biodiversity project with Anglo American, using environmental DNA to monitor and conserve areas with natural resources in the Shurugwi district of Zimbabwe’s Midlands province.

Applying geospatial skills

She also conducted a water points survey with the Chinhoyi University of Technology to map out boreholes, taps and wells to establish what exactly or where exactly more boreholes should be sunk since there was a water crisis in Chinhoyi.

“I’m working on a project with the Chinhoyi University of Technology to launch a high-altitude balloon to measure methane and carbon dioxide at the university to combat climate change. I also participated in the first NPI on biodiversity project using eDNA; space technology to monitor and conserve biodiversity with Fauna and Flora International, NatureMetrics and Anglo American,” she said.

“We were monitoring the environment using environmental DNA and intelligent technology to reduce the negative impacts of human activities on the environment by identifying areas of high biodiversity value and implementing measures to protect and enhance these areas.

“This helped me to apply and appreciate my geospatial skills in the field of conserving the environment as I am passionate about solving environmental issues using geospatial technology. It was a pivotal moment in my career because the networking brought in many opportunities to meet more professional people in the space sector who are solving environmental issues with intelligent technology and innovative approaches.”

Manda is also working to ensure that more people pursue space studies, especially women. She is one of the organisers of the 7th African Space Generation Workshop, a two-day event to be held at the University of Zimbabwe from 29-30 November 2023.

Manda said Zimbabwe’s space ecosystem is not well established yet, hence the workshop (an event of the global Space Generation Advisory Council), is a terrific opportunity for people in Zimbabwe to learn from different experts from Africa.

She is also one of only two people from Africa in the organising team of the second international hackathon of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) Diversity and Gender Equality Project Group. The hackathon will be held in Montreal, Canada on 28-29 October 2023. The theme is ‘How can space technology and know-how support and be utilised by women in remote communities?’

Mindset change needed

Manda has further been selected by Advocates4Earth as an environmental fellow for the 2023 cohort to motivate people to actively engage in environmental preservation by using space technology. In 2022, she was selected as the top-five winner in Africa in the Climate Action for Climate Change GIS Challenge.

Manda said few women pursue space studies because of fear. They believe it is a field dominated by men and do not want to face discrimination and abuse. “To change this, I believe raising awareness in primary and high schools would help,” she said, adding that if you “catch them young”, girls will grow up with a mindset that they can face any challenge in the space sector, motivating and encouraging others in turn.

She said she fell in love with nature in primary school and her passion for the environment made her more interested in technological ideas that can be used to improve communities in Zimbabwe.

Mentorship is also helping her. She is a mentee of SSPI-WISE (Space & Satellite Professionals International – Women in Space Engagement) and received career guidance in geoinformatics, climate change and environmental conservation.

Startups get recognition

Meanwhile, 11 student startups from universities in African countries have been chosen as part of 25 ventures selected to participate in the Harvard Innovation Labs and Amazon Web Services inaugural NextGen Accelerator, a two-week founder boot camp for early-stage student founders from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Students from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania made the list.

This news report was updated on 17 August.