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Bio Burials And Life After Death

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The lack of burial spaces is leading entrepreneurs to come up with out-of-the-box alternatives such as bio-burials, virtual graves and space disposal.

Mankind has been burying its dead since time immemorial. But what happens when we run out of burial space on a planet that is also running out of space for the living?

A new generation of options are being pioneered by enterprising businesses that could change the way we send off loved ones. For example, San Francisco-based Elysium Space describes itself as a “memorial spaceflight” company planning to send the ashes of dead people into orbit, hitching on to one of South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rockets.

Closer home, there are alternative on-the-ground solutions being looked at. A South African startup, Biotree.earth, produces biodegradable urns made out of natural plant fibers and materials that aid in fertilizing soil and neutralizing the pH levels of ashes, creating a healthy environment to grow trees.

It was founded by 60-year-old Dereck Holmes and 28-year-old Christo Cilliers. Generations apart, they are on the same page when it comes to life and death matters.

Holmes, who already owns a logistics company, never thought he would find himself in the business of death and funerals.

“The whole concept of Biotree.earth is that it celebrates the life of a person and not the death and you can see it manifest in the tree of life and [it’s] not a piece of stone in the ground,” says Holmes.

He has four children and four grandchildren and is Biotree’s CEO. Cilliers left his advertising business to start Biotree.earth and is now its Managing Director.

Chris Cilliers. Photo by Gypseenia Lion.

 

“I feel that the funeral industry is very dated, our practices are very dated and they are not considerate of the environment at all. And I just believe that there’s a time and space, that is now, to start addressing that industry and create a more sustainable alternative,” says Cilliers.

The inception of the business was when he had a light-bulb moment about an alternative to conventional burials and cremation.

“Cremation in itself is not necessarily sustainable because when we cremate a body, there is still a carbon offset that we need to deal with because we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” he says.

“One adult tree produces about 170kg of oxygen a year. And then I went ‘but is that enough to offset what we are doing with cremation’?”

The idea was to double that effect by growing a tree for every body cremated.

He developed and tested the product for two years and then approached Holmes with the idea.

Coincidentally, Holmes, who owns a farm next to the Vaal River in South Africa, was also thinking of an alternative way to bury his animals.

“Chris came to see me simultaneously and I told him, ‘look I’m interested in creating a biodegradable urn for animals’. He had ones that were for humans. So we said, ‘how can we combine this’.”

Holmes invested in Cillier’s business idea and the two ventured into completely new turf selling biodegradable urns suitable for humans and animals and in 2015, they started operations.

They tested out their first animal bio urn on one of Holmes’ farm animals, a pet duck named Gosling in 2016.

They cremated the duck, put the ashes into the base of the urn, dug a hole and placed the urn in the ground.

They planted a lavender seed to celebrate the life of the duck, and it grew into a lavender shrub.

The trial was a success and the same year, Holmes buried a chicken named Henrietta, and in 2017, he buried a duck named Norman using the bio urns.

Fiona Kantor from Wynburg, a suburb in Cape Town, lost her mother in 2015 and cremated her.

After researching bio burials, she came across Biotree.earth and purchased an urn. A year later, her dad fell ill and also passed away. He was cremated.

She then placed both her parents’ ashes in the same urn.

Fiona Kantor. Photo Provided.

“It’s almost bringing them back to life in a way… It was more [about being] closer to them spiritually and have a place we could visit, and contribute to the environment,” Kantor tells FORBES AFRICA.

She planted an erythrina lysistemon, known as the common coral tree, that’s bright red in color, in the urn.

“At the moment, mom and dad are in a very beautiful green pot in my patio,” she says happily.

In a sense, the words ‘family tree’ take on a new meaning here.

Cilliers was astounded by Kantor’s story and says: “That’s one of the things where someone really thought out-of-the-box and used the product to make it something unique to their story.”

The pet urns go for R2,290 ($152) a piece and the human urns for R2,490 ($166). Biotree.earth has also grown to a staff of 10.

Trees of life

On touching, the urn feels plastic but it is made of natural plant fibers that bio-degrade in the soil after about two months, depending on soil and weather conditions.

The ashes go into biodegradable bags and are placed in the base of the urn. This prevents the ashes’ alkalinity from damaging the plant’s roots as it grows. The top of the urn gets re-attached and 800ml of water is added to expand a soil disk inside. A seed can then be planted.

In addition to the coral tree, other locally-conducive tree seed options include bolusanthus speciosus known as elephant’s wood, acacia tortilis known as umbrella thorn, cytisus scoparius known as the common broom, castanea sativa known as sweet chestnut, and quercus robur known as the English oak.

Once the seed has germinated, the urn is planted in the ground.

Cilliers attests he has never received any negative feedback about a plant failing to germinate. The trees can be planted in backyards so long as they are not on private land or in a botanical garden.

Can you actually become a tree after death?

Professor Cas Wepener, a theologian and religious studies scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has done research on rituals in the Christian religion and work pertaining to death.

“People’s beliefs and views concerning death have changed quite a lot and what we call future hope, ‘eschatology’, in theological terms has also changed and it has changed from ideas about heaven to ideas about better ecology,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

He says that the planting of a tree symbolizes different things in different cultures and shows something about their faith. But there are different views.

From a scientific perspective, Professor Mary Scholes from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that it is impossible for ashes or for a dead body, if buried close to a tree, to generate energy which could be used by the tree.

Ash is made up of magnesium, calcium and potassium. “Energy is defined in physical terms and ash does not meet this definition. If someone wants to believe that energy is generated in a spiritual way, they are perfectly entitled to their opinion,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

A multi-billion rand industry

Due to the many different cultures within the South African context, Cilliers’ and Holmes’ biggest challenge is to change the perceptions around burials.

“The funeral industry is a very tight-knit group… when someone new steps into that and poses direct competition, it is not always accepted. So it has been a very difficult journey to get people to accept the idea. It has been a very difficult journey to get the product out to consumers,” admits Cilliers.

“I feel like there’s a very big monopoly in the funeral industry that’s not right. You know, when we are benefitting from people’s death, that’s not right.”

Cilliers says Biotree has seen a growth of 21% from February last year to this February. They have also expanded into seven countries including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Twentynine-year-old Lethi Mngadi is one prospective client buying in to the concept of bio-burials.

“Before I used to think cremations [were a] ‘no’. But now I’m like ‘let me just donate all my organs, get cremated’ and I know that my family has control over what they do with me,” she says.

She is the marketing coordinator for Doves, a funeral provider in southern Africa, and has been working in the funeral business for three years.

One sunny spring afternoon in September, FORBES AFRICA visits the Doves funeral home in Randburg, a residential town in Johannesburg.

There are spring flowers and roses in the gardens surrounding the main office.

But these aren’t just your normal garden flowers, they are home to ashes buried in clay urns.

“Underneath each of these rose bushes, there is someone,” says Willie Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen, the branch manager of Doves’ Randburg branch.

He works with Mngadi and has been part of the funeral business for over 30 years.

“The funeral business is a multi-billion rand industry,” he says.

According to Hippo, a financial services provider, there are more than 100,000 burial societies in South Africa and about 18.9 million South African adults are covered by a funeral plan.

They say the biggest expense when organizing a funeral is the coffin or casket.

An average casket could cost around R8,000 ($533) while top-of-the-range coffins could sell for between R37,500 ($2,500) and R50,000 ($3,332) or more. The grave would range from R1,500 ($100) to R6,000 ($400) and a headstone can cost from R1,500 to R7,000 ($467).

Conservatively, all of the above could approximately cost R40,500 ($2,700), whilst a cremation could total up to approximately R7,000 ($467). A private cremation can cost around R5,000 ($300) while a chapel cremation starts at around R9,000 ($600).

Thankfully, preferences are changing.

“Most families would prefer not to leave a carbon footprint,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen. Mngadi agrees: “I think it’s also the millennials, especially in the black culture, we always want to bury. But now our generation is starting to be more educated about what’s going on. Because you are going to be burying your parents, you are now more educated and informed about all the different options.”

 

A buried urn at Doves funeral home. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

 

Grave issues

The prevailing problem in South Africa and many parts of the world is that burial space is limited.

A 2013 survey by BBC Local Radio indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.

“By 2025, we won’t have burial space left,” agrees Cilliers.

As per news reports in South Africa earlier this year, families have been encouraged to share gravesites by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo that’s in charge of the City of Johannesburg’s cemeteries and designated public spaces.

READ MORE: Even If We Conquer Death – Should We?

This means a family member might have to be buried on top of another.

The argument is that being buried in the same grave has huge cost-savings‚ is environment-friendly and affords families a central point to pay tribute and conduct religious ceremonies if needed.

However, Van Nieuwenhuizen says that burying bodies in one gravesite can cause further problems.

“If it is a very wet season, the settlement does take longer, because the coffin at the bottom is going to collapse.”

Of the 32 cemeteries across Johannesburg‚ only four have not yet reached full capacity; Westpark‚ Olifantsvlei‚ Diepsloot and Waterval cemeteries are still able to house over one million future graves, says a report on timeslive.co.za in April. Johannesburg itself has a population of over five million.

“So it is becoming more expensive to bury a person in cemeteries,” says Mngadi.

“It’s becoming very limited as well because of space. So you will find that in rural areas, people still bury in their yards. But us in urban areas would rather not. And purely because you don’t want to leave your loved one in Johannesburg and then relocate.”

These considerations force some to opt for cremation, preserve the urn or scatter the ashes.

“To put it in a simpler form, we are going to get to a point where you are forced; you have no other option but to cremate because where are you going to put your loved one?” says Mngadi.

Another problem plaguing the burial business is theft and vandalism.

During our interview, Van Nieuwenhuizen shows us an image on his phone of a grave that was recently dug up and the body removed.

He says some of the reasons people dig up graves is to use the body for muti (traditional medicine), witchcraft or to make crystal meth.

The Friday before our visit to Doves, they had reported missing marble headstones. People who steal them, they say, varnish the engraved names and resell the headstones to other users.

“[People] are now being abducted for their parts while they are alive, so how [much] worse is it when you are putting your loved one in a cemetery that has very limited security,” adds Mngadi.

This is one of the reasons why both Van Nieuwenhuizen and Mngadi advocate cremations.

“I find more comfort in knowing that my mom is in a beautiful urn in our house than not knowing what’s happening at the cemetery,” she says.

But even so, cremations can be taxing on the environment.

As per an article in the Huffington Post, “the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year”.

Experts are therefore still looking for new innovations to come up with answers.

What does the future of funerals look like?

“I think we will eradicate traditional burials. Whether that be in the next 10 or 30 years, I am not sure,” Cilliers offers.

“Burials are going to stop sooner or later, and then we are going to move over to resomation,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen.

Resomation or biocremation is an alkaline hydrolysis process that typically produces less carbon dioxide than cremation.

Another alternative is to create a diamond out of a loved one’s ashes by extracting the carbon remains.

Space burials have also been introduced where they blast the cremated remains into outer space.

You can send the ashes of your loved ones into space on one of techpreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets for $2,500.

Burials gone digital

At the time of the interview with Biotree.earth founders Cilliers and Holmes, they were launching an additional product to their business, a digital funeral platform.

Memory Lane is an online app that details a person’s life including key milestones, where they have traveled to and their life’s achievements.

With every urn sold, a code is given to the client to create an online memorial and geo-tag the urn.

“In concept, it’s like a virtual grave,” says Cilliers.

Holmes says the app won’t only be for the dead but for the living as well.

“It takes you down memory lane. So you can write a biography about yourself, and then it can take you to all the places you have traveled to, the pets you have had and it puts that on a timeline with the photos and a gallery,” he says.

“Over and above that, you’ve got a life file which is a safe, which keeps your will, any title deeds you have to your properties, insurance properties, all your codes you have to your ATM cards, everything. That lifeline is bank encrypted. So it has one-time pin numbers that no one can get into until after your death.”

Only nominated guardians can gain access to it and your friends and family can continue to contribute to your site with pictures or stories and family trees.

Even people who can’t make the funeral can post online.

Holmes was inspired to create this site after not being able to save his late parents’ photos in one place.

This, he feels would be a way to digitally track a family’s lineage for years to come. Holmes says the app will be free for the first few years.

As for the future of burials, he says: “I think the concept of burial forests will become bigger and bigger as we start moving out of the developed areas and move into the rural areas to create burial forests with long-term sustainability and as gardens of remembrance.”

Cilliers and Holmes hope that with each death, a new tree, a new life can take its place, creating a greener earth in the process.

Featured

Africa Takes to the Stratosphere and Beyond

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The space race is a battle of big minds and miniature satellites. Much remains to be done but outer space could potentially be a trillion-dollar industry that Africa could also cash in on.


Brittany Bull is only 18 years old but can already add ‘space scientist’ to her resume.

She is part of a team building one of South Africa’s first privately-owned nano satellites to launch into space.

“The space industry is about exploration and exploration only happens when you do something nobody else has done before,” says Bull, her face lighting up like the moon.

The teenager grew up in a small, sleepy town called Strandfontein in the Western Cape province of South Africa where starry nights are more the norm than satellites.

But Bull has ambitions for herself and the planet.

She is currently an intern and ambassador for a space program at XinaBox, an Internet of Things (IoT) and electronics development solution focused on coding.

The nanosatellites Bull is working on will be released by a rocket at an altitude of approximately 250km, and will travel to the International Space Station (ISS).

“That’s extreme low earth orbit. That’s the first time a satellite is going to fly in that orbit and it’s the first time a satellite that small is going to fly,” she says.

Brittany Bull. Picture: Supplied

Five nanosatellites “linked together in a thin film of solarpanels” will fit in a box similar to a CubeSat (a miniaturized satellite for space research).

Once ejected from the rocket, the box will open up and the five satellites will unfold with a motherboard and radio attached to them.Their function will be to collect temperature data.

“The main purpose of that is to figure out burn-up temperature and rate upon re-entry into the atmosphere from that altitude,”says Bull.

“No flight has ever taken place at that altitude before so that is going to be the first.”

It will orbit for 14 days before burning up. The data will be transmitted via radio before that happens.

“It is really awe-inspiring and also motivating because I did not let my background stop me. So what’s to say that every other African child can’t make a valuable contribution and if every other African child is given the opportunity, we would progress so fast…,” she says, smiling.

Bull always dreamed of taking the leap into the space industry but never knew what career path would take her there.

She had wanted to study nursing like many other girls her age in her community but in 2015, when a group of female engineers and astrophysicists came to teach students about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), she started realizing her dream, slowly but surely.

The following year, she joined Space Trek, a space science camp in Cape Town offered by Morehead State University in Kentucky, United States(US).

It was a STEM program aimed at empowering young girls. She then applied to their space science and engineering degree program and was accepted on a part-scholarship basis.

Bull is currently raising funds for her stint at Morehead State University and plans to start next year.

Once she is done with her studies, she hopes to return home to make an impact in South Africa’s emerging space industry.

“My dream is to bring that expertise back to South Africa and help make SANSA [South African National Space Agency] just as great,” she says.

“I feel my biggest contribution would be here.”

Onwards and upwards

South Africa has sent three satellites to space. The first was a miniature satellite launched in the US in 1999, built by post-graduate students at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape.

The second South African satellite was launched into spaceby a Russian Soyuz rocket at Baikonur in 2009. It was called the Sumbandila satellite.

“It is a Venda [South African] name for path-finder,” says Nomfuneko Majaja, the Chief Director: Legal & Compliance, SEZs and Space Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Majaja is the former member of the Ad hoc Committee for the review of the Space Affairs Act No. 84 of 1993.

The review is important to ensure that the SA legislation is abreast of the national and international developments.

Majaja also serves as the vice Chairperson of the South African Council for Space Affairs; which is a regulatory body for all space related matters in the country.

She has experience in national economic policy development and strategy processes and specifically in aerospace, outer space and electro-technical sectors.

Majaja says the space industry is not as big compared to other industries in South Africa, and is trying to change that by interacting with various stakeholders involved in the country’s space economy.

But she says there is growing interest in the Space arena in the country.

In 2013, South Africa launched its third satellite, developed by Masters Students from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology
in the Western Cape province.

It was South Africa’s first cube satellite known as TshepisoSat (Code name ZA-CUBE1).

“In conjunction with developing small satellites, there’s now a big move to developing CubeSats,” says Majaja.

Nomfuneko Majaja. Picture: Supplied

A cube satellite is a miniaturized satellite made up of multiples of 10cm×10cm×10cm cubic units. Satellites are getting smaller, smaller, and still smaller.

Euroconsult, a global independent consulting and analyst firm specializing in satellite-enabled vertical markets, predicts that about 7,000 small satellites will be launched, at an average of 580 per year by 2022 and growing to an average of 820 per year by 2027.

“You can put a satellite in your hand, that’s how small it is,” adds Majaja.

Bull is also working on a project with XinaBox to create an even smaller satellite called the XSat.

“It could fit into an iPhone 7 Plus. It is that tiny,” she says.

“We have an array of sensors for infra-red sensing, ultraviolet light sensing, carbon emissions…”

It will also have GPS sensors.

South Africa is currently working on launching the next CubeSat in December 2018 on a Russian launcher.

One of the ambitious projects many are looking forward to in the country is the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometer (one million square meters) of collecting area.

According to its website, it will deploy thousands of radio telescopes, in three unique configurations, and enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.

“The South African MeerKAT radio telescope is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1,” says its website.

More than 500 international astronomers and 58 from Africa have submitted proposals to work with MeerKAT once it’s completed.

“The space industry in Africa is really going to change completely, because of things like the Square Kilometre Array and MeerKAT and the fact that there are a lot of space-tech companies in Africa and African governments doing satellites,” says Bull.

“Soon, we might have a space agency on the continent that could rival NASA in terms of research, because we are strategically placed fora lot of research that the people in the US can’t do.

“The space industry is going to move and it is going to change and if we have enough people who are passionate enough about it, then we might just be at the helm of the ship.”

Using space technology to resolve Africa’s problems

Thousands of kilometers away from South Africa, 24-year-old Oniosun Temidayo has made it his life’s mission to make Africa the next frontier of the space industry.

Temidayo grew up in a family of five children in Oyo State in the southwest of Nigeria, but always aspired to go to space. There were no opportunities to study aerospace engineering or astronomy so he studied meteorology instead, but space is his first love, and he has been involved in the industry for the last six years.

“The good thing about investing in the space industry is that it helps you solve major societal problems. Space technologies can go along way in actually helping us solve issues like agriculture or security,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

When he was 18, he established a space club at his university with over 200 members. He was also involved in the university’s center for space research.

In 2017, he was part of the group that created Nigeria’s first nanosatellite in conjunction with the Japanese Birds-1 program, a collaborative effort between the Federal University of Technology, Akure(FUTA), and the National Space Research and Development Agency.

It involved five countries, namely Bangladesh, Japan, Mongolia, Ghana and Nigeria. Temidayo worked on the grand station development.

The project’s aim was to equip the future generation of students to create their own satellites.

Post his studies, Temidayo joined the Space Generation Advisory Council, a global organization aiming to bring the views of young space professionals to the United Nations.

There, he became the African regional coordinator driving the development of space and promoting STEM.

In 2017, they hosted an African region space generation workshop, a gathering of young space professionals in Africa with 15 countries in attendance.

Early 2018, the young entrepreneur founded a company called Space in Africa, a platform that covers the business, technology, discoveries, events and political news around the African space and satellite industry.

His goal was to put out African-related information about the industry that he found lacking.

“In Africa, we believe it’s actually time to get involved in the space industry. But we realized this is not going to happen if there is no adequate information on the industry,” he says.

He was the only African listed under the 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space Awards given away by The Mars Generation (anon-profit with boards of leaders from the space industry) early 2018. The list awards young people driving STEM and space globally.


Oniosun Temidayo. Picture: Supplied

In August, he also made it to the 35 Under 35 in the space industry ranking by the International Institute of Space Commerce (established at the Isle of Man). He was one of two Africans on the list.

Despite the lack of resources Nigeria has in space technology, Temidayo says space technology can help in a much bigger way.

“I remember when the Chibok girls went missing in Nigeria,that’s actually a scenario where space technologies could have been capitalized on. At some point, we were using satellite technologies to track them,” he says.

Temidayo emphasizes on technology.

“The argument shouldn’t be ‘should we invest in space’? Yes,we should invest in space. At the same time, we should have policies that enable us to actually make use of these technologies to solve our problems.”

Africa’s outer space strategy

Despite the many challenges Africa faces, experts say it should not shy away from the space race and many countries on the continent plan to make their name in the sector.

There are currently 13 space agencies listed in Africa and 28 satellites have been launched by African countries (owned by Egypt, Algeria,Angola, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya).

According to the Business and Market Analysis of the African Space Industry done by Space in Africa, over $3 billion has been spent on space projects in Africa since the launch of NILESAT 101 by Egypt in 1998.

“Over 40% of the satellites launched in Africa were launched over the last two years,” Temidayo says.

“This means that in the past two years, African countries have been investing more in space technologies than they were 10 years back.”

Temidayo expects the trend to continue.

“By the end of this year [2018], four more satellites will be launched by African countries.”

Kenya launched a satellite too in 2018.

Charles Mwangi was involved in the development of Kenya’s first space object christened 1st Kenya University Nano-Satellite (1KUNS-PF),also a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm cube satellite.

“Kenya is a space-fearing nation,” he says. “Meaning, we have a space object out there; we have joined the space race.”

He is currently the assistant country coordinator for Kenya Space Agency and is pursuing a second master’s degree in the field of space development.

He wants to be a force in the Kenyan space industry and says instead of going to space, his dream is to inspire young people here on earth.

“I want to make an impact so that kids can dream about space as a career,” he says.

He hopes Kenya will be able to maximize the full benefits of the space industry.

“If satellites can be designed, assembled and tested in Kenya, if we can do that, then we can say we are making progress.”

According to the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063, one of the aspirations is to develop the African Outer Space Strategy with plans to establish an African space agency.

In 2017, a framework was developed by the AU on how to fund the agency, draft its goals, benefits and legalities.

“African countries are investing more in space now more than ever, and the trend is actually going way up. We expect it to remain like that,” Bull from South Africa agrees.

“The perception of space is changing; it’s not something for geeks anymore, it’s not something unheard of. A lot of people are starting to take it seriously and they are also starting to be interested in it,” she says.

“So that means there’s going to be more people going into the space industry and contributing, which means we will make progress faster.”

“Seeing that space has a strategic place in enabling the economy, we believe that the government should do that,” Majaja concurs.

This will help governments in strategic planning with the data they receive from satellites.

She says satellites can assist with weather, ocean and border monitoring and management.

“There is room for us to manufacture our own satellites and be able to distribute data,” she says. However, there are big challenges a head for the continent.

“Most African countries cannot afford to spend on space technologies,” Temidayo says. In addition, he says there aren’t enough educational programs in Africa that support space study.

 “African countries have relied on countries like China to build their space technologies,” he says.

“If we want to grow our space industry, we need to start grooming the people who are going to be building the space agencies.”

Training more people in the space industry and STEM is important.

Temidayo says the African space industry is only $3 billion of the $400 billion globally. And Nigeria and South Africa have been leading in this space.

While other global countries are planning their next trips to Mars and other planets, Africa still has a long way to go.

“Africa cannot think like that. We have a lot of problems to solve so let’s use space technologies to solve our problems. I don’t think Africa should get involved in such missions. Let’s use space tech to solve our problems first,” says Temidayo.

He adds that more Africans are traveling to developed countries to learn about the space industry and returning to contribute towards it in Africa.

“With the rate at which we are growing, I think the future is bright… My goal is to actually see a booming space industry in Africa,” he says.

“I want to see the first commercial space unicorn in Africa. If I see that, I’m going to be super happy.”

He believes that although Africa may not currently be at the forefront of the space race, more local businesses and startups should be involved.

Global players in another realm

Space is a dark, airless vacuum, full of radiation and unknown microorganisms.

But for some companies, this vacuum can throw up big business possibilities.

Since the mid-20th century, during the cold war, space exploration has seen stiff competition.

Now, it has become easier and less costly to fly to space or send satellites to space.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) 2017 annual report, there are approximately 4,600 satellites in the earth’s orbit.

A Celestis capsule attached to a rocket. Picture: Supplied

In 2017 alone, there were 553 satellites and other space objects registered.

These were a combination of privately-owned and government objects. This is an increase of 8.91% compared to satellites registered in 2016. The countries with the most satellites in space are Russia, the UnitedStates, China, Japan, France and India.

This shows a rising interest in space exploration as scientists keep developing more economical space rockets.

At the moment, Space X is one of the most notable companies making an impact in the space industry.

The big American corporate founded by South Africa-born techpreneur, Elon Musk, is known for designing, manufacturing and launching advanced rockets and spacecraft.

In 2012, it became the first privately-owned company to send a spacecraft, known as Dragon, to the ISS to deliver cargo and return to earth.

Since then, there has been an increase in the number of private players looking to the stars.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate revenue of $1.1 trillion or more by 2040, up from$350 billion.

Apart from the exploration of intelligent life forms, investors are looking for out-of-the-world profits.

Billionaire Richard Branson is in the space race and his company Virgin Galactic is hoping to put people in space soon.

“One of our biggest investments has been the space companies, which we have already invested $1 billion to set up,” he says in FORBES’ 100th anniversary issue in 2017.

Ashes among the stars 

One other company invested in the space industry is the Houston-based Celestis. If anything, it has transformed the way memorials are done.

The company has been launching the ashes of loved ones into space since 1997.

It garnered global attention when it dispatched a symbolic portion of the cremated remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, 1960sicon Timothy Leary, and 22 other participants into earth’s orbit aboard a Pegasus rocket.

Charles Chafer, the CEO of Celestis, co-founded the business in 1994.

“Our job was to put together two of the most conservative industries out there, the space industry and the funeral industry,” he tellsFORBES AFRICA.

Since then, they have been dominating the memorial space industry and have not looked back.

Charles Chafer. Picture: Supplied

The ashes are kept in a capsule and transported into space via rockets traveling there.

The company offers services to launch the capsule into space in a zero gravity environment and then return it to earth.

Another service includes launching the capsule into orbit where it remains until it re-enters the atmosphere.

Lastly, the capsule can also be launched to permanently remain on the moon.

Each capsule has a tracker and transmits the data of its location.

In 2019, the company plans to launch a voyager service that will send the spacecraft carrying the capsules on a permanent journey through space.

Chafer says the space industry offers many avenues for growth.

“We have an opportunity to extend our civilization at large throughout the solar system,” he says.

“I see it as an opportunity that’s not just economic and cultural, but a human opportunity… It’s pretty simple because I think  we are starting to see that you cannot have unlimited growth of any kind in a finite system and earth is a finite system,” he says.

The company has seen vertical growth.

“We have basically doubled our revenues every year for the last three years,” says Chafer.

But there is no guarantee every startup will be successful, he adds.

“The great thing about having different companies is that there will be a lot of good ideas. But by no means will all of them make it…You need a lot for some of the best ones to emerge and become part of that economy.”

Chafer believes his business is here to stay,  and in the future, he would like his own remains to be sent off to the depths of space.


Rocket launch at Celestis. Picture: Supplied
The risks at zero gravity

Meir Moalem, a former fighter pilot from Israel, is the CEO and co-founder of Sky and Space Global ltd.

Growing up, Moalem was a space geek.

“I always considered myself a space junkie. I loved astronomy and read all the science fiction books. So it was very clear to me that when I’d come of age, I would do something that involves physics, astronomy, space or something like that,” he says.

Instead, he found himself becoming a jet pilot in the Israeli air force and spent 25 years there. That’s also when he decided to acquire a degree in physics and get involved in Israel’s space industry.

When he graduated, he became the manager of an Israeli project that sent an astronaut to space.

In 2003, a friend, Ilan Ramon, was part of a seven-crew member trip to space on board the space shuttle Columbia. He was Israel’s first astronaut.

However, the two-week mission ended in tragedy as the shuttle was destroyed 16 minutes before it landed on earth. All seven crew members died.

“It was also a reminder about how dangerous space is. It is exciting, it is sexy, it invigorates the imagination, it has a huge value but it is also a risky business,” Moalem tells FORBES AFRICA.

A quick Google search reveals that there have been 30 recorded fatalities resulting from space flights or testing.

“When people are not involved and when a satellite explodes on a launchpad, we tend to think it’s only money, but although lives are notlost, it is not only money.

“It’s people who have invested years of their lives in a mission and were looking forward to see the success of their work being put into that, but it is a risky business,” he says.

NASA and Space.com estimate the average space shuttle mission costs between $450 million and $1.6 billion.

According to Business Insider, one of the most expensive failed space missions lost $424 million.

This was a NASA launch in 2011.

The satellite was meant to track the earth’s climate but encountered problems when the rocket’s nose cone failed to separate.

In developing countries that depend on internationally-owned satellites, that loss also has an impact, says Majaja.

“Imagine just one day, a satellite is switched off and you are unable to do a transaction you want with your financial institution.

Meir Moalem. Picture: Supplied

“Imagine all of us in South Africa… our lives will come to an end, the company’s lives will come to an end, these economies will come to a standstill,” she says.

The failure of satellites can have an enormous ripple effect on the whole world.

Moalem says it is a very difficult and complex business but it’s also about innovation.

Despite the major risks involved, his company launched its first satellite in June 2017.

Now, it’s planning to launch 200 nanosatellites into orbit in 2019.

“Up until now, when you are working on a commercial space application, it is extremely expensive and you are working for years and years and you have a satellite that costs $200 million or $300 million or a rocket that costs $100 million and God forbid something happens, and you lose years and years of effort,” he says.

Moalem is planning to change the risk factors involved in space projects.

“We are actually transforming that and creating a reliable ecosystem,” he says.

Instead of launching the 200 satellites at one go, they are launching 20 to 25 satellites every three months so that if something inadvertent were to happen, it would have less of an impact on the business or overall program.

 “What we are doing is completely disruptive and it has transformed the capital structure in the space business,” he says.

“You don’t need hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to build a commercial space company. You can do with a lot less and still provide very good services and very good capabilities to your customers.

“We are changing the way we are thinking about it and making the space business or space endeavours more reliable, more trust-worthy,” he adds.

He says it is becoming cheaper and the trust factor is in place now because you can contain the risk.

Moalem’s business has been able to raise $35 million on the Australian stock exchange.

Through the 200 nanosatellites, he hopes to improve mobile communication coverage globally by offering a service to internet of things services and data service providers for faster and efficient communication.

No doubt there have been huge leaps in the journeys to space with advancements in communication and technology.

This has also been fueled by entrepreneurship and innovation.

Outer space has become a level playing field, and Africa is ready to lift-off.

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