Legacy Gallery: The Geospatial Industry in Southern Africa

The Geospatial Industry in Southern Africa

Authors: Lynn Fanikiso


Geospatial Science has become a booming industry worldwide particularly with the widespread mentality around the fourth Industrial Revolution. It has evolved to different extents globally based on the variability of resources, manpower, technology, and mindset. This article presents a potential framework for the review of progress within this highly dynamic industry for the SADC region. This is achieved by linking its integration into the education system to how it feeds into the market demand. This research hopes to provide a better understanding of Southern Africa’s context so Women in Geospatial+ (WIG+) can better serve the needs of its Southern African members and identify avenues for WIG+ to set up a node within Southern Africa.


Data collection was conducted by employing a digital questionnaire via the google forms platform and can be found at the link: Studies of this magnitude are difficult to conduct because ensuring a uniform distribution of the questionnaire over such a big area is problematic. By using the following online platforms, the questionnaire was distributed as widely as possible:

  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Slack

Attempts were also made to disseminate the questionnaire through Geospatial organizations in each of the countries, however only the South African Geomatics Council (SAGC) and the Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics (ZIG) were responsive and shared the form. The target audience was specified to be emigrants or immigrants of the SADC region who have interacted with the Geospatial sector through education or employment.


There are varying geopolitical definitions regarding the spatial extent of Southern Africa. For this study, the SADC zone depicted in the map below is indicative of the study focus area. SADC is a coalition of 14 member states meant to unite under a common mandate to promote sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development.

Figure 1 Study Area: SADC region


The questionnaire was only made available for 2 months and a total of 127 responses were recorded which form the basis of the statistics presented here. The graph below clearly indicates a higher number of male respondents as opposed to women within every age group which is reflective of SADC’s concerns towards the inclusion of women in science and technical subject matter. A 2020 report claims that Zimbabwe has the highest inclusion rate of 20.9% (Secretariat, 2020). There is a significant growth in interest within the younger age group which has also been linked to increased technological advancements in the GIS space.

Figure 2 Study Gender Demographics

Racial inclusion is also an important factor to consider particularly because of the influence of colonization and the multilingual nature of the region. Most respondents considered themselves black (71%) whilst only 24% were white. This can be expected because the study is focused on a predominantly black region of the world.

Figure 3 Study Racial Demographic

To link these statistics specifically to the geospatial industry, the questionnaire also allowed the respondents to classify their professional expertise based on 7 geospatial streams as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4 Specialization statistics

The data shows a greater inclination towards more application-based work through the manipulation of spatial data and applying it in Earth sciences as well as primary data collection through land surveying. There was less popularity for desktop-based work, however, some respondents cited their interest in the geospatial industry is based on wanting an occupation where they could work outside. There is a concern at the lack of interest in the inventive aspect of geospatial science. It becomes even more apparent because South Africa is the only regional country that produces noted research.

The Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing ranks South Africa 16th with 16 notable authors whilst countries like China occupy the top rank with 401 recorded authors. The research output disparity between the North and South hemispheres is also a contributing factor to Southern Africa’s current stance. For example, widely used satellite datasets are more so suited to the research needs of Northern countries because they launched these satellite missions. Although the respondents had highlighted their areas of focus, it was necessary to understand employability within the industry. They were asked to highlight their employment status and specifically whether they worked within the geospatial industry or had branched out into other fields.

Figure 5 Industry Employability

The geospatial industry seems to be self-sustaining with more employment within the industry. The hands-on practicality also allows for the flexibility of freelancing opportunities. Employability still begs the question of inclusion and empowerment which is why employed respondents were asked to highlight their level of management within their respective organizations, below is a statistical breakdown based on race and gender.

Figure 6 Gender Disparity Statistics

Figure 7 Racial Disparity

Men dominated at all levels of management and particularly within executive positions, although more black respondents were recorded, they occupied most of the bottom tier of management whilst white respondents held more positions of power. It is also worth noting that levels of employment are influenced by the level of professional accreditation and education in some instances. 51.2% of respondents were accredited and licensed to operate by one of the following:

  • SAGC
  • Council of Land Surveyors of Zimbabwe
  • Survey Institute of Zimbabwe

Whilst these associations offered networking opportunities:

  • Botswana Institute of Geomatics
  • Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics
  • The NUST Geoinformation Technology Student Society
  • The IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society (IEEE GRSS)
  • The Geo-Information Society of South Africa (GISSA)

The structure of geospatial organizations is loosely based on the accreditation guidelines of these accreditation boards. For example, SAGC operates with 4 levels of accreditation being Professionals, Technologists, Technicians, and Candidates. Whilst these boards are integral to professional development, it is interesting to note that 69.3% of respondents still felt that they did not have adequate mentorship, support, and networking platforms within the region, this might be due to steep registration or exam fees of accreditation boards. This can also create an elitist culture within the industry further causing detriment to mentorship opportunities.

Respondents also indicated the need for continuous self-development with 19% indicating some level of current educational enrollment. Most respondents indicated that their highest qualification is a bachelor’s degree whilst many have also progressed to the Honors level, but the numbers have dwindled with higher qualifications. The results show no direct correlation between the level of education and employability which may mean Geospatial skills are highly marketable and offer

equal opportunities despite qualifications. Many respondents emphasized that salary fixing is rife within the industry which may also be attributed to qualifications and accreditation standards.

Figure 8 Educational Qualification Statistics


Understanding the current state of the geospatial industry within SADC lies in first understanding its infiltration into the region. The introduction of geospatial concepts is fundamentally through Geography in lower-level educational institutions such as secondary schools. In 2019, a study concluded that although there are 14 countries within the region, only 4 had a curriculum that allowed for the adoption of GIS-based teaching. They attributed this to limitations such as lack of infrastructure, technical knowledge and support, usable data, and financing(Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019).


Botswana has seen a steady rise in the use of Geospatial data since 1995 and its introduction was fueled by the influence of non-governmental as well as international organizations such as UNEP, NORAD, and UNESCO through the need and implementation of resource databases (Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019). South Africa has included GIS through its Geography curriculum since 2003. The introduction of fundamental geospatial concepts such as remote sensing, resolution, georeferencing, and data types from as early as Grade 10 has probably led to South Africa being the most advanced in the region regarding bridging between theory and the practicality of Geospatial Science (Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019). It was only in the mid‐ 1980s that GIS systems were initiated in South Africa through research institutions like the Department of Water Affairs (Hill and Nel, 1996).

Cartography is introduced from Junior school in Malawi and translates to interpretation at the secondary level. The knowledge is imparted theoretically with very little practicality because of the lack of expertise and often external assistance is required (Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019). Lesotho’s approach on the other hand has been to lay a foundation through basic concepts such as map-making and interpretation (Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019). Although there is concern that this is not enough to fully inform students about geospatial careers, GIS is held in high regard because the Ministry of Education has seen it fit to ensure the installation of GIS software and internet connection infrastructure in both foundational and tertiary educational institutions as part of its mandate to grow the use of ICT. The table below from a SADC report shows how widespread the use of ICT connectivity has been across the region (Secretariat, 2020).

Table 1 Percentage of People Using the Internet (2009-2018) in Southern Africa


Geospatial Science has grown by being attached to other industries such as urban and land use planning, environmental management, mining exploration, and conservation. There has been an industry shift into professionals specializing specifically in GIS due to its fast-paced changes. For example, Musakwa 2017; conducted a study into the significance of GIS for urban planners in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He stressed that the need to develop Planning Support Systems has grown with the growth of the ‘smart city’ mentality (Musakwa, 2017). however, we also cannot ignore that Southern Africa still has a heavily rural aspect to it. Perhaps Noongo, 2007 is right in saying the GIS-based digital revolution is useless for the marginalized communities within Southern Africa (Noongo, 2007). Adapting GIS to the context of Southern Africa means using GIS to solve pressing issues such as disease surveillance, rapid urbanization, informal settlements, desertification, land reform, and smart agriculture as well as sea-level and natural disaster issues that concern the small island states of Southern Africa (Johnson et al., 2008). Although GIS is a tool meant to improve the ability to make more informed decisions, the lack of understanding of its transdisciplinary nature has led to resistance by government structures in implementing GIS as part of their procedures (Musakwa, 2017).


There has been a global shift towards the adoption of programming for GIS, however, the results indicated that almost 70% of respondents still have most of their work or interests linked to fieldwork and 60% have a programming aspect to their work. Many respondents also echoed Musakwa’s frustration at the lack of technological advancement because the older generation in positions of management stifles the extent of computational expertise in geospatial science-based roles. ESRI’s ArcGIS suite of applications was quite popular amongst respondents along with Global mapper, whilst QGIS was seemingly an open-source favorite and the favored language for coding was python. Other mentionable platforms were PlanetGIS, Matlab, Rstudio, and ENVI; the respondents seemingly do not use application-specific tools but instead adapt them to the demands of their tasks.

Tech savviness can also be inferred from the availability and maintenance of data sharing portals in the different SADC countries.50.4% of respondents indicated the existence of some form of data sharing portals within their countries, however, 26% said no whilst at least 18% did not know; this also speaks to how knowledgeable we are about the resources we have access to and how we utilize them to better our skills. Amade et al ,2018 concluded in a Mozambican-based study that the main drivers of Geoinformation technology use are compatibility, competitive pressure, task complexity, donor pressure, government policy, innovation, security, and competence (Amade et al., 2018). Most statistical data is managed by national statistics offices in the region whilst land parcel data is often administered through surveyor-general departments via websites and in some instances, data requests are still necessary.


There are several reasons we can attribute the lack of GIS growth in other SADC countries to, but it is mostly because there is very little to poor documentation of this sector which leads to the invalid association of issues such as HIV/AIDS instead of properly understanding the inner workings of the industry. There is a lack of understanding of the importance of GIS and rigid education systems that make it hard to embrace new technologies or approaches. Civil wars and political frustration have also been a stumbling block in countries like Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe whereas the use of a multilingual education system in South Africa may also present a challenge in communicating the English-based content of GIS (Mzuza and Van Der Westhuizen, 2019).

Conclusion & Recommendations

Based on the questionnaire responses, most participants owe their interest in the Geospatial Industry to mentorship and educational training. Many highlighted their high aptitude for mathematics and Geography from secondary school or finding a segue into GIS through other courses at the tertiary level. Interestingly some noted that land surveying simply looked interesting, or it was linked to funding opportunities. Many seemed to have the same consensus that the Geospatial industry is very isolated, and it is difficult to stay abreast with information as opposed to other regions of the world where programs such as Europe’s Copernicus program help to keep professionals, researchers, and governments all interconnected and involved. Although associations such as the SADC Regional Remote Sensing Unit (RRSU) exist, they have no visibility. It is abundantly clear that there is a need to better industry accessibility across the board and perhaps this is the gap that WIG+ can fill. Although the 127 responses have given insight into the inner workings of the Geospatial industry, they are not enough for a firm assessment of the regional situation. This article simply communicates a foundational framework for future studies that will hopefully have a further reach within the region.

Based on the findings of this study, the recommendations offered here are in resounding agreement with past authors (Hill and Nel, 1996).

  1. National and regional GIS data sharing portals must be designed that encompass landmarks, natural and mad made features
  2. In tackling resource accessibility, the use of open-source software must be insisted upon during training to allow for self-employment beyond
  3. Accreditation must be standardized within the region to allow for easy collaboration, funding, research, and access to job
  4. Tertiary institutions and professional bodies must work together to create a seamless transition into the industry for
  5. There needs to be better communication between research institutions and government sectors to ensure that their objectives are adaptable to the Southern African

This study proves that political, cultural, and financial systems are the biggest limiting factor in the progress of GIS within the region. Although this might be true for any industry, this study has proven the relevance of these factors by integrating elements of ICT infrastructure as well as GIS software, education, functionality, resources, education, and data availability. This report has successfully communicated that Southern Africa cannot realistically keep up with more developed nations and informed WIG+ on how best to serve the needs of Southern Africa in creating platforms that ensure the betterment of the geospatial industry.


AMADE, N., PAINHO, M. & OLIVEIRA, T. 2018. Geographic information technology usage in developing countries – A case study in Mozambique. Geo-spatial Information Science, 21, 331-345.

HILL, T. & NEL, E. L. 1996. The state of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) training and research in South African universities. Development Southern Africa, 13, 149-154.

JOHNSON, D., DESHMUKH, M. & KALE 2008. Role of GIS and remote sensing in the sustainable development of Mauritius.

MUSAKWA, W. 2017. Perspectives on geospatial information science education: an example of urban planners in Southern Africa. Geo-spatial Information Science, 20, 201-208.

MZUZA, M. K. & VAN DER WESTHUIZEN, C. P. 2019. Review on the state of GIS application in secondary schools in the southern African region. South African Geographical Journal, 101, 175-191.

NOONGO, E. N. 2007. <The Implementation of Geographic Information Systems in Namibia>. Doctrate, University of Joensuu.

SECRETARIAT, S. 2020. <SADC Selected Economic and Social Indicators 2019>. Gaborone.

Forging a geospatial community where all genders can thrive.Inspire. Unite. Empower.