CARNARVON, SOUTH AFRICA-- The newly-launched MeerKAT radio telescope, the gem of the Karoo and the precursor of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international effort to build the world's most powerful tool to peer into the skies, has brought more than just astronomers to Carnarvon in South Africa's Northern Cape Province.

Billed as the most sensitive radio telescope in the world currently in operation after scientists unveiled breath-taking images from the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, the project has empowered local businesses, contributed to infrastructure investment and opened up educational and employment opportunities for the small town, says Kareeberg Municipality Mayor Norman van Wyk.

The prospects of major scientific research has attracted scientists and tourists to the local town, and that has led to local contractors getting a lot of work. This includes, among others, visitors and scientists spending 3.0 million Rand (about 226,000 US dollars) on catering companies, 4.0 million Rand n transport and local entrepreneurs being given business support by the MeerKAT project managers.

Van Wyk says young people in the area are also reaping the benefits of the projects by accessing bursary opportunities to study at technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

The SKA South Africa facilitates human capital development programmes at 22 schools in town that surround the SKA project, which reaches 5,400 students.

In addition to a tarred road and several wi-fi hotspots in the local community, 72 students are studying at technical colleges for further education and training.

I am mentioning these things as highlights of the success that comes out of a partnership between government and the private sector. The SKA has also committed to help register local black entrepreneurs on the central supply database to ensure that everyone has a chance to tender for government contracts, Van Wyk says.

In his address at the launch of the 64-dish MeerKAT on July 13, in Carnarvon, Deputy President David Mabuza said 75 per cent of the components which went into the construction of the MeerKAT were sourced locally. During construction, more than 134 million Rand were spent on local suppliers, and 351 people were trained by major SKA contractors.

In addition, more than 110 million Rand were awarded to 16 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through a financial assistance programme. This has empowered local industry and institutions to acquire skills and expertise in advanced technologies, and to grow their international competitiveness, Mabuza said.

The Deputy President said there was no doubt that the launch of the MeerKAT further strengthened the prospects of a larger role for South Africa in the construction of the SKA, and promises numerous benefits for the country and the region as a whole.

There has been a visible impact on the real estate sector of the Northern Cape, which has led to new economic opportunities for local communities. It gives me pleasure that the SKA project has had a direct impact on job creation, thus changing the lives of many families. The SKA project has created 7 284 employment opportunities through the construction of the MeerKAT and related projects." added Mabuza.

These include land acquisition, the resurfacing of 80km of road to the site, the construction of 110km of power lines, fibre rollout, as well as the MeerKAT data centre."