Carnarvon – This Northern Cape town’s economy is like a small dam. Though the pebble you throw into it is small, the ripples will spread widely.
That’s what's happening now thanks to this town’s starry splendour.
Carnarvon has only about 6 000 inhabitants, says Ellen Riley, a councillor of the Kareeberg municipality. It's traditionally a farming community with around 200 sheep farmers in the environment and a large abattoir in the town.
But, she says, “Our darkness and silence and underdevelopment are our assets.”
Some eight years ago this drew scientists to develop the KAT-7 radio telescope some 80km outside town, on the other side of Klerefontein.
It is growing into the MeerKAT array, and ultimately the R20bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s biggest radio telescope and the biggest scientific project on earth, will be erected on the same site.
The people of Carnarvon explain that these projects are highly technical and unlikely to create thousands of jobs.
About 60% of the town’s inhabitants are unemployed, says municipal manager Zolile Dingile. Nevertheless the small “pebbles” are already creating economic ripples.
Lize-Maré Malan and her mother, Magrieta Botha, operate two guest houses and overnight rooms. Some engineers who are involved with the SKA are occupying these guest houses for the duration of their contracts – up to 17 months.
They also take more meals than do guests just passing through and thus there are bigger returns per bed.
Thanks to the SKA a third of the beds are semi-permanently booked, producing a nice steady income.
They say the SKA has its own guest houses on its site where it houses many of its own guests, but “they buy everything locally”.
Nicolette Fourie manages the Carnarvon hotel, which was started by her great-grandfather many years ago. Five of the hotel’s 13 rooms are occupied by contractors who are building the substation for the SKA.
And there is increasing interest in buying the hotel, Blikkies Bar and all.
Wilhelm Biermann, the local estate agent from Pam Golding Properties, says that thanks to the SKA the property market is certainly more protected from economic setbacks than that in other small Karoo towns.
This has resulted in more than five families moving to the town. This may not seem many, but to this village it makes a big difference, says Biermann.
In 1992 he himself bought a house for R75 000. Today a good house cannot be found in the town for less than R650 000 and an owner recently rejected an offer of R1m.
Biermann reckons property in the town is currently fully priced and says enquires about business opportunities are on the increase. “But,” he says, “Carnarvon is not about to become a city.”
According to Dingile, plans have already been approved for an SKA information centre for tourists wanting to see what all the fuss is about. Riley says the SKA will invest around R27m in the town for the project.
That and the new tarred road to Vosburg will bring the town many more tourist rands, believes Liz McKinnon, owner of the Lemon Tree coffee shop. The road will save those travelling between the north and the south more than 100km.
She says the recent heavy snow in the Victoria West environment caused people to take detours. “We had a taste of what it would be like once the road is tarred,” she says. Her turnover quadrupled on that specific Sunday.
The more the coffee drinkers visit Lemon Tree, the more the people she will be able to employ, says McKinnon.
The SKA’s contribution is not only in rands and cents. According to Hendrik Robyn, headmaster at Hoërskool Carnarvon, the SKA scientists took all the school’s teachers to Johannesburg to learn from schools there.
The scientists are especially willing to assist with teaching maths, science and languages and have donated a fully equipped computer centre with 42 computers and a monthly internet package to the school.
It's difficult to attract maths teachers to Carnarvon, but the SKA has indicated that it is prepared to help with an honorarium, says Robyn.
Bursaries are also available for the children, he says, but it will involve a long process to produce achievers who qualify.
Currently the biggest challenge is to bring home to the Karoo children – who often come from difficult socioeconomic circumstances – that after-school and even postgraduate studies are really within their reach.
SKA spokesperson Pieter Snyman says the economic benefits of the SKA and its predecessors will gradually become evident in Carnarvon, but there will be many opportunities during the construction phase, in particular.
Last week the site was handed over to the contractor who will build an underground computer centre on the SKA site and at the end of the year the tender for constructing the dishes will be awarded.
He estimates that between 100 and 300 job opportunities will arise in the first construction phase.
The organisation already has a database with 400 names of residents who might be employed. He says that in two or three years’ time the real impact of the project will be much greater.
Workers busy raking gravel on a portion of the road between Carnarvon and Vosburg, which is being tarred. They say that because of the severe cold, the gravel loosened and this section needs to be re-tarred.
According to the chief contractor, Haw & Inglis has to complete this project worth R183m by year-end.The SKA:
- It would take almost 2m years to replay the data that the SKA collects in 24 hours on an iPad;
- The SKA’s central computer will have the processing capacity of about 100 million PCs;
- The fibre-optic cable used for the SKA could circle the earth twice;
- The SKA’s dishes will produce 10 times the current amount of internet traffic;
- The SKA’s supercomputer will execute 1 018 steps a second – necessary to process all the data it will collect;
- The SKA will be so sensitive that it will be able to pick up an airport radar on a plant 50 light years from earth.Carnarvon’s telescope:
KAT-7 has already been built and consists of seven dishes. It's a prototype for the MeerKAT and the first radio telescope in the world with dishes manufactured from composite material (fibreglass).
KAT-7 has already produced images and radio astronomers use its data in their research.
MeerKAT is a precursor to the SKA. It will consist of 64 dish antennae and eventually form a quarter of the first phase of the SKA. MeerKAT will be the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.
SKA: Square Kilometre Array. It will be the biggest telescope and the biggest scientific project on earth.
It will consist of thousands of large antennae interlinked by fibre-optic cables. The biggest part of the SKA is being built on a site 80km outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with a smaller portion in West Australia.
The total surface area of all the antennae together is one square kilometre. The construction of the R20bn project will take place in two stages. The first starts in 2016 and the second in 2024.
- For more business news in Afrikaans, visit www.sake24.com