Africa’s Peaceful Use of Space Technology

Space Technology

Nigeria’s National Space research headquarters (NASRDA)

Peaceful progress, satellites, and space technology aren’t the words often mentioned in the same sentence, containing the names of African countries. Yet, it’s been more than a decade since sub-Saharan Africa commenced its study & experiments on the potential applications of space technology.  Nigeria and South Africa started its race for space in the late 1990s (South Africa launched its first satellite in 1999). Currently, Nigeria has four satellites orbiting the globe. The satellites are used for diverse purpose: to support business, monitor oil-rich lands, prevent natural disasters, etc. The demand for satellite bandwidth has also surged at a greater rate in the African continent, in the past decade. The bandwidth companies used efficient, practical plans for the population to reduce the cost of internet and in turn to drive the demand. Although the continent is rich in various natural resources, capital is its limited commodity. So similar to the manifold controversies in other developing nations, there’s some skepticism over the high cost funding for infrastructure, manufacture, and launch. Nevertheless, the scientists believe that their satellites are not just for star gazing or to boost commercial use of internet. The efficient application of the technology may address the basic problems plaguing the country: drought and poverty.

The Nigerian government has poured in millions of dollars to build its vast National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA – created in 1995). The agency’s first satellite cost $13 million (manufactured in U.K. and launched from Russia). The immediate goal of NASRDA is to build a full satellite in the agency and launch it from Nigeria by 2020. The primary focus of the Nigerian space program is to address socioeconomic development. And, there’s none of the space-conquering goal between Nigeria and other African countries (unlike the US and USSR space programs). NASRDA was also credited for using technology to increasing people’s access to the ballot. Rampant corruption and manipulated contest in elections are the common norms in Nigerian politics. NASRDA is trying its best to give the accessible technology for the people living in far-flung rural areas.

A rocket carrying Nigerian satellite launched from Chinese site.

NASRDA’s detailed satellite-generated maps for the purpose of election monitoring (during the 2011 polls) provided lot of crucial information. Many groups of people were able to find their electoral offices. Most importantly the information later ensured the formation of non-political independent election commission. Of course, the space program hasn’t methodically cleansed all the terrors of Nigeria. But the cutting-edge technologies are providing means to improve the access for basic necessities. The conflict of ideas in science eventually paves a path of hope, unlike the endless political plays.

NASRDA’s Nig Sat-1 has also helped other people around the globe. In 2005, the Nigerian satellite provided detailed imagery of Hurricane Katrina approaching US Cities like New Orleans, Louisiana, etc. Nigeria is a member in the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and so the readily available data assisted the Americans to address the problem (Nig Sat-1 was the first satellite to provide useful information about the 2005 hurricane).

Apart from Nigeria and South Africa, plenty of other African nations have also understood in the usefulness in the space technologies. Countries like Ghana, Kenya, Angola, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have begun their own space programmes. Although the financial and skill issues have halted the plans for an African Space agency, efforts are made to realize that dream in a decade or two. Algeria commenced its space agency in 2002 and has launched five disaster monitoring micro-satellites. The country’s Earth observation satellite was launched from India. Egypt and South Africa have taken in Russia’s assistance to build their military satellites. Kenyan and Nigerian scientists are keen to use the technology to help the farmers and impoverished livestock herders. The climate change has increased the chances of drought in the sub-Saharan Africa (the land where none of the crops could be cultivated). The world’s poorest live in these regions – many of them are nomadic pastoralists.

The satellite technology may inform them about concentration of vegetation or predict a catastrophic season. Mr. Andrew Mude, a Kenyan economist and scientist, have developed the index-based livestock insurance. The satellite data has allowed the pastoralist to buy health insurance for their cattle. When the forage dries up in a area or when cattle dies due to extreme starvation, the livestock insurance helps the people of region to overcome the problems. The insurance is said to have stopped the panicked sale of live-stocks. There’s also increase in the milk production and betterment in child nutrition. Kenyan and Ethiopian governments (plus private insurers) have only covered fraction of population through the insurance policies. But, the success of the idea has given hope to expand it. Other developing nations facing similar drought problems were interested in Mr. Mude’s solution. The satellite data or the index, of course, has its flaws, imperfections and set of challenge. Nevertheless, it’s seems to be a step in the right path.

Teenage girls team aka Satellite girls who have built Africa’s first private satellite.

Last week, there was minor yet uplifting news from the African continent. Fourteen South African teenage girls, part of high school science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) boot camp have built Africa’s first private satellite. The satellite will be launched by May 2017 and the satellite’s payload will provide thermal imaging data. It is to predict worse weather changes and improve food security. South African farmers, in recent times, have been adversely impacted by drought brought on by El Nino. This project may help predict the problems. The teenage girls trained by engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology first programmed micro-satellites and launched weather balloons, before their larger trial. The news about the South African girls has made waves across international media. African women’s involvement in scientific researches are less than 20 percent. This news could put a positive spin on the issue (there’s expansion plans to bring in girls from Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, etc).

A lot of nations endeavor in space to strengthen their strategic points or to expand the single-minded commercial viabilities. Let’s hope that the principled endeavor in space technology by the African nations advances the continent’s education and eradicate life-consuming crisis.

 

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  • sunita

    A great insight into the space programme in Africa, little bit surprised at the rapid strides that Nigeria has taken in this direction.

    • Arun

      Thank you. I was also initially a little surprised when learning about the space research of the African countries. But as the head of Nigeria’s space program says, this is not an ego trip’. They are really intent on using these technologies for the betterment of their people. And, yes these countries face numerous terrorist problems, looming civil wars, and corruption scandals. Yet, this seems to be a very positive sign.