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Nano satellites will be the main technology platform for Africa: Allan Okoth, Founder, STEM 2030 Ltd, Kenya

Four nations in Africa have viable space programs (Representational image)

In the next five years, the African space industry is projected to grow over 40 per cent. Four nations in Africa have viable space programs; South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria but in recent years Morocco and Angola have invested in establishing space programs.

“The pay & park approach to space presence that is offered by cubesat technology has become an affordable route to African participation in space-tech. Over the last 2 years Ghana and Kenya used the cubesat approach in collaboration with Japan’s JAXA. And 2019’s Rwanda collaboration with now-bankrupt Oneweb Inc in a 3U cubesat were all indicators of fledgling steps in Africa to join space-tech,” Allan Okoth, Founder, STEM 2030 Ltd, says.

“In my opinion space technology offers an avenue to catalyze STEM in Africa because it really captures the attention of our young people and can galvanize inter-generational love for science and technology. Since 2009 I have sought to develop the Kenyan STEM ecosystem in a manner that enables even young people from poorer backgrounds secure hands-on access and develop STEM career pathways,” Allan Okoth, Founder, STEM 2030 Ltd, tells Huma Siddiqui.

Following are excerpts from an interaction:

What are your views on developments in Space-Tech in Africa?

In my opinion, five key developments are poised to shape how space-tech develops in Africa over the next decade:

As African nations increasingly embrace space-tech due to the publicity from recent cubesat launches, nations will establish space agencies and will work towards dual use surveillance satellites mostly for their national military capacity.

Civilians will drive the bulk of NewSpace ventures in Africa because this region lacks capital for space-tech which is an inherently expensive business; additionally, because space agencies are handed over by our leaders to their friends, these will not possess the necessary attributes to attract young engineers who can play in the NewSpace arena – on the converse, private ventures run by civilians will be able to do so.

Nano satellites will be the main technology platform for Africa because they are affordable and increasingly (due to miniaturization) are able to work in constellations to attain complicated mission parameters. Africa may just find that its AU (Africa Union) plans a nanosat mission similar to the QB50 venture where Africa largely missed out.

This region is taking to nanosats in a big way particularly as universities seek to keep abreast of their peers by projecting technical capacity through space presence. We urgently need a satellite testing facility where systems can be tested to qualify for launch and the first player to establish an African based test centre will benefit from massive first mover advantages for a considerable duration.

Lastly, because African engineers have only been able to apply their skills by working for NASA, UAE-Space and ESA there is a massive pent-up desire for African engineers to work at home on programs they can participate in from start-to-end and thereby showcase to the rest of the world their technological prowess. The first VC player who will enable coalescence of African space-tech talent within a start-up setting will be in line to be the next Elon Musk as they converge a large talent pool of young African space engineers who have a point to prove to the world.

How did you get involved with Kenya Space-Tech? Your journey …

STEM 2030 Ltd: is a registered company that was initially known as Science 2030 and was offering robotics to young people in Kenya from as far back as 2009. In 2011 we decided to try and implement an activity that would coalesce STEM around a national event – [email protected], which was then two years away on 12th December 2013. Our efforts were reported on for the first time to the global community in the International Tiros Space Bulletin for February 2013.

We then built up on that by bringing together the following partners to launch a High Altitude Balloon (HAB) carrying the Kenyan flag into the stratosphere on the morning of [email protected]:Cyber Trace Car Tracking Company, which funded the HAB mission in return for publicity on its asset tracking capacity; Kenya Meteorological Services (KMS) and Kenya National Space Secretariat (KNSS); South Korea based satellite company Satrec Initiative sponsored our advertisement in newspapers to enable us build-up on the [email protected] HAB publicity. However, due to lack of office space, staff or day-to-day operating finance we were unable to attract any significant event sponsors.

How did you attract young engineers?

We organized online webinars. In 2016 there were three online presentations by experts with a background in satellite engineering to groups of Physics students from The University of Nairobi.

At an event “Setting up a Kenyan Space Programme: Lessons from Ecuador” Commander Ronnie Nader, Ecuador’s first space astronaut who is also Mission Director of EXA (Ecuadorian Civilian Space Program) talked about EXA’s journey in developing cubesats; Cost considerations and benefits of cubesats; Ground Control system; Launching and operations of cubesat systems; and the importance of making our first satellites in Kenya.

What is new?

We have recently been offered an opportunity by Argentina’s Satellogic to develop and run East Africa’s first space-based challenge (a replica of a similar one running in Latin America) where we would invite universities, technical colleges and capable engineering groups to compete to be part of a team that assembles the educational payload that would be integrated onto a 2023/2024 space constellation deployment. The value of this offer is USD 250,000 if it were monetized and would be a great opportunity to commence initial awareness creation for civilian space capacity in Kenya and the surrounding region.

Last year in mid-August and September 2020 we managed to convince Israel’s SpaceIL and Kenya’s Mtoto News to join us in an inspirational presentation about the world’s first private Moon mission, followed by Australia’s Space industries Pty Ltd that outlined how it plans to extract Helium-3 on the lunar surface and can offer a few African nations an opportunity to play a part in that unique lunar mission that no nation here is presently able to be part of.

The law of the land does not allow use of public funds to be provided in private initiatives. As such we are not supported by the government and indeed do not contribute in any way to state space-tech efforts. To understand the foregoing you need to understand that whereas the normal route would have been for parliament to debate and enact establishment of the Kenya Space Agency (KSA) the agency was actually established under Presidential Decree as there was need for fast implementation because the university of Nairobi was working on a cubesat and hence need to have a space agency in place.

The result is that there was no specific policy or strategy still in place to handle how the agency interacts for instance with private players and in effect like any regulator without such, it tends to inhibit and impede attempts that are not of its own making. For instance, partial funding was offered to 5 universities to assemble cubesats. But, these have to be state universities so that the process is run in much the same way as they would be for grants to state agencies – that makes it easier for the KSA to offer and administer such.

Are you in touch with private sector companies in India?

I have been in touch with Roketeers about sourcing for model rocket kits so that we can start a sustained rocketry challenge in Eastern Africa but the laws in India do not allow for export of model rocket motors.

I have also been intermittently been in contact with: India’s robotics kit company Mirae Robotics (setting up a demonstration for nationwide STEM training setup); Technido for design of prototypes of agribot kits to use in a student challenge in Kenya and Space Kidz India for exploratory discussion in possible areas of collaboration. We have not made any significant headway.

However, we hope that in the next 12 months we can consolidate our position now that SPACK (Space Partnerships & Applications for Civilians in Kenya) is almost registered and will be able to commence operating in place of my STEM 2030, which has faced massive backlash from regulators.

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