I was wholly out to research space startups in Africa this week. I was curious to understand how private ventures get involved in the capital-intensive and, usually, government-led sector. The curiosity was similar to looking for startups who are commercial banks. I found out that there are private sector players in the sector, especially in South Africa. However, the twist played out quickly when I discerned government agencies in the space sector in Africa as startups.
Eric Ries in his book, Lean Startup, defined a startup as “a human institution designed to create something new under a condition of extreme uncertainty”. He further mentioned, “start-ups are just a series of crazy experiments.” The veteran entrepreneur emphasized the condition of uncertainty, experiments and limited resources as core features of a startup, not number of years, size and funding. This context resonates with Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA).
NASRDA, the principal space technology agency by the government was established on the 5th of May 1999 saddled with the ambitious task of developing Nigeria’s Space Science and Technology Programme. Nigeria in 1976 during a joint session of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Organization of African Union first expressed its ambition to join the elite league of nations with outer space programs. Preparatory policies followed between 1976 to 1980, leading to the establishment of a 10million naira National Remote Sensing Centre which started operation in 1996. A blueprint of what later became known as NASRDA was contained in the National Space Science and Technology Policy drafted by a nine-man committee.
The National Space Research and Development Agency had an initial runway of $93 million with a goal to “develop and promote the use of space technology as a key driver for socio-economic development”. In 2001, the Obasanjo-led administration adopted the Space Policy. May I suggest that the difference between NASRDA and Eric’s model startup is government support for the former. NASRDA had unwavering government support in its early days with a whopping $93 million initial runway which is over 200% more than the $39.8 million 2018 allocation for the agency.
NASRDA did not delay in inducting Nigeria into the elite league of nations when it launched its first satellite NigeriaSat-1 on the 27th of September 2003. NigeriaSat-1, an earth observatory satellite with a 32m resolution camera and an optical sensor, was built by a UK-based Surrey Space Technology Limited and launched from Russian Plesetsk spaceport. NigeriaSat-1 outlived its expected lifespan of seven years.
In 2004, the Nigerian government ordered for NigComSAT-1, Africa’s first communications satellite, from China Great Wall Industry Corporation
(CGWIC). NigComSat-1 was launched on the 13th of May 2007 but failed in orbit in November the following year as a result of a poorly-built solar array. Nigeria got NigComSAT-1R as a replacement for the failed satellite at no extra cost. The loss was covered by insurance and CGWIC built a replacement to make up for the faulty NigComSAT-1.
Nigeria did not hesitate to launch two more earth observation satellites, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, with high-resolution cameras and better optical sensors for Disaster Monitoring Constellation systems on the 17th August 2011 onboard a Dnepr rocket from Yasny in Southern Russia. The UK-based Surrey Space Technology Limited built the NigeriaSat-2 and provided technical training for Nigerian engineers to build NigeriaSat-X , (X meaning experiment), as part of the contract
NigComSAT-1R was launched on 19th December 2011 in China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, four months after the launch of NigeriaSat-2/X. NigComSAT-1R is operated by Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NigCom LTD) and NASRDA. The communication satellite improved Nigeria’s telecommunication sector with about 65% capacity usage.
Nigeria’s space programme recorded great success stories within a decade, having launched five satellites into orbit between 2003 to 2011. Three out of these five satellites (NigeriaSat-2, NigeriaSat-X and NigComSAT-1R) are still functional, reporting data from the outer space. NASRDA also boast of training over 300 staff up to Bsc and about 50 with PhD in space science and technology related field in a press statement in 2016. There has been significant collaboration between NASRDA and other government agencies in charge of security, communication technology, education and environment.
Nigeria in early 2018 announced a $550 million deal to acquire two communication satellites from China. The deal offers the Chinese company equity stake worth $550 million in Nigerian Communication Satellite (NigComSat Ltd). NigComSat Ltd is a state-owned communications satellite operator and services provider. The Nigerian government claims the deal will cost Nigeria nothing because they did not make any direct financial commitment to the deal.
In 2016, the Nigerian government announced the ambitious vision of sending an astronaut into space by 2030. Some experts took to social media to express their doubt with the vision 2030, dubbing it as usual political rhetoric. Many Nigerians expressed concern over limited resources and disbelief that NASRDA has the capacity to achieve the vision. Nigeria’s popular youth comedy website, Zikoko, published a meme series in mockery of the vision.
It appears NASRDA and the Nigerian government are optimistic about the vision 2030. However, a critical analysis of Nigeria’s space program reveals that sending an astronaut into space could be a misplaced priority or an unfounded claim. At best, Nigeria may send an astronaut into space onboard a foreign spaceship. From many indications, China is likely to be a near-easy option for such an alliance among the UK, Ukraine and Russia who are Nigeria’s partners in space exploration.
The Nigerian government is yet to figure out how Nigeria can generate its revenue share of the $400billion Africa’s emerging space market. NASRDA, unlike Eric’s model startup, is still funded by the government through a yearly allocation contained in the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology annual budget. The national space agency received $14.5m in 2017 and $37.8m in 2018 as federal government brown envelope contained in the budget.
Nigeria can position its principal space agency to become a regional leader in the space race in Africa. This is not happening any time soon with South Africa leading the space with a more private and public sector funding. South Africa is already leading the global initiative for the world’s largest radio telescope by playing co-host to Square Kilometer Array project in partnership with 9 other cornerstone countries.
The Nigerian government is providing intervention funds for the development of an indigenous Design Center (DC) and an Assembly and Integrated Testing (AIT) centre to facilitate the growth of its space programme. Investment in indigenous technology will position Nigeria to sell satellites and provide services to other African countries who are looking at joining the elite league.
An infrastructural deficit is a big challenge to every sector in Nigeria. However, a bigger challenge peculiar to the space sector is low private sector participation. The Nigerian government is yet to create an environment for private sector participation to thrive. The global space sector is significantly scaled by the private sector and academic community involvement in R&D, talent and technology support. Nigeria’s institutions of higher learning are yet to venture into actual space research and satellite development. Nigeria brags about having one of the smartest human resources globally, yet untapped.
The Nigerian government needs to take a different route for Nigeria’s space sector to scale beyond merely launching earth observation and communications satellite into orbit which was the funfair in the past decade. This new route should deregulate the space sector, generate revenue, support private sector involvement and develop academic research in space science and technology.