Africa is blessed with lots of resources, and human resources are abundantly available on these shores. The continent has the youngest population in the world, a rapidly growing population at that. By 2055, the continent’s youth population (with emphasis on those between the ages of 15 and 24), is expected to be more than double the figures recorded in 2015, which was a total of approximately 226 million.
One of the young people in Africa defying all odds is Ahmed Nasr Farid, the co-chairman of the African Regional Group at the International Astronautical Federation. Recently, Space in Africa had a chat with him, and had him field questions relating to his career path, Egypt’s space policies and the African space industry.
“No matter where you come from, your dream is valid”. How does this saying apply to your career journey?
A: It takes one thought to change your life path and give you access to the strength you need. I applied this thought to myself, and I like to pass this on and make everyone understand that things may be difficult, but nothing is impossible.
Who were your childhood idols? Were there moments when you put yourself in the shoes of Dr Farouk El-Baz?
A: I had a number of people I looked up to for inspiration. My father was a hero and an idol, not just for me but for so many people surrounding him. He helped a lot of people, and he had people named after him. Another source of inspiration for me was John Nash, a mathematician who had so many clever ideas when it came to explaining life with Mathematics. I also drew inspiration from Will Smith, one of the most successful actors of our time. Doctor El-Baz is one of the few self-made persons I had heard about and admired, so when I had the opportunity to lecture alongside him at an event organised by the American University in Cairo, it felt like a dream come true.
Looking back at your career path, when did you realize that you were likely to have a successful career in the space industry?
A: I woke up one day to the realisation that the universe is likely to provide you what you want, but you have to work for it. When you work hard, you will get what you ask for, or at least something close. This is what has happened to my career; I consider myself still young and in the middle of my career path.
I’m not the type to brag; I’ve been in space operations for almost 10 years now and virtually no one heard of me until very recently. Lately I’ve seen that I have directly or indirectly inspired lots of people to take on this career path.
What skills did you gain to be able to move from your role as an IT personnel with IBM to Space Operations? What challenges did you face learning unique hard or soft skills that are peculiar to the space industry?
A: If you do not become what you initially aspire to be, that’s no reason to give up, because you could still excel at something else, and you could end up being a lot better in your new field than whatever you previously wanted. We are more than mere titles; we need to strive to make an impact in wherever we find ourselves. That was the mindset I had, and that was how I was able to make the switch.
What does it mean to serve as Co-Chairman of the African Regional Group at the International Astronautical Federation?
A: The International Astronautical Federation is one organisation that is responsible for most of the world’s top space agencies. The IAF has so many committees that are divided into administrative sub-committees and a technical department. Until 2011, Africa was hardly involved with the IAF, partly because of the slow growth of the African space industry compared to other continents. Things began to change when the International Astronautical Congress was held in South Africa in 2011. At the time, I was already a member of the Young Professional Committee and the CLOIDN committee, which is the link between the United Nations and IAF. After working closely with the African Committee for a while, I eventually became the Co-Chairman for IAF’s African Regional Group Committee. I have to say that Africa is now actively involved in the IAF, and based on my experience with space operations in the past 10 years, space projects thrive on cooperation, so if Africa want to expand its space industry, it has to be open to more collaborations.
What are your thoughts on the space sector in Africa?
A: Africa’s space industry is now different from the perceptions previously held by world powers. Africa now has more universities, more engineers, and more innovators. That is exactly what the space sector needs. Space is the new internet.
We have a project now called SWEET (Sweet Water on Earth and Education Technology) CubeSat that will look after the quality of water from space, preventing 3-6 million people yearly from being affected by water-borne diseases. I came up with the idea of SWEET in Germany, collaborating with two German Universities, and we are looking forward to start a competition for African students to work remotely with the European students on the SWEET CubeSat project. This is a huge step in virtual experimental cooperation. I would like to announce from here, if anyone is interested into going through that process to be involved in this project, please send a message to me on Facebook (my account name is Ahmed Farid), I’ll forward that and if you are qualified enough you will be part of the SWEET project.
Have you ever imagined Egypt or any other African country landing an astronaut on the Moon in the near future?
A: That’s a very good question. I would like to once again refer to the phrase “no matter where you come from, your dream is valid”. With hard work and determination, why not? In our operations, we have to exercise some humanity, look at the bigger picture, and have it in mind that anything is possible.
Do you think African governments should budget more for space projects, including lunar missions and far-space experiments?
A: Space is the new internet. It’s not easy to convince governments to spend on space, and this is a global issue, but we need governments to understand the importance of space. In the case of lack of knowledge on the part of government officials, I think that it is our duty to educate them and make them improve on whatever little knowledge they may have acquired. For instance, my father was a doctor, but I still had to teach him how to use Facebook and operate smartphones. Space is very important to daily living.
What are your recommendations for the African Space Agency?
A: I’m always a big fan of unions. When people see a functional union, it passes the message that the people are unified. Look at the European Space Agency for example; they built their power within the work space. It’s not that easy to get people of different cultures and languages to agree on working together. There would be a lot of disagreement and postponements of important space projects, as well as lots of arguments. At the end of the day, they ultimately come to an agreement, they embark on important space projects, and all credit goes to the European Space Agency (ESA).
The African Space Agency will go through so many phases, which will make it exciting. My recommendation is that we do not have to re-invent the wheel. The African Space Agency can learn from the ESA model to avoid the difficulties and get through projects that are waiting out there. When a country wants to collaborate on a space project with another country, they contact each other through space agencies.
What would you like to say to young Africans who aspire become to astronauts or lead groundbreaking space research?
A: Life is about two things. First of all, life is about the choices you make. Secondly, life is about options: there are so many things that you don’t choose that you have just to accept. In other words you have to live with these things; you don’t choose your mother, you don’t choose your siblings, and you definitely don’t choose where you are born. If you want to change the world, start from your bed. Above all, learn to rise above adversity, keeping in mind these words: “If you throw me to the wolves, I’ll come back leading the pack”.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.