The African space industry is made up of highly prolific innovators, scientists, engineers, educators, researchers and enthusiasts across other sectors. Since the industry started experiencing continuous growth in the late ’90s, it has been pushed by phenomenal individuals. In this series, we are sharing the work of some of Africa’s leading Women in the Space industry. Meet Susan Murabana.
In 2002, she concluded her undergraduate studies in Economics and later proceeded to have her masters in 2007.
She is the co-founder of Cosmos Education, Kenya where she served as the global treasurer. She worked as the Marketing Executive and Programmer of fourTell eAfrica Limited where she designed, implemented and maintained the website among other achievements. She was Kenya’s National Point of Contact for SGAC from 2008 to 2011. Later on, she became the public relations and marketing officer of Africa Astronomical society. Since 2008, she has worked as the Kenya country leader for Universe Awareness and presently the CEO and Co-founder of Travelling Telescope.
She introduced a research-based astronomy education curriculum into Kenya’s secondary
schools via the Hands-on Universe program. She is also one of the four United Nations Space4women mentors from Africa. In this interview, we discuss her interests as an economist and space enthusiast.
You have a background in Economics, how did you transition to the space sector and what motivated you to?
Yes I have a degree in Economics and Sociology and while waiting to complete my final year – our university had a long holiday for about 3 months then – my uncle invited me to join a group of grad students from mainly the US and UK who were travelling across schools and villages in Africa teaching hands-on science using basic and readily available materials. I was so drawn to this work and immediately knew that I wanted to be part of the program, first because I always loved science and second because I enjoyed working with the youth. Cosmos Education, an educational NGO was the project that I volunteered for in my early twenties, I travelled within Africa in schools and villages teaching basic astronomy. I was inspired by the professors and grad students in the team and by the many young children I met during the trips. Mentorship is usually both ways and I learnt that early in my career. Travelling also taught me a lot about the continent and appreciating all people and their different cultures.
In your path as a professional in the space sector, your background in Economics has come in handy, how have you been able to juggle these proficiently?
Yes definitely, my Economics degree has come in handy especially now as the CEO of a company – The Travelling Telescope – obviously for me the idea of the role that science plays in sustainable development is a long term goal and drive and having the economics background makes me more aware about the role of science in sustainable development and development from within. In my day to day role, I have to manage proposals, budgets and market the business and these skills I feel have been acquired in my economics background.
You are the Co-founder of Travelling Telescope, can you tell us about this project?
The Travelling Telescope is a social enterprise focusing on astronomy education in an effort to promote STEM education. We know that the telescope has been around for more than 400 years and yet most people have not had a chance to look through one, we would like to change that. In addition to the telescope we have a portable planetarium and recently completed a fixed bamboo geodesic planetarium in the heart of Nairobi. We would like every school kid to have a lesson under the African night sky at least once in their lifetime. The addition of the planetarium, an immersive world, which we feel compliments the telescope experience, gives students the best of the astronomy education experience. We travel all over the country visiting schools and supporting teachers with our alternative tools – our portable telescope, mobile planetarium and robotics workshop. Our project focuses on three main areas, education – schools, Astro -tourism – lodges and hotels and engaging the public. So in addition to our travelling telescope, we have recently built a geodesic bamboo dome – and are currently making it a “COVID free” open-air learning space for the Nairobi audience. We are also the youth partners of Airbus Foundation and through this program have run a robotics program in schools for 3 years.
How is Travelling Telescope contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals?
SDG.4 – We work with schools and use astronomy as a tool to inspire children into STEM subjects, we provide a holistic approach, visualising the Earth as the floating biosphere seen from space
SDG 5 – We encourage an equal number of girls to join our projects as we do boys. I feel that I need to mentor young girls into science as there are not many women like me especially in Africa doing what I do
SDG 8 – We would like our next generation of leaders to understand the role of science and even if they do not become scientists they will make better-informed decisions, and invest more in science.
SDG 11 – Sustainability – Astronomy encourages us to not only look out and see other planets but also to look at our own world and understand its processes. One way we are demonstrating our approach to sustainability is through the way we have built our planetarium – a geodesic dome made entirely out of bamboo.
Are there projects that you have worked on over time, that are outliers in your career?
I volunteered for Cosmos Education in my 20s. This organisation worked in schools and villages across Africa teaching astronomy and other sciences. It was here, where I discovered my love for science and education and public outreach.
I joined the Rotary Club of Nairobi more than 10 years ago and I continue to volunteer as a member of the club. Being a Rotarian has connected me to humanitarian projects and the importance of integrity in my work and relationships. I was recently recognised as one of the United Nations Space for Women mentors where I mentor young girls and professionals.
You are an innovator, a creator, a trailblazer… you proved this many times and most importantly by introducing astronomy education into Kenyan secondary schools, how do you feel making all of these important contributions?
Wow, I feel that there is so much to do and so much opportunity in the space industry. I am excited at how fast things in the space industry in Africa are changing and how many amazing projects and people within the continent are playing a role in the development of the African space industry. I am humbled to have played a very small part in this, I hope I can continue to share the untapped resources Kenya has to offer with the rest of the world. Kenya has a growing large youth and they are hungry for opportunity, I hope that they can learn about the huge space industry waiting for them
What is the role of space education in the development of the space sector?
We need to first know about the space sector through education to be part of it. The western economies realised that investing in science education leads to the advancement of science and technology which are at the heart of sustainable development. Our mobile phones, electricity, cameras etc all stem from scientific research. CCDs on our phones have their beginnings from space exploration.
Are there times when you thought about leaving the space sector totally? What led to those times/how have you been able to navigate through stumbling blocks?
Yes, I have. I felt that the industry is a largely male-dominated field. Also, at the Travelling Telescope, we had limited capital, and there is still a lack of investment capital funding for ideas and projects. We have lots of ideas and if we could get access to investors that would enable us to do much more on a wider scale. Obviously the current pandemic has meant that we have had a drop in our business which has made it more difficult.
I see the opportunity in Kenya, we have dark unpolluted skies and we are right at the equator. This is a resource for the country. We have youths who are creative and are waiting for (an) opportunity, they inspire me to keep visiting schools. It is so inspiring when a young kid looks through the telescope for the first time and is so excited. Similarly, it is very exciting to see kids in a remote part of the country enter a planetarium and feel like they are actually travelling across the universe. The reaction from these kids in schools, their thirst to know more keeps me more motivated.
What limiting factors need to be eliminated in order to allow for more women to participate in the sector?
We need to eliminate gender prejudice, especially at schools and work. Our culture dictates that the role of a woman should be in a certain place and this can be sometimes carried on at her place of work.
You are the PRO of AfAs and the Kenya country leader of Universe awareness, how are these organisations contributing to the development of the African space sector?
Universe Awareness is an excellent program that targets very young kids engaging them in astronomy education in different ways. I think that when kids are introduced to the possibilities and limitlessness of space they can dream big and join the global vision to reach for the stars.
AfAS plays an important role in connecting all astronomers within the continent, mentoring young astronomers but also coordinating a continent-wide outreach effort that can engage more young children into STEM careers. I think this society is key in showing the beauty and brains of the African continent to the rest of the world, which creates a generation of young African who are proud of where they belong.
Introduction of Astronomy to the curriculum of secondary school students is a great step towards increasing participation in space. What advice do you have for individuals and organisations striving to make this same change in their countries in Africa?
You miss 100 % of the shots you don’t take if you would like to start something, go for it… start. Take time to understand your audience and what you can offer them, be patient and persistent and be ready to fail, I think failing is a step towards winning. As long as you believe in what you would like to do, be confident and do it.