In this interview with Space in Africa, Dr Aboubakar Mambimba Ndjoungui, Deputy General Manager of Gabonese Space Agency (AGEOS), discusses Gabon’s space programme, which according to him, is focused on space sciences and application.
Dr Ndjoungui, Dep General Manager of AGEOS, Discusses Gabon’s Space Program
When did Gabon launch its space and astronomy programmes?
On what basis was Agence Gabonaise d’Etudes et d’Observations Spatiales (AGEOS)
Answer: In the context of its climate policy and activities related to the monitoring of its natural resources and the evaluation of public policies, Gabon has thought it imperative to have an efficient space system. It is on this basis that Gabon has decided to create its space programme by building infrastructure for direct reception, processing and archiving of satellite data. The Gabonese Space Agency, AGEOS, was created in February 2010.
We learned that AGEOS is focused on leveraging Earth observation and remote sensing technologies for sustainable development in Gabon. Can you explain more about the scope of operation of the Gabonese space programme?
Answer: Indeed, the Gabonese government has defined four priority themes for sustainable development. They include:
- Forest Monitoring
- Coastal monitoring (fishing, oil pollution, transport of goods at sea, port activities etc)
- Water resources of the Ogooué Basin
- Monitoring urban dynamics.
In addition to these themes, the government has also placed particular emphasis on agricultural activities and assessment of public policies.
Are there infrastructure and research facilities that already exist in Gabon for space and astronomy activities? Is the government looking to invest more in space infrastructure?
Answer: Today we have a remote sensing Centre of Competence modelled after the Application and Space Sciences Department, which supervises the development of all space applications. Space sciences here refer to astronomy, and our activities actively involve young people.
Regarding the space infrastructures, we have an antenna measuring 7.30 metres in diameter, a plot of about 2800 kilometres covering 24 countries and all of the Gulf of Guinea. With this X-band antenna, we acquire data from optical and SAR satellites. A second antenna has been installed for the launcher telemetry activities. This activity is developed within the framework of private-public partnerships, which we heavily rely on.
A third antenna dedicated to the wide-field satellites is being installed to provide weather and climate change data in all of the Central African sub-region. This antenna is part of an African network of weather stations.
Has there been any significant policy shift towards the adoption of space science and technology in Gabon?
Answer: Space technology and satellites aid observation, processing and decision-making based on collation of relevant data. Earth observation contributes in its own way to national development. For instance, we make use of satellites to monitor the forest application policy, and to evaluate the forest biomass. Today, satellites (via SAR sensors) aid in maritime surveillance, particularly in the area of marine pollution and fishing activities around Gabon’s exclusive economic zone. We have also noted the systematic use of space technologies by other sectors to meet their needs. An example of these needs is the follow-up on the construction of road infrastructure as well as agricultural activities.
How is AGEOS funded? How much does the Gabonese government provide for space and astronomy-related projects annually in its national budget?
Answer: The Gabonese government has entrusted AGEOS with the task of defining Gabon’s space policy. It is for this reason that a plan for the development of space activities was initiated and recently executed. The government contributes to about 70% of the budget of AGEOS each year, and the rest is self-funded.
From an economic perspective, how much does AGEOS contribute to Gabon’s economy?
Answer: It’s still too early to make an assessment of the contribution of space to the Gabonese economy. However, AGEOS is increasing its capacity every year by awarding 10 scholarships for the training of engineers and technicians in both applications and infrastructure. We also support the creation and establishment of startups in the space industry to train a significant number of national experts in earth observation and astronomy.
What milestones is AGEOS planning to achieve in the long run? Is the Gabonese government looking to launch a satellite anytime soon?
Answer: In the short term, AGEOS plans to deploy 60% of its resources in the development of applications that meet the needs of the general population, and the other 40% in the design and implementation of projects pertaining to new infrastructure. In the long term, AGEOS plans to become the main provider of satellite services and data to the 24 countries contained in its plot acquisition plan. Also, the development of cube satellite (CubeSat) is being increasingly considered by the Gabonese government; this discussion has been ongoing for five years.
How is Gabon collaborating with international and regional communities to further the growth of space science and astronomy in the country?
Answer: Gabon through its space agency has focused on building infrastructure that covers all of Central Africa and beyond. With this infrastructure, the AGEOS receives signals from more than 5 optical and radar satellites with a view to mastering the entire chain of reception to the provision of products and services to the end user. To this end, AGEOS has signed several memoranda of understanding with NASA, CNES, ESA, USGS, SANSA and other organisations, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the capabilities of our staff. At the regional level, we have agreements with private and public firms across a number of countries to provide them with satellite services and data. This is the case with the Ministry of Natural Resources of Rwanda as well as four other countries involved in the implementation of the GMES & Africa project in Central Africa, of which AGEOS is the leader of a consortium on forest monitoring and evaluation. At the international level, AGEOS is a member of GEO, CEOS and other initiatives that focus on the contribution of space to climate change.
What level of bilateral space cooperation exists between Gabon and France? Is France or any other foreign government providing funding for space and astronomy projects in Gabon?
Answer: Gabon and France have excellent relations in the space ecosystem. Since 2015, there has been a collaborative agreement between CNES and AGEOS, in which all areas of collaboration are listed. France has contributed financially from 2011 to 2014 to the construction of infrastructure being built for receiving, processing and making satellite data available. Since 2015, Gabon finances all of AGEOS ‘activities from these externally provided funds. The development of astronomy is done in partnership with associations and schools involved in the promotion of astronomy as a discipline.
How many full-time employees work at AGEOS? What is the percentage of the female workforce? Do you face any challenges recruiting local talent for advanced engineering and scientific operations?
Answer: AGEOS currently has 35 employees at its Nkok site and another 15 are undergoing training at schools and universities in Africa and Europe. At the national level, we have difficulties in recruiting talent, and we are obliged to provide scholarships to young Gabonese individuals for training. In order to ensure the sustainability of the agency, AGEOS mainly recruits young people from the diploma courses. With regard to the question of gender, it must be emphasised that female candidates are strongly encouraged to apply but unfortunately, we do not receive many applications from women.
Other than AGEOS, are there other public institutions or private companies involved in space and astronomy activities in Gabon?
Answer: We have introduced a policy of encouraging young people to become interested in scientific disciplines, particularly space and astronomy. This policy involves the organising of competitions reserved for young people from science classes in high schools, as well as young entrepreneurs.
The private sector in space is almost non-existent; there are fewer than 2 local private structures. It is, therefore, necessary for Africa to put a strong emphasis on the training of experts in space and astronomy. The work done by the African Union Commission is commendable, specifically in organising workshops for African academics on EO. The creation of the African Space Agency sufficiently demonstrates the desire of the continent to appropriate this technology that can significantly boost the African economy.
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.