The Women in Africa Space Industry series continues with Mrs Olayinka Fagbemiro, an assistant chief scientific officer in NASRDA, the President of Astronomy Without Borders (AWB), Nigeria and Secretary to the Africa Astronomical Society (AfAS).
In this interview, she talks about the challenges of being a space enthusiast in Nigeria, especially for women, her guiding principles, projects she has embarked on and some of the milestones she has achieved.
Can you tell us about your background, how you started, and what motivated you into Space science?
My first degree was in Computer Science and I graduated from the University of Ilorin in 2004. Shortly after, I started working with an agency and crossed over to NASRDA centre in OAU, the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in 2008. I proceeded to have my Master’s in Technology Management at Obafemi Awolowo University and a postgraduate diploma in Basic Space and Atmospheric Science. I think that was where my love for Astronomy started. I had been an outreach officer at the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education, so I had been involved with Space education outreach ever. Afterwards, I moved to the Headquarters in Abuja, where I continued with the Astronomy outreaches. Presently, I am a PhD student of Geo-informatics and GIS application at the African University of Science and Technology, Abuja.
That is a great profile, I must say. What are the challenges you have encountered on this journey, I’m sure it has not been a bed of roses?
Of course. I think for anyone trying to pursue a career in STEM in Nigeria, being a woman is not always so easy — if I may use that word. There are a lot of challenges that have to do with the fact that you are a female, and you have to prove yourself over and over. I met people who say that ‘you are a human with a brain and whatever effort you are putting into your work and whatever accolades come with it, happened because you deserve it and worked for it. Not just being rewarded because you are a female.’ Also, I have been fortunate to work with bosses that are great and very understanding. As a woman, wife, and mother, there are lots of things contending with one’s time; family, career, and children are always there. Women don’t have that extra time that an average male has to put into the job. But with really supportive bosses I’ve had over the years, I have been fortunate.
But, that does not make light of what several of my colleagues in other departments or agencies are going through due to bosses that are harsh and deliberately unfair. Some even deliberately make them work past official working hours. I never experienced that, because my bosses have been so good. I think that tallies because they know that I put in so much hard work and effort, so they did not mind when I needed to take time off when my kids were still little. Sometimes, tough subordinates can be a challenge, because you are a woman. With the resistance against taking orders from a female, they make the job more difficult. Nothing is going to be given on a platter of gold.
You have been involved in lots of outreach and impact activities, but you have been specifically interested in the girl child and the less privileged. What spurred that interest?
With the girl child, that started because as a little girl, I grew up in a part of Nigeria where the stories in circulation are that girls are not expected to be ambitious. Due to this, most of the boys want to be engineers, doctors, scientists, etc. While most of the girls want to become a mom or wife. As a little girl, I knew I didn’t want to be any of that, I wanted a career where I can make an impact. That was what spurred me to attempt to bridge the gender gap.
It is a reality in Nigerian and Africa as a whole. In an average organisation out of the first 20 people, two might just be women. Interestingly, from my research and interaction with people, findings show that women are not denied the opportunity to rise into management positions when they are qualified. But, the cause of the gender gap is because women have not risen to those kinds of management positions. It is a problem that cannot be fixed in a day, so we had to go to the root cause, which is getting more girls interested in STEM. This is also applicable in other fields but maybe not as pronounced as in STEM.
We have to go to the root, catch them young, introduce them to STEM, and encourage them to choose a career in STEM. In the next ten to fifteen years, we will see the gap gradually closing up. Female children are as brilliant as their male counterparts, as this is evident in the result of the JAMB examination conducted this year. The key thing needed is the right guidance, mentorship, support, and role models that they can look up to. I have been involved in the girl advocacy program for over 10 years now.
In respect to the less privileged, the initiative to extend these educational activities to them started after I visited an IDP camp. These children are those displaced from communities where there are insurgencies, especially in the North-Eastern part of Nigeria. When I visited the place, I knew we had to do something. They did not choose to be born in those communities, neither did they choose to be in IDP camps. Since they cannot come to us, we had to take these opportunities to them.
Along this journey, have you had a mentor, someone you loop up to and has been a key part of your success journey?
As human beings, we are not an island of knowledge, at every point in time, you have to have someone you look up to. You may not even have a personal relationship with them. I have people like that, men that I look up to, even in other fields. People that are committed and persistent in being successful.
How will you describe your experience so far, your role as the assistant chief scientist at NASRDA and the notable impact you have made?
So far, it has been great. I have worked with NASRDA for about 13 years now, and it has been a wonderful, challenging and rewarding experience for me. My journey has taken me through various departments in the Agency; IT, Data Management, Space Education, Planning, Policy and Research. I currently head the Space Education Outreach unit. It has been a great program altogether.
I am happy that I have been able to contribute a lot to the development of STEM development especially, Space education in NASRDA. I have been able to develop various programs that are targeted towards developing Space Science and Technology Education.
You are the president of Astronomy Without Borders, Nigeria and the Public Relation Officer to the Africa Astronomical Society, how have these organisations been contributing to the nurturing of the future generation of space professionals?
I started AWB, Nigeria in 2013 after I met with the president of AWB global; Mike Simmons. Prior to that time, I had been organising a lot of Space and Astronomy education outreach, but I didn’t have a group or team.
What we are trying to do is creating more awareness about Space science and technology. We are also trying to raise the next generation of Space scientists, technologists and engineers in Africa. For the Africa Astronomical Society, I am the Public Relation Officer. My role is similar to what I do in AWB and NASRDA. Africa is really lagging behind in Space science and technology, so we have been able to adopt the bottom-up approach, catch them young, get them interested, mentor and guide them through career paths in Space science and technology.
Where do you see NASRDA in the next 10 years?
Well, NASRDA is an organisation that has been in existence for 21 years now… As the pioneer Space agency in Africa, NASRDA has done well, even though there is always room for improvement. I think for the next ten years, we will probably see a NASRDA that would move faster than they have moved since inception. The reason I say this is that, going by the number of space experts that NASRDA is churning out in recent years, I think we would have a NASRDA that will have a sort of Astronomical growth in terms of capacity development and expertise. NASRDA in the next ten years should probably be an agency that is launching Nigeria made satellites from a Nigeria soil, hopefully.
What is the role of Astronomy education and outreach in the development of the space industry?
Yeah, if we want to develop the space industry in Africa, Astronomy education and outreach is one area we need to look and focus on. The reason is that capacity and technology in Space Science is what we are still grappling within Africa. But, Astronomy is a field of Space Science that does not require any sophisticated equipment or technology as a start.
For example, we can start by encouraging people to stargaze even with their naked eye. We don’t need a telescope for a start, in this part of the world because we have a clear, dark, unpolluted night sky. If we look at that very well, we will find out that through that, we can encourage kids to get interested in Space generally.
Also, astronomy can be used as a tool to encourage and develop space science and technology, because it is fun. It is fun for kids and adults. It is something everyone can relate to. We all see the moon, stars, suns, etc. That is the leverage that any serious government can use to develop the space sector of any country. This can be used as a way to encourage more kids to look at the space sector in terms of studying and having a career in it. There are lots of opportunities in the space sector, but people need to firstly develop interest. That is what Astronomy education and outreach can help achieve.
Seeing that your educational background cuts across several science fields; computer science, technology management, space science and GIS applications. How has this contributed to your growth in the space field?
I am this jack of all trade when it comes to Space Science and technology.
This has really helped to broaden my views about the Space field. It has opened my eyes to the countless number of opportunities available for people in the space sector. This has also really helped me to develop in terms of career. Due to my expertise in different fields of STEM, I am open to so many ideas about space science and technology.
Also, it has helped me to relate well when I am mentoring young ones interested in Space Science and Technology. Because I have this background that helps me know different aspects of Science, Technology and Engineering. It is a plus and something I am grateful for.
How is Astronomy pivotal to the growth of the Africa Space Sector and what role will AfAS and AWB play?
Before we can talk about capacity development in the space sector in Africa, we need to have young people that are interested in this field. Astronomy can help develop the interest that will lead them to now launch into the various sectors of Space science and technology
Astronomy is already playing a major role in terms of a collaborative effort with developed countries. As one of the executives of Africa Astronomical Society, AfAS, I can say authoritatively that there has been lots of collaborative effort that the organisation has been working on which will not only make Astronomy in Africa develop but make the space sector in Africa develop.
These are developments that all countries of Africa should key into. This kind of collaborative effort that AfAS is championing is going to help develop the space sector.
AWB has been playing a major role since its inception. One of the major roles we are playing and we want to expand is that of creating awareness. We want to catch them young, get as many as possible kids interested in space, not Astronomy alone. And we are doing this by using Astronomy as a tool. When we go out with telescopes and we let them stargaze, it is very exciting, it develops their interest, it helps them to aspire towards a career in STEM. That is the role AWB is playing and will continue to play. We are reaching out to girls, less privileged and trying to build the next generation of Space leaders. People that their interest would have started from their elementary stage.
Also, we are helping STEM teachers across Nigeria and Africa, so they can assist their students to develop their interest in Space Science and technology. One of our programs is the Train the Trainers program. In Nigeria and some Africa countries, Astronomy is not in the curricula of elementary and high schools in most parts of Africa. We are aiding STEM teachers to be able to focus on Astronomy in the popular subjects that they teach. That way, when a Geography teacher is teaching about longitude, latitude, day, night, seasons, they are able to emphasize on these space-related topics. Even though they can’t get to sit for Astronomy as a subject, they are getting the benefits of getting to learn on these things.
Any counsel for young space enthusiasts?
If the person is a young female, I’ll say; whatever you want to do in life or whatever dreams you have, forget about your gender for a while, and focus on what you will love to do. Then, give it your all. Don’t listen to people who say ‘the fate of a woman is in the kitchen’, rather inform them you have a dream, and you can be successful with it. Your gender should not be the primary thing you consider when you want to choose a career. Are you willing to do this, put in the extra hard work necessary for you to be successful in it? If your answer is yours, then go for it. Do not mind if it is a male-dominated field.
Also, I deal with boys too, because we have programs for boys and girls. Generally, as a young person, do not negate your future dues to the temporary pleasure that peers provide at this time. Especially drugs, say no to it, it has a way of derailing people’s future. Even if most people are into it, the moment you are aware that it is not right, stay away from it.
Conclusively, hard work, never-giving-up spirit, and commitment will always open doors for you. It can take you to whatever height you can dream of. Even if you’re not seeing the reward right now, be ambitious and always look at the bigger picture.