The project was initiated by a few African space enthusiasts. In this interview with one of the founders, Meshack Kinyua, we discuss Omarichet and its potential.
Meshack Kinyua is currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He works with the African Union to establish the African space agency while implementing a concurring program called GMES and Africa.
Can you give us an overview of the project?
This project was conceived by Muzamil and myself after I attended the hands-on training in Japan on Satellite Subsystems. We thought that we can leverage this opportunity to enable many people to acquire similar skills.
We sold the idea to several other people and we quickly launched in 2019. During the brainstorming, it was apparent that we needed to build a team and develop their skills to adequately support the missions.
We arranged for training kits with all the subsystems and components of conventional satellites. We have the kits now and we are using them to train people.
We are targeting students in universities and high schools, and also those in the industry; especially start-ups. Entities that joined hands in this project are majorly start-ups in IT focusing on the Internet of Things. But they find this particular technology quite useful especially in preparation to expand the network connectivity. And we quickly agreed that we should focus on Satellite Communications and Navigation & Positioning missions.
We have three phases. The first phase is building a critical mass of human skills using online and hands-on training. We just started with online training but we will have more hands-on training as the situation of Covid-19 allows. Phase 2 is the development of a Nano-satellite that can actually fly. We are targeting flying through the deployment from the International Space Station by taking advantage of the annual opportunities of launch. For example, we are looking at NASA and JAXA that give cube service and other opportunities which may come as we go by.
Phase 3 is the main mission which is the development of full-scale satellite (a couple of them), for communication application, as well as for establishing navigation and positioning systems which can serve the continent, because, at the moment, we don’t have a dedicated system. As you may have noticed, geolocation services are not quite accurate. There may be in some cities but the situations worsen when you go to the outskirts of the cities, or to the villages or areas that are not interconnected. The same thing with communication, of course, we have a lot of commercial companies in the continent providing these kinds of services. I don’t want to say that it is an expensive rate, because we don’t have a benchmark for that. But in the villages where we have most of the people residing, we don’t have connections and if there is, it is relatively not affordable. Or the connection is there, but it is not as stable as it should be.
Given the world is going, we rely much more on communication as COVID has taught us. Even the education system itself needs to evolve and push contents to the learning management systems online, and to advocate for digital literacy and education. If the infrastructure of the service of communication is not ensured in remote areas, we might be losing over half of the students in the education sector. So it is quite important for us to target remote areas and fill the gaps. I just mentioned education because it appears to be the most affected by the COVID-19 situation. While education still continues in the developed world even with the closure of schools, in some parts of Africa and several other developing nations, closure of schools meant the closure of learning because there was no plan for digital education. Not to forget that we also have services like Telemedicine and others which can be ensured through a vibrant communication system.
So, this is the kind of work that we are doing. We started with training. As soon as the border opens and as soon as we have the situation normalised, we will resume hands-on training and build at least a team of people who can master the subsystems of the satellite. The training will give us a pool of trainers, to pass on the skills to other people. Using that model, we can build a large pool of experts who have all the skills. And when the time of need comes to tap into those skills and develop programs that we want, it won’t be difficult to find.
Aside from Khan and you, who are those currently working on the project with you. Or is it just a two-man team implementing this very important project in Africa?
Not exactly, we have a pool of people that were interested and they joined hands. I can’t give the exact number but I think they are about ten. What happened was that companies and start-ups got interested and we are having them as partners in the project. One of the closest partners we have had so far in the project is Liquid Telecom. They have been accompanying us in the project since we sold them the idea. They think it is quite in line with their mandate of expanding into the 21st-century skills and building a critical mass in the IT and other sectors that will touch the downstream sector. But also on top of that is that they are interested in the technology options that can improve the communication aspect.
Apart from that we also have a lot of start-ups that are interested in the project because they are also focusing on building their skills but also technology-driven solutions. And this one offers one of the best technology-driven solutions that are tangible.
We are in the process of incorporation, and we are looking at like-minded people that can join us, share ideas, and commit to working together with us and start the real work of development of the hardware and software.
But so far, so good, we have just opened the pool for training. This is just like a tester to us; because we had arranged to have hands-on training in the classroom during World Space Week, but it didn’t happen. As soon as we realised that COVID will not allow us to have that kind of training, we ended up opting to go for the online platform. And surprisingly, when we opened the tab, we couldn’t restrict it to Kenyan alone, so we had to open it up to everyone on the continent and we had a good response.
From the outlook of things, it seems you are primarily based in Kenya at the moment. Do you have plans to establish in other countries in Africa?
Yes, exactly! As the project grows, we don’t want to start big and fall. We rather start small and grow bigger. But what we are looking forward to is establishing partners with those that have gone ahead for us. Once we have strategic partners, meaning those that have the facilities and the kind of infrastructure we need, we will be able to accelerate the vision.
We are currently identifying one in South Africa, it is not official yet. But we will approach them because they have the AIT facilities needed for developing and qualifying the hardware. We don’t have so much facility in our continent to do that, but with them, you can establish that kind of partnership. AIT as we know is quite a rare facility and if we find one, well and good!
Looking at your expansion plan, this is going to cost a lot of money and it is going to take a lot of resources, time and energy. Do you have adequate sponsorship or do you think you will be able to get the financial resources to execute all of these stages effectively?
At the moment, we don’t have all the resources in our hand and we are welcoming like-minded partners and those that believe in our vision. But, the road map we have is to, first of all, go through the capacity building component.
The target is to reach the communication industry and invite their participation in the capacity-building model. The next stage is the development of the hardware and making a business case. We have touched a bit of the business case but we have not finalised it. We believe by releasing this business case and showing the cost-benefit model of it, we will be able to get partners. We want to approach entities as partners and not as sponsors. We are not totally focused on the profit-making model of the business yet, even though we recognise its importance. And again, we are not neglecting institutions that might be interested in investing in that, and showing them how the return on the investment will be.
And once we pass this stage, the next one is to develop and qualify the technology or to prove the concept and to start preparing the technology readiness level.
Any other things you’ll like to add?
The website will be up soon and we will be giving out all the details so that like-minded partners that will like to work with us on the journey will be quite welcome (https://omarichet.space/).
Especially for the first two phases, we just want to provide solutions, we are not so much focused on the business side of it, because the business will be attracted to the solutions we provide. But we can’t neglect it either. The full missions will derive that business through customized services. We are looking at providing solutions that will make a difference over the continent and even beyond if possible.