Ignitos is a Zambia-based enterprise that utilises technology-based solutions to improve decision making in various sectors, including last-mile logistics, mineral trading, Agri based projects, education and recently SpaceTech.
Space in Africa had a chat with Siddhartha Parmar, the founder and chairman of Ignitos, on the scope of their operations and their plans for improving the African space industry.
Can you please walk me through your company’s background?
Our primary objective for getting into space technology is to improve productivity in the agriculture sector by empowering decision-makers with the right tools and data. Subsequently, we want to help close the orbital divide in our region and across the African continent. Also, smart cities, traffic management, and many other applications are possible through investment and proper collaboration with organisations with a similar vision.
Also, we are interested in leveraging our technology to design risk evaluation and disaster management strategies, create early warning systems, and develop feasible plans to manage our water resources effectively. Moreover, by utilising agricultural and remote sensing technologies, we would drive development within Zambia and encourage crop production and food subsidies schemes that enable farmers to get input and equipment that increase their productivity.
I believe that Zambia can be the food basket of Africa, with about 70% of arable land which is tillable, and we are geographically aligned with a lot of fresh water in the region, like DR Congo and Malawi.
Can you talk about the ongoing satellite project, the specification, the cost, the team and the stage of development?
We are hoping to launch a minimum of a 3U CubeSat. Although, we, most likely, would launch a 1U CubeSat as a proof of concept because we are working towards transforming the company into a full-fledged space technology company, offering earth observation data. However, our primary focus is to select the best team and commence the satellite development process.
We are also hoping to use as many African-made components as possible; for instance, we would like to acquire a lens from Simera Sense (South Africa), the xScape100. The satellite will also be equipped with an advanced propulsion system to de-orbit after its mission life, in line with UNOOSA’s (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs) space debris mitigation guideline. We are considering a mission life span of 13-15 months, and we would like to de-orbit after mission life and perhaps even reuse the lens.
We have quite an extensive and experienced team, and we are still building the team. We are still vetting many individuals in the process. So, for now, we will keep that confidential.
We are collaborating with some global impact fund sources to help finance the project. We are considering an initial cost of about EUR 1 million (USD 1.19 million).
There is so much improvement in technology, and we would also like to venture into software-as-a-service and satellite-as-a-service. We want to develop suitable business models to ensure our continued success and sustainability in the industry. Our entry into big data analytics has led us to adapt to the ever-changing needs of the African business climate.
Who are your partners on this project, and what source of funding is available to you?
I am a disruptive innovator, and satellite is the next trajectory for me. To ensure that I achieve the best possible outcome, I have worked with ambitious founders whose visions and goals align with mine. In addition, we are currently building our team; we recently shortlisted a few engineers and are presently vetting them to ensure that we bring the best people on board for this project.
We have been in contact with a couple of organisations locally and internationally. For example, we have had connections with; the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Space Heros, TEMNO/OPEN-EYES, the Zambian Climate Change Network, the Impact Fund of the year, the Global Climate Fund and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Furthermore, some research institutes, university professors, and key industry players have shown very keen interest in helping us with the project.
How have you been able to connect with the Zambian government? How do you plan to collaborate with the Zambian government to reach your goal?
We are in contact with the Zambian Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and most importantly, the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, where the Zambian climate change task force sits. We hope to leverage our relationship with these organisations to achieve our objectives: to create a better life for people in Zambia and, ultimately, for the whole continent.
There are little or no inter-African relations in terms of capacity development in the space sector. What do you think is the cause of this, and how do you think we can improve this?
Before, the lack of technical knowledge on the design and development of a satellite on the continent meant that there would be little or no inter-African relations. But with the rise in the number of engineers on the continent, this is all set to change soon enough.
However, the increase in the number of companies joining the space sector means an increase in the demand for engineers who can design, build, and develop these satellites.
In terms of capacity development in Africa, we still have a lot of work to do. I believe that Africa needs visionary entrepreneurs and organisations that can collaborate and build an enabling ecosystem for human capacity development programs on the continent, rather than relying on international organisations to come to our aid.
We can effectively collaborate within Africa and raise the people who can develop the technologies within Africa. Thus, we can foster the growth of the space community in Africa, and at the same time, creating our engineers should be our next priority. We have been left behind as a continent, and we are only gradually finding our feet, and with time, suitable investments, and dedication, things should get better. Once we can create our technologies by ourselves using our homemade materials, we will have more control of our resources and data, which would be focused on the development of the entire continent.
African countries prefer to buy space technologies from Europe rather than from Africa. What do you think might be the cause of this?
Yes, this is accurate. However, I mentioned earlier that I would buy components from Simera-Sense, CubeSpace or any other African company than from an international company, especially since I would get the exact specification that I would get elsewhere or even better.
We need to develop the African space economy; we have brilliant and capable individuals scattered across the continent who have hit the ground running developing exciting satellite components. We have even launched a few satellites in-house.
In the 1980s, I remember that there was a launchpad in Kenya- the Broglio Space Centre in Malindi, Kenya, where some satellites were launched, and this is just one out of a long list of launch sites across which had become defunct.
I wish to see Africa design and build satellites in-house and revamp our old launch sites to launch from Africa. Although Africa is closer to the equator, which is already an advantage, we do not see enough efforts from Africans to collaborate and refurbish these launch sites.
Do you think the African Space Agency can bring about a more sustainable collaboration between the African States?
I sincerely hope so, but I am also not too optimistic about it because the African Space Agency might adopt a framework from Europe, which would make it more European than African. However, we need something homegrown, and I hope that when the African Space Agency is up and running, we can foster more collaborations between African countries that have started implementing space projects and find a way to bring the remaining countries onboard.
There must also be an enabling environment for new entrants to the space scene, so we don’t create a gap between the countries with established space activities and others. The newcomers might feel bullied because they can’t boast of the same resources as other countries, which would set us back many years in comprehensive development across all African nations.
Through funding, I would like to see some development at the grassroots level through private-sector development to make people understand the importance of investing in space activities.
When I had the idea about this project, I had the opportunity to meet Temidayo Oniosun and a host of other people in the industry. As a result, we were able to exchange ideas. From there, I was able to come up with a proposal for the project. After some time, I discovered the contest by Arianespace, the European launch service provider. Arianespace launched a competition for satellite projects by space technology startups, labs or universities, in conjunction with the Viva Technology 2021 (VivaTech) innovation show. I submitted my proposal, and out of a pool of 60 other entrants, we were selected alongside five other finalists.
The approval from Arianespace has given me so much more conviction, and I am more motivated to continue my work. I believe now more than ever that we can make a difference using our technology.
I also have no prior space technology background; I studied international business at Mercer University. If someone asked me five years ago if I’ll be launching a space startup, my answer would be an unequivocal no. Therefore, l believe that with the proper dedication, everything is possible.
What are your thoughts about the future of space activities in Africa?
There will be many more startups in the next couple of years, and governments would be scrambling to provide the proper framework to accommodate them.
We might repeat the occurrences during the launch of mobile money in Africa- particularly in Kenya and Nigeria back in 2010 when mobile money started gaining traction. The government was concerned about controlling and regulating the growing startups in the new market when it began. So they made up different laws that still make it hard for new startups to emerge in that ecosystem. And that happened across the whole continent; wherever there was a mobile money penetration or a thought of penetration, the government framework shut it down and hampered the progress of the new technology.
Therefore, If you’re not a business maverick and you decide to venture into a new business when there’s already traction in that business- where a lot of eyes are already on, then you will have to overcome roadblocks.
In Zambia, however, we don’t have that yet, and we’ll achieve a great deal of success because we are the groundbreakers in that ecosystem. But if we want to scale up the business in the future, we then have to deal with different peculiarities that would come up in other regions over time.
In addition, I also think that there would be substantive growth in the industry that would spread to almost all African states. However, some countries would still be left behind, and I do not want to see Zambia left behind again. We were left behind during the mobile money revolution, and yes, we were able to catch up eventually, but I don’t want to see this happen again.
In Zambia, we have many resources that could help other regions in Africa. Like I mentioned earlier, we have arable land, which is helpful for agriculture purposes. With new and improved technologies in the agriculture sector, we can finally live up to our name- as the food basket of Africa.
I have a long-term vision. In ten years, we will have established engineers from Africa who have been trained at the highest level, training other Africans and implementing changes based on their experiences. We will also have more institutions and government-backed programmes in Africa supporting training in space science. Furthermore, Africa will have more visionary entrepreneurs who will push the space sector’s development across borders and aid this. Finally, we shall have more support from financial institutions to access investment funds needed to leapfrog and become a giant on a global level.
This is not a fantasy; we can accomplish this and more with the right policy, regulatory framework, and the right strategy. We also need to implement a plan to tackle the barriers to entry in different countries, limiting the number of startups or emerging space countries. Lastly, we need to devise strategies to show the importance of space technologies to governments to ensure that the necessary framework and policies are in place to achieve a much broader growth.
Mustapha has a strong relationship with written words and enjoys elaborating on minor details with a plethora of information.