State of the Nigerian Space Program – Interview with Dr Halilu Ahmad Shaba , NASRDA New Director General

Dr Halilu Shaba Ahmed; Director General, National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA)

The Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) is one of the oldest space agencies in Africa, boasting a workforce of over 3,500 people, more than any other space agency on the continent. On the last day of 2020, Nigeria’s President approved the 2021 budget, which allocated USD 86.5 Million to the country’s space program for the 2021 fiscal year, a 54% increase from the 2020 budget. In 2020, the Agency commissioned and fully funded 23 Quick Win projects. One of the projects is the building of the first made in Nigeria satellite. The Agency has also set out plans to begin constructing two new satellites, the NigeriaSat-3 and Nigeria SAR-1. In April 2021, Dr Halilu Ahmad Shaba was announced as the new Director-General of the Agency. Space in Africa had a chat with Dr Shaba, who has just resumed office, about what the Agency is up to, what the plans are, and his visions for the Agency.

What are the ongoing projects NASRDA is working on?

We are currently working on the implementation of several Quick Win projects in the Agency. We are also working on revamping our ground station facility at the agency headquarters in Abuja. We have several projects also ongoing at our various centres across the country. At the Centre of Basic Space Sciences (CBSS), instrumentation projects for Agriculture are in the works and an Automated Irrigation System development. At the Centre for Space Transport and Propulsion (CSTP), work is ongoing on the development of Home Telemetry systems. We are also refocusing our Mandate and update our National Space Policy and Strategy to represent current trends in the industry. We are also working with organizations like the World Bank to develop new solutions to address the COVID problems.

There was news that the Agency is planning to launch a cubesat this year developed at the Agency. Could you talk more about this?

Our engineers are currently working on various designs around this, primarily produced locally using our facilities. The development is still ongoing, and at its completion, we will source a launch company that will help place it in orbit.

Previous Nigerian satellites have been acquired from foreign institutions, will there ever be a time when satellites can be completely built, tested and launched on Nigerian soil?

Yes, there will be. If you have been looking at our road map, you will see that we’ve been working on it and shifting it every day. We have already seen that the current funding structure will not work for the space agency. The space agency cannot rely on a short term budget, as it cannot build satellites with that, so the government is trying to work with the government for secured line of budgetary allocation. This would help our international engagement and relationship. Whilst we know that we have a secure budget and comply with it, we will be able to build our satellites. In fact, one of the things we have is that by 2020 we would build a Nigerian satellite; that was what we agreed on. And we have been shifting this plan since 2018. We are making efforts toward this and that is why we do capacity development alongside all our satellite projects, so our engineers are trained. This is how we were able to build NigeriaSat-X. Our work on the NigeriaSat-X told the world that Nigerians could build their satellites, and when we tested that satellite, we found that it’s doing very well. The last time we checked the health of the NigeriaSat-X, we discovered that it is still acquiring data. So, we already have a heritage to build on.

The Agency recently launched a Space Institute; what’s the mission behind this, and what are the long-term plans for it?

The idea is we have been training our engineers outside Nigeria. Now we want them to come back to the nation, impart knowledge, and privileges because when we go out of the Agency, it feels as if we are coming from another world. The space industry is growing out, and for us to be able to catch up, we must have the trained personnel, that’s why we are working towards having trained personnel and people who will be able to implement space projects for the country. That is the long term vision, but the short term vision is we want to continue training because it costs us so much doing this elsewhere. With this, we should have something that will serve the Agency in the short run and the long run. Having the right talents is key to developing the space sector, whether from the government angle or the private sector, and this is a gap we are bridging with this.

On the issue of human resources and expansion, the Nigerian space agency has the highest number of employees with about 3,500 people working there; do you think the focus should be on expanding the workforce or improving the output from the Agency?

The focus is not on increasing the workforce but on improving the output and productivity. If you look at it, I can tell you that we make conscious efforts in the whole of Africa. We have about 300 members of staff doing their PhDs, so you see the quality is also what we are concerned about and that is why we are doing these trainings. We are developing this workforce so that at least, the products of this institute will be of high quality. Now, talking about the size of the space agency, we try to have branches in every region, we have a program where every region will have a centre of excellence. What we try to copy is a structure that looks like that of India. Somehow, we missed our mark during recruitment, but that is not to say that we cannot use this workforce effectively.

There is no upstream NewSpace company in Nigeria. Why is this so? What efforts are the Agency making to change this in policy, support and creating a good environment for them to thrive? Is there any room for private companies in the implementation of the nation’s space strategy?

We have been working with the private sector for the past three years. Most of them are not from Nigeria, and this is the problem we are having. Most Nigerians are looking for where they can put their money today and get it back tomorrow, as many of them do not understand what space is. Nigerians are trying to go into communications for broadcasting, a lot of them are going into such industries because they want where they will get their money back within the shortest time. We have worked so hard to see that we create the avenue for this, and we have engaged with some of them. In some of my discussions with some African countries, they indicated that this problem is the same problem. The major problem is that the Nigerian banks have the level of risks they would need to take, and the facilities are not what Nigerians would want to rely on. Then the credit facilities are not open to the space industry private players.

The space agency needs to see that creditors are made to understand that there is so much to be made in this industry. But for the past 20 months now, what we are engaging the public’s on is the areas of spinoffs. We develop spinoffs and try to sell to people who will uptake these spinoffs; probably, people can learn that there is much to be made from the space industry.

One of the strategies that other space agencies have adopted in the US, Luxembourg and the likes is that instead of developing technologies themselves, they outsource those technologies to private companies in such countries (More like subcontracting and contracting for tech development. Those models have made it possible to have smaller space agencies with few people working there, creating policies and a more significant private sector with a higher percentage of the workforce developing technologies for the agencies.) Do you think that sort of arrangement is possible in Nigeria?

Oh, it is quite possible. These countries could involve the government to a certain level, and that is where we will develop confidence. We have to develop whatever we put our hearts together to do and then develop such things to a level that they will confidently come to us and benefit from it; these are some of the issues here. And then we have to work on the environment, the policies have to favour us, that’s when they will come in, but it is possible in Nigeria.

The space agency is now 22 years old, and many of the short- and long-term goals specified in the National Space strategy are yet to be done. What do you think are the primary reasons for this? And in readjusting the Agency for the future, what is the plan regarding updating the National Space Strategy and Policy?

We are working with the national executive council on a strategy, and after we present it to the national space council and agree, we will call upon the world to say that this is what we agreed on. Though we have the capacity, but to achieve the past goals, we have put certain things in place, however, the budgetary system is not favorable for the space agency. Long term funding will enable us to plan well into the future, instead of short ter, allocations that are not strong enough for project implementations.

As the new Director-General, what are some of the short- and long-term goals you are setting for the growth and development of the Agency?

The long-term goal is to place NASRDA on a higher pedestal to be referred to as a spacefaring country anywhere in the world. We want to launch more satellites, and implement more projects. But for now, what we want to achieve is to put down and review our plans and make sure it’s in line with the objectives of the government. It is beneficial because one of the reasons we started developing a space program is for socio-economic development of our people. So now we are focusing the Agency to be people-oriented and government-focused. We are also working towards security to assist the security agencies in fighting these banditry activities. These are the short-term goals. The long-term goals are to see that we are among the top space agencies globally.

Interestingly, some countries are referred to as space-faring countries and emerging space spacefaring countries, and often, countries like Nigeria are referred to as emerging space-faring countries. Do you think this is a fair classification, or do you think Nigeria is already a space-faring country?

It is a fair classification. After so many years, we are still emerging. I say that because we know where we want to be, and because of a few drawbacks here and there, we are yet to get there.

What role do you think NASRDA plays in the African Union driven African Space Agency?

We are part of their policy, part of their leaders, and we have made our contributions, just like other countries. And at a point, we wanted to host the headquarters here in Abuja, we offered, and they inspected our facilities and Egypt’s, but at the end of the day, Egypt is hosting the African space agency. On the continent, we have problems with data and information sharing, so with the coming African Space Agency, we feel we can bridge that gap. We are also working to make sure that our facilities are available. They want to work with West African countries because they are talking to the regional representatives of Africa. So, I think that we have a decent relationship with the African Space Agency.

What is the update on the African Resource Management Constellation (ARMC) project?

We have to go back to the drawing board because we made our satellites available. When we were thinking of a constellation of satellites for all the African countries, we said Nigeria’s Sat -2 was going to be a part of it. NigeriaSat-2 was there, but there were no other satellites to be added to the constellation. With my coming on board, I want us to sit down and rethink because the same problem I spoke about is affecting everywhere in Africa. There are still issues around budget, as well as convincing the governments to be committed to the ARMC project. Once we have these figured, then we can move on. Now, apart from that, we have to develop facilities, because after we have a satellite for Africa, how do we share data? Then, the countries that don’t have satellites must be committed to seeing that they will develop their stations so that they will be able to acquire data. The whole idea is to see how we can share data within Africa and help one another to have enough data. Many things are needed, and we have to come back to the drawing board about them and see how best these things would be available and see how we intend to achieve them.

Nigeria had a plan for a Moon mission, and this is also one of the things you talked about during your screening. How do you see the implementation of this? Do you think it is in the best interest of the country at this period?

Well, ours is to send someone to the space station to do research. Now, why is Nigeria interested? People who research the ISS are not majorly concerned about peculiar problems to Nigeria or Africa. If you look at our roadmaps, we have plans to train astronauts and they need to be trained in the areas of space physics and life sciences. Now, on the research they are carrying out, Africa has to be part of that before getting the benefits from the research, so we are talking about studies that are beneficial to Nigerians. Now, if you look at tropical diseases, they are different and unique to Africa and to handle this, we need to go into research. We keep saying that Africa isn’t spending enough money, so we are not getting the benefits of science and technology, so we want to see that we take our place in space and take our space on earth.