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Nigeria recently launched two satellites into orbit, one of which was the first to be designed and built by Africans. In an interview with The Guardian, Nigeria’s leading newspaper, Martin Sweeting, director of the UK’s Surrey Space Centre and chief executive officer of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, discusses how space technology can be used to solve Africa’s socio-economic problems.
"Space gives us this kind of unique vantage point for monitoring things like climate change, agriculture, security, and so on," Sweeting says. "Why Africa? The question is why not."
Sweeting says that over the last 40 years the use of space has become affordable, meaning that more countries can afford to take advantage of space technology.
He says that many of the problems African faces could be addressed with better information — and space adds an important dimension to this. Space data can help deal with issues such as desertification, water resources, locust plagues, planning urban development, and monitoring the latter’s impact on biodiversity.
"From space, we can have a look at wide regions; we can look at health, crops, looking down at the field levels, have a look at a particular field, look across the field and see how the crops are like.
"If you look at it from space, you can plot out which parts of the field need fertiliser and which doesn’t. You can then use GPS, you can type this into your map, and you can have a tractor with which you can put the right amount of fertiliser in a particular field," he says adding that this saves the farmer money on unneeded fertiliser and cuts nitrite pollution.
But to operate a space programme countries also need experts who can handle the data.
"Part of the activities that we do … is to build up the capability inside the country, first of all to be able to do that data analysis, secondly, to be able to participate in space technology. This is a long time programme. It is not for a few years."
Any country should be in it for the long term and should be making 25-year plans, Sweeting says, "so that young people can look at this and say, if I follow this I have [a] career for my entire life, not just for five years".
Some of this capacity exists in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia. In the rest of the continent, Nigeria is the leader and Kenya and Malawi are beginning to think about it, says Sweeting.
But it is still too early to have a pan-African space agency, he says. "I do not see it benefiting a lot … it will generate an expensive overhead and that might be quite difficult."
Instead, he says, " each country needs to develop its own capabilities, its own interest, maybe having a coordination council, maybe a body where everybody gets together to talk about what they are doing and then maybe you have bilateral and multilateral collaborations where you can bring resources together, might work."
This interview was carried out while Emeka Anuforo was working with SciDev.Net on an IDRC/SciDev.Net fellowship.