Nigeria’s space ambitions remain a pipe dream after 23 years

If you are interested in:Avatar for The Last Airbender head like me, you are probably expecting to see the following tagline, “Long ago, the four nations…”


My friend, all in due time. Follow me, my friend.

On Monday, August 29, 2005, the historic storm, Hurricane Katrina, hit cities lined up on the Louisiana-Mississippi border in New Orleans. Many people lost their homes, while over 1000 lives were claimed.

On Boxing Day in 2004, the world’s third-largest earthquake occurred, resulting in one of the worst natural disasters — The Asian Tsunami. In 14 countries along the coast, which included India, Indonesia and Thailand, 227,898 people were killed.

Then, why is this? Avatar What is the meaning of reference? My original intention was to list natural disasters. However, I feel that all four elements are crucial in these situations. Water: tsunamis or earthquakes; Earth, the world; Air tornadoes or earthquakes; and Fire, the aftermath.

But I digress.

This article focuses on the common ground that connects both disasters. But, before we get to that, what is the point of mentioning the disasters? What’s the connection?

In both situations, the NigeriaSat-1, built by the UK’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in 2003, was the first satellite to send images of the US east coast after Hurricane Katrina. It provided invaluable images to aid workers after the Asian Tsunami.

NigeriaSat-1, which was decommissioned in 2014 to make way for the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), was used to respond at floods in Argentina. Uruguay, Paraguay and West Africa. It has also been used for various mapping campaigns like the Amazon and Vietnam’s coastal areas.

Nigeria does have other satellites, and they’ve been used in different situations, but before that, let’s do some backtracking.

Table of Contents

A history of Nigeria’s space programme

NASA’s space station in Kano — one of 18 Project Mercury space stations strategically placed along the Earth’s orbital track. They were part of a global communication network used to track satellites and relay information back from Mercury Control Center, Cape Canaveral in Florida. Source: Globalvoices

Nigeria’s space history is a long and chequered one. Few people know — or remember — that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) built the first satellite earth station in NigeriaThe NASA Tracking Station 5 was established in 1961 in Kano in order to monitor the Apollo and Gemini space missions.

The station was actually closed in 1963 before the two missions in 1966 and 1972 were completed, respectively.

At an ECOWAS conference in Addis ababa in 1976, Nigeria declared its first space ambition. It took 23 year to create a space agency. Following the recommendation of a nine-member panel of experts from the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure, the National Space Research and Development Agency(NASRDA), was created in May 1999.

Side note: NASENI, which was founded in 1992 by Nigeria’s federal government, was based on the recommendations made by the White Paper Committee on 1991 Report of a National Committee on Engineering Infrastructure, composed of engineers, scientists, administrators, economists and lawyers.

NASRDA’s mandate is to “vigorously pursue the attainment of space capabilities as an essential tool for the socio-economic development and the enhancement of the quality of life of Nigerians.”

The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation has jurisdiction over the agency.

Currently, Nigeria’s space programme is managed by NASRDA. The space programme was launched in 2000 by the National Space PolicyThe National Security Policy (NSP), which was approved in 2005, was adopted and a 25-year plan for its implementation was approved. But we’ll get to those in a bit.

In 2006, the state-owned Nigerian Communications Satellite (NIGCOMSAT) Limited was formed to manage and operate Nigeria’s communication satellites under the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy.

In its fifteen years of existence, it has been a limited liability company that is yet to turn a profitIt does not have an establishing ActAfter claiming two satellites would be acquired in 2023 and 2025, it has been the topic of much controversy.

It also has a subsidiary, GeoApps Plus Limited, which is expected to handle the sale of satellite images acquired by Nigeria’s earth observation satellites. According to its Facebook pageIt provides training in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information System to Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), and other military units.

After the Defence Space Administration Act had been passed, and in response to the NSP’s suggestions, the Defence Space Administration was officially authorized to acquire additional space science technologies for the military.

The Defence Space Agency was once known as the DSA. It was established on October 9, 2014. It is currently training engineers in partnership NIGCOMSAT/NASRDA.

But there’s still a lot to unpack from the NSP and we’ll be taking a look soon.

What Nigeria’s National Space Policy looks like

As we found out in 2018, as with most countries, Nigeria’s space programme is shrouded in secrecy.

A combination of some good fortune and a thorough LinkedIn search led me to Dr Halilu Ahmad Shaba who was NASRDA DG. She agreed to talk with me about this article.

Dr Halilu Ahmad, Director-General. NASRDA

I asked him what kind of policies we might expect under his tenure, and while he didn’t tell me, he said one thing for certain, the NSP will be reviewed. It would be done in conjunction with the overhaul of the existing roadmap, which President Muhammadu Buhari approved.

We can, however, review the current policy while we wait.

The NSP is a 10-chapter document that outlines several objectives, including defence and law enforcement and disaster prediction. It also promotes international cooperation and the establishment research centers.

It also provides Nigeria’s space economic model, a public-private partnership that involves short, medium, and long-term plans.

  • The government is responsible for all space technology development investments short-term.
  • Medium-term, the government implements the partial commercialisation of NASRDA’s products and services developed during the short-term economic development plan.
  • The government will partner with the private sector in the long-term to implement the public/private partnership framework for space program.

This roadmap has benchmarks that will help us achieve our goals.

  • Launch of NigeriaSat-1 in 2002
  • By 2006, Nigerian engineers can be trained to construct satellites for Earth observation (EO) in other countries.
  • Two satellites are to be launched by 2011
  • Training Nigerian astronauts for 2015
  • 2015 Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • By 2018, Development and Building of Made in Nigeria satellites
  • Rocketry/Propulsion Systems Development by 2025
  • Development of Spin-Off of Allied Industries – Electronics, Software etc. By 2028
  • Large-Scale Commercialisation of Space Technology & Know-how by 2030

Implementation: Down the rabbit hole

Nigeria has shown some success with implementation. We’ve already discussed NigeriaSat-1. NASRDA has also facilitated engineers’ training in building EO satellites. With the NigeriaSatX exclusively built by Nigerians and the NigeriaSat-2 launched in 2011 by the SSTL, NASRDA has helped to facilitate this.

The NigeriaSat-1 (and NigeriaSat-X) have a life expectancy of seven years. They should have been deorbited in 2018. But, four years later, both are still functioning by “grace”, as said by Shaba, and as an expert I spoke to told me, Nigeria is getting more value for money.

In 2017, the EduSat-1, a collaboration between the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Ondo State, Nigeria, and NASRDA, was built by Nigerians and launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but was decommissioned in 2019.

As to astronauts, you’d probably remember the current Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Ogbonnaya Onu, telling Nigerians in March 2016 that Nigeria would have an astronaut in space on or before 2030. There was a fake email circulated about a Nigerian astronaut who had been left behind in space, which elicited different reactions. Shaba however confirms that this milestone was not reached.

Nigeria’s dream to launch in space by 2030 does not look any closer to reality. There have been 44 satellite launches by 14 African countries as of 2021. However, none from African launch sites.

The Centre for Space Transport and Propulsion (CSTP), Epe in Lagos State has successfully launched three experimental rockets as of 2019.

Centre for Space Transport and Propulsion (CSTP), Epe State, Nigeria, successfully launched three rockets in 2019. Source: Space in Africa

But, due to the hushed nature of Nigeria’s space programme, we only know a previous milestone altitude of 10km before 2019. Shaba however claims that it has increased in the past.

“Because it can also be used for utility purposes, we made a case that we are not going to announce that. So we closed it to the public and only made some skeletal speeches about that.”

Satellite communication

Communication satellites are an important aspect of space technology. Satellites may not be as fast or reliable as subsea cables, but in countries like Nigeria, where broadband penetration is only 41%, every little bit helps.

Satellites are currently the only option. contribute 0.2% to Nigeria’s Internet connectivity.

After the NigeriaSat-1’s successful launch, in 2004, the government contracted state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation Limited (CGWIC) to build the NigComSat-1, a communication satellite.

The NigComSat-1 satellite was launched in 2007. However, in 2008, the satellite was shut down due to an error in its solar array. The Nigerian government had an insurance policy that allowed them to contract CGWIC to construct the NigComSat-1R.

The NigComat-1R launched in 2011. It has a 15 year life span and, like its predecessor was managed and maintained by NIGCOMSAT. It was an exact replacement for the NigComSat-1 and had identical specifications.

2018 Reuters reported that Nigeria had agreed to a $550 million dealCGWIC again approved two communication satellites that were due to be available by 2020 and 2021. But there’s no accurate information as to whether the deal pushed through or not. Especially after the world’s focus moved to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaba calls the NIGCOMSAT’s current move to contract new satellites, and Shaba’s previous one, to be counterproductive to NASRDA’s work in building and training satellite engineers.

“You cannot have two satellite manufacturing agencies. NIGCOMSAT, however, is [a] communications limited, and we said it should restrict itself to transpondence.”

Side note: Transpondence can be defined as the receiving, sending or reciprocal action of receiving or transmitting messages or information using transponders, radio transmission devices, or any other radio transmission device.

Space tech commercialization

Temidayo Inisosun, founder of Space in Africa, a media and analytics firm that focuses on Africa and the satellite industry, explained that the space ecosystem can be divided into upstream or downstream.

Space startups are similar to upstream oil and gas companies, but they specialize in exploration and drilling. This could refer to satellite or rocket launching, or space missions.

A company downstream would be more concerned with remote sensing, communication, and other aspects. Currently, Nigeria’s space ecosystem is mostly government run, especially in upstream activities.

In order to help the 2030 goal of commercialization on a large scale, the NASRDA Act was passed in 2010. It established the National Space Council (NSC), as regulator. The Act states that the NSC can approve licenses for space activities in Nigeria. The Act does not provide for private partnership and thus restricts private companies from a participation role.

According to Shaba, as part of Nigeria’s medium-term goals, NASRDA’s products are to be commercialised.

“We try to call them and let them know. For example, if data is supposed to cost  30 million, we sell it at 25 million. Then you sell it and get your money. And then you return the remaining money to the agency.”

This data is information gotten from Nigeria’s available satellites.

Shaba also mentioned spinoffs from its Quick WinThese projects were focused on specific topics like food security and human security, climate change, disaster management, data management, education packages in space science, and other issues.

These included research on the effects high-frequency radiation had on Wistar rats. The Agency was to use this study to determine the effects of the former on humans. While it isn’t clear what this new research brings, it seems like it is a well-researched field. Science is, however, always interesting.

In 2020, there were 23 Quick win projects.

NASRDA’s notable accomplishments

In Nigeria, which is currently in deep recession and faced with continued insecurity, the space program looks like vanity metrics. However, space technology is vital.

Statista says that by 2020, there will be a decrease in the number of people living in cities. global space economy made approximately $446.9 billionThe total turnover increased from $428 billion the previous year. Nearly 50% of that was due to commercial space products.

Beyond the economic impact, there is also a spillover effect into other sectors like medicine, transportation, environment and communications.

NASRDA has been working with foreign and Nigerian military agencies over the past few years to eradicate insurgency from West Africa.

According to The Guardian Agency used the NigeriaSat-X to produce a 10-metre digital elevation simulation mapSambisa Forest vegetation density map and information to support the military fighting the insurgency.

NASRDA basically created a digital representation using satellite data.

NASRDA provided assistance to the Malian government during civil war between Northern factions and Southern factions in 2012.

The media house also says, “the space agency donated over 4000 satellite images estimated to be worth ₦3 billion ($8.3 million) to Nigerian universities and research institutions, using NigeriaSat-1 alone. In all, NigeriaSat-1 directly contributed over ₦10.5 billion ($29 million) to Nigeria’s economy within its first nine years in orbit.”

These activities were also continued with the use of the NigeriaSat-2 satellites and NigeriaSat-X satellites.

In 2015, NIGCOMSAT won the contract to manage Belarus’ satellite, the BelinterSat-1, a revenue source which was estimated would bring in $400,000 annually.

Combine these with Quick winThe Agency appears to have not totally failed, judging by the number of spin-offs and projects.

However, although Shaba describes the Nigerian space ecosystem as “vibrant”, the country still lags behind, a problem he attributes to funding.

Back to basics

Henry Ibitolu (an ex-Research Intern at NASRDA), was my conversation partner and he offered an interesting comparison between India and the USA.

“India right now has almost joined the league of countries launching rockets. The US government spent $2.5 billion to send rockets to Mars through NASA. $2 billion. India spent $20 million to land a Mars rover using its technology and manpower. That’s about 10% or less of what the US spent.”

I later checked the figures. Although they were not 100% accurate, they say a lot. India spent $73million and was successful its first attempt.

To be fair, India’s space mission was done in 2013 while the US first successful Mars landing happened in 1975; several things made it much cheaperEven by the previous standards.

India made sure to only work with local engineers and companies. They also made numerous adjustments to the technology to improve its efficiency. The educational system that emphasizes Science Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM), has made this possible.

Only two Nigerian Universities — Kwara State University, Malete, Kwara State, and recently the Lagos State University, Lagos, offer courses in aerospace and Aeronautical engineering.

I also found only one university — FUTA — that teaches remote Sensing and GIS as a course separate from geomatics and surveying. Many universities offer Masters in Remote Sensing.

Ibitolu stated that the government should invest more in STEM education.

“For example, the government should partner with universities to come up with innovative ideas. We have local technology that we can leverage on to make use of that.”

An opinion Oniosun shares.

Interestingly, all seven NASRDA research centresThese are located in universities.

Education is not the only thing that matters. Capital is a major requirement in the space industry. You mean, India spent $74 million to land on Mars.

In 2021, NASRDA and its parastatals received ₦22.8 billion ($55.6 million) — 14.4% — from the total budget allocation for the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The total budgetary allocation for Nigeria’s space programme was ₦35.7 billion ($86.8 million), with NASRDA accounting for 64%, NIGCOMSAT, 22%, and DSA, 14%.

To put all of this into perspective, given the world’s current fascination with Mars and using NASA’s current Mars mission named Perseverance, which is expected to cost $2.7 billion, Nigeria’s entire space budget is barely 2% of the total cost.

The satellite is a better option. It can cost anywhere from $400,000-$1 million to build.

It still leaves us with one conclusion, Nigeria’s space programme is gross underfunded.

What’s the solution?

While there is no clear-cut solution, Nigeria’s best bet lies in its space economic model, the long-term plan to be precise. Public-private partnership in which the government collaborates with privately-owned businesses.

Ibitolu recommends that NASRDA achieve its goal of sending an astronaut into orbit before it takes on a regulatory role.

“Before you move to being a regulatory agency, you must have led by example. It is essential that you have actually done the task before you tell people what to do. But if you’ve not done anything and you are telling people to do it, it’s not possible. Because you don’t know.”

This is a position that is reminiscent of Nigeria’s current startup woes.

Oniosun uses the NASA-SpaceX analogy to suggest that NASRDA should collaborate with universities and private businesses in order to empower local startups.

“At some point, the US government, NASA had to trust SpaceX, to innovate and do awesome stuff. Perhaps Nigeria should do the same.

“The Space agency has trained hundreds of persons to Masters and PHD level, but it doesn’t mean anything. They should not waste their money on something that has never been done before.

“Instead of the Agency trying to do all of that by itself, it should trust these companies and begin to outsource its technology.”

But how does Nigeria’s private sector compare to the rest of the world?

Is it thriving or is it declining?

Ibitolu claims that the downstream sector is flourishing with many remote sensing companies and GIS companies. But currently, there’s no private company in the upstream space.

The capital-intensive nature and difficulty in funding the industry could also be contributing to this problem. Olayinka Fagbemiro is the Assistant Chief Scientific Officer of NASRDA. However, banks may be the answer, especially the African Development Bank (AfDB). But trust must be built.

“In terms of the private sector, this is an aspect that the government has to work on. Why? You need to create an environment that is supportive. You need to have an environment that encourages people to do business. This would allow them to put in the massive, untapped resources necessary to participate in the space programme.

“If banks, for example, can provide some sort of loans for startups in the space sector, there are a lot of smart, young Nigerians coming up daily with expertise, but the major challenge is capital. And Africa is losing out a whole lot as a result because Africa has a lot to gain from space products.”

However, it must be a long-term investment plan or credit plan. However, Shaba decries Nigerian investors’ eye for  quick profit.

The dawn of a new age

Photo by Tumisu at Pixabay

Shaba was named the Director-General for NASRDA in May 2021. Shaba’s answers: lots of restructuring, more satellites, and functioning in line with the government.

Ibitolu anticipates some changes.

“We are hopeful that we will see change with the new administration. I remember seeing Yoruba-studied people working in IT under the previous administration. But we are hopeful we will see new developments at NASRDA.”

Fagbemiro supports this position.

Before I began writing this, my goal was to assess whether or not the Space Agency had performed its duties. It cannot be considered a complete failure, but it is not an outright success, according to my conclusion.

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