Reaching for the stars is a worthy ambition for Africa

Ghion Ashenafi, an electrical engineer at the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre, Ethiopia © AFP

By 2030, Nigeria wants to send an astronaut into space. You would have thought with all the problems it has here on the ground — from a shrivelling economy to rampant Boko Haram terrorists — conquering the final frontier would be the last thing on the government’s mind. Yet in Nigeria, as in several other African countries, space technology is moving up the policy agenda.

Last weekend South African astronomers revealed the existence of 1,300 distant galaxies, the first gems of information gleaned from the MeerKAT telescope being built in the desert of Northern Cape province. Nigeria has launched five satellites since 2003. Outside Addis Ababa, 3,200 metres above sea level, Ethiopia’s Entoto Observatory and Research Centre has become one of the best places on earth to see crystal-clear images of Orion’s belt. The African Union, which comprises 54 countries, this year came up with a space policy encouraging the pooling of expertise in a continent-wide space programme.

It would be easy to mock such endeavours. After all, most African governments are grappling with terrestrial challenges: poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and violence, to name but a few. A cynic — and the cynic should always have a seat at the discussion — would consider space exploration in such circumstances frivolous and vain, not to mention a colossal waste of money.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny, president of Ivory Coast from 1960 to 1993, was rightly lampooned for building the world’s largest church in his home town of Yamoussoukro at a cost of $300m. Are space observatories and satellites not just the cathedrals of the 21st century, the follies of vainglorious leaders?

The qualified answer to that question is: no. Africa’s space ambitions in particular, and its broader scientific ones in general, are worthy aims for countries that have struggled since independence to harness science for the good of their people. Unlike in east Asia, whose development was built on agricultural and industrial innovation, most African states have badly neglected both.

Outside South Africa, universities across sub-Saharan Africa have fallen into a terrible state. Most favour the humanities, which are cheaper to teach than science. The sons and daughters of the elites mostly study abroad. If they become doctors or scientists, they often stay there. At home, farming techniques have barely changed since independence. Once world-class institutions, such as the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, are a pale shadow of their former selves.

Paul Boateng, trustee of the Planet Earth Institute, which seeks scientific independence for Africa, supports what he calls the “emancipation” of African science. “We advocate high-quality, industry-relevant science that addresses the continent’s developmental challenges,” he says. Of course, science is universal. If innovations are affordable, Africans can benefit — from vaccines and mobile phones to solar panels and computers. The world’s scientific agenda, however, is not always aligned with Africa’s needs. Science follows money and power. The frontline treatment for sleeping sickness, a fatal disease spread by the tsetse fly, is a 75-year-old drug derived from arsenic.

What does space technology have to do with all this? First, pushing the scientific envelope has practical implications. Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency launched NigeriaSat-1 in 2003 at a cost of $13m. Built by the UK’s Surrey Space Technology, it was equipped with high-resolution optical and infrared cameras to monitor agricultural production and to track desertification and locust swarms. Later satellites were built at SST with the involvement of Nigerian engineers.

Just as important, space can energise the science base and university ecosystem and create a sense of national purpose. The MeerKAT telescope has involved more black South Africans in high-level science, according to Lord Boateng, who was Britain’s high commissioner to the country when it was bidding for the project. That sense of mission is no trifling matter. When Delhi placed a cut-price satellite in orbit around Mars in 2014, it triggered a sense of national euphoria that will inspire a generation of Indian scientists.

Space technology cannot leapfrog earthly problems. Without functioning institutions, good primary and secondary schools and decent hospitals, development will remain a chimera. Prestige projects can certainly be a diversion or an opportunity for graft. Yet as Lord Boateng, says: “Part of the way forward is saying to young people in Nigeria, you too can be an astronaut.” Kids in Africa should be dreaming big.