by Adrian Ely, STEPS Centre

The past years have seen several African countries beginning to invest in satellites for defence, communications, and other objectives. Nigeria is one example (see an interview with Turner Isoun, the man behind Nigeria’s space race, after the jump). In some cases, these technologies have been applied in agriculture or environmental protection.

The first day of the TWAS-ROSSA Young Scientists’ Network meeting in Nairobi ended with a welcome reception co-hosted by the STEPS Centre. Part of the programme saw the presentation of awards (funded by Microsoft) for researchers working in Africa who had excelled in computer science, with some of their applications reaching into space.

The end of the evening saw a strong call for Africa to invest further in exploratory research (including space science), rather than being constrained to investment in research with direct applications. Can this kind of expenditure be justified?

The next day I managed to talk to Professor Turner Isoun, former Minister of Science and Technology under President Olesegun Obasanjo, who takes the credit for driving Nigeria’s move into space, following the national space strategy in 1999. Nigeria has collaborated with partners in both the UK and China to place 3 satellites in orbit, using some of the enormous revenues from its oil resources.

Prof Isoun previously wrote in a special supplement of Nature that other African countries should join Nigeria in the space race. Responding to criticisms that funding should be better spent on more immediate concerns (half of Nigeria’s population remained in poverty in 2007), Isoun argues that space science and technology can make significant contributions to a country’s most pressing social and economic needs, and catalyse industrialization.

But will Nigeria really be able to apply this new-found knowledge to address its development challenges? I asked him how Nigeria had used its international collaboration to build its own innovation capabilities to adapt and apply space science to locally-defined problems, and what policies had been put in place to ensure that the benefits from the investment were equitably distributed throughout the Nigerian population.

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