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If you take a drive along the Abuja Airport road, shortly before you get to Lugbe Housing Estate, a few hundreds of metres off the road by your right side, is an emblazoned sign that reads: OBASANJO SPACE CENTRE. Thousands of commuters that ply this route daily may probably throw casual glances at the direction where a gatehouse is sited behind the signpost situated at Pyakasa, a suburb in Abuja , but their thoughts, perhaps, may be flitting if any on what goes on there.
A visit by the editorial team of the Economic Confidential into the premises of the National Space Research Development Agency (NASRDA), housed behind the gates in an imposing edifice that is their headquarters, was a mind-boggling, revealing, and awesome experience. We were taken into the world of Space Technology by the erudite Professor Robert Ajayi Boroffice, the Director General of NASRDA. Read along the excerpts of the interaction:
QUE: The missing Nigerian Satellite in orbit has been confirmed to be irretrievably lost. What implication does that portends to your agency being the progenitor of Nigcomsat.
ANS: My agency feels very sad about it. We launched this satellite and we had known that the satellite will live out its life span of 15 years. But regrettably this mishap happened. We would not allow this situation to discourage us because this king of thing does often happen in the space industry. We can quote very recent examples after the launch of our satellite last year. The Pan African Communication Satellite called ASCOM also launched and it failed. The News Sky which is owned by FCS-Americom was equally launched last year but failed. I can give you other examples, so it is something that happens very often in the space industry. The important thing is that once it is insured you can always be sure that you can get a replacement. What we suffer a bit is the discomfort and inconvenience our customers suffer for the period we have to transfer them or migrate to another Satellite. I think on our part, we don’t need to have too much negative impact on our enthusiasm and our vision. We only hope that the country itself would not be discouraged in investing in the Space Science, because if we don’t invest in it, we cannot meet up. This type of accidents is part of the whole industry because the type of data we generate now will help to further develop technology. We regret that this has happened. We hope that the Technical Commission will help us in building a strong and more reliable satellite. But I must say that the space environment is a very harsh environment. That is one of the phenomenon of nature we have to contend with in space.
QUE: The thrust of Economic Confidential Magazine is the justification of disbursement of funds from the Federation Account to all government agencies. How do you justify that you are prudent with the allocations to your agency so far
ANS: I think with all sincerity we have done well by putting our best. In the physical development in the very first generation of the buildings on these premises, which consists of the Gate house, the Administrative building, the Blue house, the Maintenance Department and the Satellite Development Complexes, one of them, including the roads and water reticulation and the lights; cost us about five hundred million naira (#500,000,000 ). When you know what I am talking about, you can capture it for your reports because it’s more like magic, if you don’t see the reality of what is on ground. Apart from that, the satellites that we launched; which were two, the Nigeria Sat 1 is there, it is designed for a 5years live span. It has exceeded the 5 years and we have applied the data generated from it in many areas ranging from solving environmental problems, food production boost, security and healthcare delivery. We believe that we have utilized and also have capacity building providing data for universities lecturers and students programmes. I think we have done well in applying the funds allocated to my agency. If you look at the issue of Communication Satellite before it ran into this problem, many services are being rendered in the banking industry, health sector, educational sector, internet services and the oil sector. So, we did equally contribute a lot to the economy of this country. The Communication Satellite is generating revenue which we have used to pay back the loan. The Nigeria Satellite also is generating revenue. What we did is that we have what we called DMCII that is, Disaster Monitoring Constellation International Imaging with our partners in our office in London . This Company sells our data across the world. We are getting monies generated from it which is paid directly into the treasury. Also locally, we have a company we called Geo-Application Company Nigeria Limited. This we are operating within the country, again we are generating some funds by selling images, maps and other data which we also pay into the treasury. The availability of this alone cannot be quantified especially in the area of security where we are also providing data for the security intelligence which cannot be quantified also. Infect, we have over justified the use of our allocations.
QUE: Considering the myriad of problem in Nigeria in terms of infrastructure, roads, power outage and unemployment which is all earthly based. How does what you are doing in NASRDA benefit the common man.
ANS: There are certain services or products that do not affect the common man directly but rather it contributes by providing strategic plan for socio-economic development. But there are some of these services that affect the common man directly. Let me take on Healthcare. When the Communication Satellite was in place, we were running a programme called Tele- Medicine in which we have linked some Federal Medical Centres in the 6-geopolitical zones to two Teaching hospitals: University Teaching Hospital, Ibadan and University Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri . We also have a bus that serves as a link via Satellite. We are able to deploy these buses to the rural areas where they have provided a platform for people who could not have access to qualitative health care delivery to do so, because the medical centres and buses are linked directly to the Teaching Hospitals. So, you don’t need to carry them and travel a long distance to receive medical attention. Through the Satellite connection, they can be examined by a consultant at their locality. Diagnosed, given a prescription for any ailment bothering them. This is one of the major ways the common man can benefit from space technology. Now, indirectly we have a project we are looking at the FADAMA land available in Nigeria for rice cultivation. Using our satellite imageries we are able to proof that what land is suitable for FADAMA rice cultivation in the country is 2 million hectares. With the Satellite imageries we can increase it to 3.5 million hectares. If this information is made available to the various Ministries of Agriculture, that is Federal, the States and even Local government; it can then be available to farmers. If this is done then the aspiration to be self sufficient in rice production would have been met. Of course, you know rice is a staple food in Nigeria . In this area the common man can also benefit largely from it. In the area of construction of roads, you need maps from the satellite images to do that more effectively. The common man travels on the roads too.
QUE: It is widely been reported that over N40 billion was incurred in setting up Nigcomsat and the Satellite in orbit. Was there any insurance in place to ensure no loses is borne by your agency and Nigcomsat.
ANS: Honestly, I would have preferred that this question should have been directed to Nigcomsat. We have agreed that there will be management of information. The fact should emanate from one source and not so many in order to avoid contradictory information. Let me clarify you now. The Satellite that was de-orbited did not cost 43 or 46 billion naira as erroneously reported in the media [Not Economic Confidential]. We took 200 million US dollars loan from a Chinese bank, and the Federal Government provided 56 million US dollars for the project. But that catered for the ground station at the site not far from here. If you go there you will see it. Training 50 Space-engineers, paid for the insurance and the satellite launch. So it is a total package. The value of the insurance itself stands at about 112 million Euros. The satellite itself is not 40 something billion. But Nigerians like sensationalism where people quote big figures to mesmerize and get the attention of the public. I can assure you that the satellite was adequately insured not even by Nigerian Banks but by reputable international underwriters. At any time when we stake our claims we would not have any problems. And we are already addressing that issue now.
QUE: The outcome of the Akure 2nd Media Conference by NASRDA was adjudged robust and effective. Did you achieve your objective?
ANS: We achieved our objectives. Our goal was to interact with the media so that they can understand what NASRDA is doing and also know our problems. Because hitherto people think that when you are on space, you are in such a distant place and you are beyond reach. That it can only be done by one’s imagination. Since there’s a lot of problem here on earth, those that you mentioned at the beginning, why are we wasting our time and money going to space? We have been able to show that actually, space is just a platform for solving problems here on earth more effectively. And we have demonstrated it in researched projects that we have carried out. I think seen from that perspective, we have achieved our goal. Also we want to see the way that the media can see themselves as stake holders in the space industry. Because the media will also, need the products or the services of space engineering in their profession. We have been equally able to show that the media are also a stake holder as far as space industry is concerned. Based on these two dimensions I mentioned, I think the Media Conference at Akure met with our objectives.
QUE: I want to believe you know that you will not be here forever. And really, anything a man does, he wants posterity to adjudge them positively after he or she is gone. What are the transitional steps you are taking to ensure that the space adventure does not get into a state of comatose when you leave office?
ANS: We are trying to build capacity because the only way to sustain a Programme is to ensure that you have human capacity. We are developing infrastructure which you can see on the ground at the premises now, a very vital and important step for us towards ensuring sustainability. We also ensure that we have a long time Programme. We have a 25 year road map which we are incubating, of course there’s also a policy in place which would support the Programme’s consistency. If the Nigerian people want us to continue, it will continue. But it must involve investments into the Programme. I am sure the government realizes that this can contribute toward the development of the country. I am certain the government will continue to invest in space industry.
QUE: Having judiciously applied the funds allocated to you in order to achieve what is on ground, what kind of money do you need to achieve more.
ANS: I must commend the Federal government for supporting us and providing funds to launch 2 satellites within a short period of time and to have this type of infrastructure on ground. But there’s never a time where your money is enough because there are areas you want to do simultaneously which goes parri-passu. If you don’t have money you have to shut them down. For us to have consistency and a sustainable Programme in view of our term of 25 year roadmap, we would need 10 billion naira every year to be able to achieve that objective.