Kenya’s skyward surge: Space, sovereignty, and the African renaissance

Jason Stevens

“We have the capacity for frugal innovation,” says Nyambura Kamau in putting a spotlight on Kenya’s drive to bootstrap space-sector solutions for real-world problems.

This move reshapes the landscape of African ingenuity, offering a template for innovation that many on the continent could emulate. Ms Kamau is on a mission to spark a broader conversation about the unique challenges Africa faces in the space sector.

As the founder of the consultancy firm Viwanda Africa, Ms Kamau channels her expertise into catalyzing the continent’s potential in both the upstream and downstream space sectors.

From addressing skill shortages to fostering local and global collaborations, her holistic approach is not just about technology but also about building an ecosystem that nurtures talent and entrepreneurship.

This ecosystem, she said during a recent episode of the Commercial Disco podcast, is vital to transforming the continent’s ‘brain drain’ into a ‘brain gain,’ where African professionals are empowered to solve localized issues with global implications.

Nyambura Kamau

While the conversation orbits Kenya’s space endeavors, it’s her analytic perspective on the burgeoning African space sector that provides valuable insight for countries like Australia, keen on galvanizing its own space industries.

Viwanda Africa is a think tank born from Ms Kamau’s seasoned aerospace know-how. Since 2018, they’ve been the go-to for tech-savvy advice, pushing companies in healthcare, aviation, and beyond to put their money where it matters – solving real-world problems.

“The landscape is evolving,” she observes, “with various African nations investing in space capabilities.” This is not just about national pride. It’s about the practical application of space technology to solve unique challenges in Africa.

Her leadership aims to forge new pathways for African innovation, challenging the traditional narratives of dependency.

“We have amazing weather, a privilege that most launch countries don’t share,” she said, “so the launch aspect is very, very lucrative at this point and has the potential to really develop our capability within the upstream space industry.

Kenya could soon offer attractive conditions for space launches, which entice significant industry players such as SpaceX to their shores.

She refers to when the Italian-managed San Marco platform off the Kenyan coast was a hive of space activity from as early as 1964.

“It wouldn’t be the first time; the Malindi San Marco Center carried out launches in the eighties,” she recalls, highlighting a historical milestone in Kenya’s space legacy.

“Getting ownership of that under the Kenya Space Agency would be extremely exciting and important,” she said, envisaging a future where Kenya not only revisits but exceeds its past spacefaring achievements.

Kenya shares its equatorial advantage with Djibouti, a coveted asset for optimal space launches. Being near the equator is highly advantageous for space launches because it allows rockets to take advantage of the Earth’s higher rotational speed at this latitude to use less fuel to reach orbit, making launches more efficient and cost-effective.

“Djibouti’s collaboration with China for a launch facility mirrors our goals,” she notes. “Such partnerships could elevate the continent’s stance in the global space economy.

Both nation’s progress in space is just one piece of the puzzle.

Across Africa, countries like South Africa, Rwanda, Angola, Ethiopia, and Ghana are stepping up their game, backed by strong government support and innovative startups.

“It’s a collective push,” Kamau points out. “The African Union’s space program is pulling us together, ensuring we’re all heading in the same direction.”

As for the continent-wide efforts, the Africa Space Agency is at the forefront.

“It’s about coordination, not control,” Kamau says. “This agency is set to steer policy and support our journey to the stars. It’s a clear signal that we’re in this together, aiming high not just for technology’s sake but for what it can do for our people.”

Viwanda Africa’s mission, however, transcends the conventional – it’s not merely about launching satellites but harnessing space technology as a tool for sustainable development and self-sufficiency.

Focusing on the practicalities, she delves into the specifics of the downstream sector that mirrors many Australian initiatives. “Earth observation is a gateway for us,” Ms Kamau states. “We’re harnessing this technology to confront pressing issues such as climate change, agricultural productivity, and urban planning.”

Ms Kamau also addresses the manufacturing side of the space industry.

“There’s an untapped potential in Africa for satellite manufacturing,” she asserts. “But as we venture into this, we must ensure that the benefits are not one-sided. Fair compensation and local ownership in resource exploration are essential.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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