Local satellite opens new frontiers for universities

A recently launched satellite developed by students and researchers from the University of Nairobi marks Kenya’s most ambitious venture into space science, a field dominated largely by Western and Asian powers.

The US$1 million 1KUNS-PF (Nano Satellite), which was launched in Japan on 11 May, was developed by the university in a partnership with Italian Sapienza University of Rome and experts from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It will allow Kenya to gather data on climate change, wildlife mapping, earth mapping, weather forecasts, coastline monitoring, transport and logistics.

The deployment of the facility dubbed KiboCUBE, which has taken three years to develop with finance from Japan, is a strong endorsement of Kenyan universities’ capacities in the global science and technology realm.

University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mbithi said the institution will be scaling up the satellite programme to develop more sophisticated platforms which are expected to substantially boost Kenya’s space science capacity. “We are also looking at how to enhance the technology for more precise data collection and surveillance,” said Mbithi.

The facility opens up a new frontier for researchers in universities to deepen scientific knowledge, improve engineering skills and push technological deployments.

“This is a great milestone in Kenya’s exploration into space,” said Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma.

“We are proud to be associated with and involved in the development of the satellite. We hope this is only a beginning of many collaborations and initiatives for Kenya under the KiboCUBE programme,” she said.

The development is expected to boost Kenya’s surveillance capacity, largely in the area of agriculture where satellites can provide data for the monitoring of potential crop diseases in remote locations, identify crop types and growth stages, the extent of logging and deforestation, the availability of water, and the monitoring of biodiversity in general.

The deployment, the first of its kind in East Africa, adds impetus to Kenya’s bid to transform itself into an innovation and research hub in Africa.

Global corporate organisations are increasingly seeking partnerships to grow the uptake of innovation and technology in Kenya.

In February, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, through its Airbus Foundation, launched its Little Engineer programme in Kenya, opening up an opportunity for at least 30 students to study space science. The programme, which is a partnership with Little Engineer and the Travelling Telescope as well as the M-Pesa Foundation Academy is meant to expose students to space exploration and space technology.

Kenya has been pushing universities to morph into research and innovation centres, providing a platform for top-notch researchers to use their skills to develop solutions to African challenges.

Three years ago, global technology giant IBM launched a research lab in the capital Nairobi to conduct applied and exploratory research into the grand challenges of the continent by delivering commercially viable innovations that change the way things are done. And local institutions have been bidding to drive the research agenda.

Chuka University, one of Kenya’s newest higher education institutions, said it plans to build a US$35.3 million science and technology park to support researchers. Universities are also boosting their innovation and research kitties to take advantage of growing demand for innovation, as Kenya seeks to attain a middle-income economy by 2030 under its economic blueprint launched nearly a decade ago.

For its part, the government plans to set up a US$1 billion National Research Fund to strengthen research in universities, with an eye on boosting innovation. Under the plan, the money available for university research will grow substantially.

Kenya hopes to use research to address some of the problems threatening economic growth such as food insecurity, poaching, congestion in major towns and energy shortages.

However, the country continues to battle lack of interest among lecturers, especially in private institutions, and poor motivation to pursue research.