In 2013, a water source, which could supply Kenya for 70 years was discovered in the arid Turkana region of the country. Turkana is one of the hottest and driest parts of Kenya, and it was hit by a devastating drought in 2012. Many of the region’s inhabitants, who are nomadic herders, became vulnerable to a lack of rain which affected their livelihood. But the discovery of an aquifer revived hope of productivity in the drought-hit region. 

“This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations,” Ms Wakhungu announced at a meeting of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Unesco in 2013.

But how were these aquifers discovered? They were found in the Turkana Basin and Lotikipi Basin using satellites and radar. Over the years, satellites and accompanying space technologies have become an increasingly important tools in combating and mitigating the possible effects of climate change.

Earth observation satellites, for instance, have the unique ability to provide near-real-time data on a range of environmental variables, such as temperature, humidity, precipitation, and atmospheric gases, allowing scientists and the government to track and monitor the changing climate with unprecedented accuracy. But some countries on the continent do not have the resource to own such technologies, and others have not considered it worthwhile. Kenya was one of the countries until last week when it launched its first operational earth observation satellite – Taifa-1, onboard a SpaceX rocket from the United States. 

The satellite’s construction, executed by Nine Kenyan engineers, took two years and 50 million Kenyan shillings ($372,000) with assistance from the Bulgarian aerospace firm Endurosat. Elon Musk’s Space X agency says the satellite will operate for five years and then decay over 20 years, entering the atmosphere and burning out.

Data from the satellite is expected in the coming months, and the agency has set up a team of analysts. It also says its data will be distributed free to government agencies and private companies for a reasonable fee.

According to Capt. Alloyce Were, an aeronautical engineer and deputy director of Navigation and Positioning at the government-run Kenya Space Agency, the launch follows three initial cancellations necessitated by bad weather. “We have the challenges that have been brought about by climate change, which the satellite, by virtue of being able to capture images (will be able to help monitor)”, he told Reuters on Friday before the satellite’s launch. “We can monitor forest changes, we can monitor urbanisation changes.” the captain added. 

Many have described having the Taifa-1 enter orbit as a moment of national pride, and by all means, it is. As Kenya is now in the same league with 14 other African countries that had launched a total of 52 satellites as of the end of 2022, according to consulting firm Space Hubs Africa.   

The continent has an ambitious plan to more than triple the number of satellites sent into the earth’s orbit over the next few years. According to the Africa Space Industry Annual Report, 125 new satellites have been lined up for development in 23 African countries by 2025, as activities in the continent’s space market heat up significantly. But, why is the launch of satellites important to countries on the continent?  

The space industry harbours so much potential and opportunities, and African governments are becoming aware of it. The global space economy is worth about $469 billion, while the African space industry, valued at $19.49 billion in 2021, is projected to grow by 16.16% to $22.64 billion by 2026. Also, from a $7.37 billion revenue in 2019, the industry is expected to generate over $10.24 billion by 2024. Going by this data, the industry is viable, so the pronounced national interest is unsurprising. 

On an additional note, the integration of space tech into society and the economy has led to more value creation and more socio-economic benefits that are critical to the development of countries globally. When properly utilized, data on areas of importance to a country’s economy can be collected.

With the help of an observation satellite real-time data on natural disasters like floods, droughts, and earthquakes, can be provided to help governments respond quickly and save lives.

In 2015, NigeriaSat-1 was the first satellite to send back pictures of the east coast of the US following Hurricane Katrina. And the orbiter contributed images to aid workers following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Nigeria provides disaster-related imagery for free, but the country generates income from the satellites by selling other image data. So asides from revenue generation that may be limited to the country, many other benefits of the launch of an observation satellite go beyond the territory of its host country. 

The impact of this technology in different industries and sectors can not be overlooked, as it provides valuable data for industries like agriculture, forestry, and mining, which can help to increase productivity and generate revenue for the country. 

For example, on the continent, a satellite like the EOS SAT-1 – the world’s first agri-focused satellite constellation is already being used to empower agribusinesses with data feeds critical to their growth. The parent company, EOS Data Analytics, is a global provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics for 22 different industries with a focus on agriculture and forestry. 

Launching a national orbit like the Taifa-1 gives room for more space technology penetration into the economies of the countries on the fastest-growing continent in the world.

Interestingly, this kind of technology has in a way, contributed to upholding and fostering the continent’s democratic strength. In Nigeria, satellites have been used in election monitoring, providing crucial information about voters who may otherwise have been overlooked by poll workers.

Regarding enhanced security on the continent, satellite and accompanying space technologies have played a credible part. With the help of an observation satellite, African countries can monitor their borders, coastlines, and critical infrastructure which can improve their security and defence capabilities. Notably, the technology proved useful in the fight against extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. 

As the African space industry continues to evolve and grow, the launch of observation satellites like Taifa-1 represents a crucial step towards achieving a more technologically advanced and secure continent. Particularly, the Taifa-1 marks a significant milestone in Kenya’s technological advancement and entry into the space race. 

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