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Northwoods Alchemy IV – Africa is looking up

Africa is looking up. Believe it.

After years of being fed a constant diet of bad news about the continent, most Americans are all too ready to assume nothing but the worst stories come out of Africa. Sometimes it seems that CNN has a special slot reserved just for a weekly feature on pestilence, war and famine. At least in the US media, you really have to look hard to find anything approaching good news about Africa, anything you might think of “looking up” to.

So it’s not altogether surprising that most Americans might snicker if you suggested they talk with the head of the Nigerian Space Agency. To most US citizens – whose knowledge of Nigeria is unlikely to extend much past oil and email scams – Nigeria’s space aspirations might sound more like a skit from the Daily Show or an article from the Onion. Except that it’s serious stuff. Nigeria, I was told yesterday, is serious about space.

Don’t believe me if you don’t want. But there’s no denying the conviction of Robert Boroffice. Boroffice, who I spoke with at some length yesterday after his presentation at an afternoon Pop!Tech session, is Director General of NASRDA, the National Space Research and Development Agency. And he’s passionate about what space can do for Nigeria and Nigerians.

We started our conversation with something I suppose I should have guessed, but I never really stopped to consider. In a sense, Nigeria has been “in space” for a while already. Getting, using, analyzing satellite data; working to plan responses to natural and man-made disasters, training a cadre of local scientists and technicians to manipulate the signals bouncing down from above. Boroffice was clear: Nigeria already hadexperience in space.

But in recent years the program has really – apologies for the pun – taken off, with the launch of the country’s satellites. Nigeria now has multiple satellites in orbit and has plans for more, producing high resolution images for census mapping, and low resolution pictures to help plan the course of railways planned to link the north and south of the country.

Moreover, in addition to the more than 200 Nigerians from all parts Government, academia and the private sector that have received training in recent years, technicians from over 20 other African nations have studied as part of the Nigerian program in Nigeria. There is, as it turns out, a lot of interest in space science in other parts of Africa, and Nigeria is determined to establish itself as the continent’s “mission control”.

Boroffice was also quick to point out that the impact is not limited to Nigeria or even Africa’s issues. With no small pride, he told me yesterday about how a Nigerian satellite was the first to broadcast images of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, data that was shared with the US Geological Service – data that should have been available to FEMA (though who knows if they were paying attention). Similarly, Nigeria’s satellite images helped the EU plan its response for victims of the big tsunami a few years back.

And while countries – especially the US – move to limit their satellite cooperation on national security grounds, Nigeria is pushing for more cooperation, to be a good “space citizen” if you like, to be a contributor to the global data pool.

So what’s the long term for this new agency? I asked Boroffice to paint me the biggest picture of the future, the success he dreams of. And he was quick to respond: “I want to create an agency that is sustainable, with a critical mass of its own engineers and scientists. And I want to help Nigeria make the most of its water resources – for irrigation, drinking water, and power.” He’s convinced Nigeria’s satellites can help. I was convinced too.

We look out at Africa from our positions around the world – both Africans and non-Africans alike – and it’s easy to look down.

We often see the continent in terms of earth and the things that flow from the earth – the focus on agriculture, mining and mineral resource development, forestry. We also think of the groundedness of life in the village, of a sense rootedness that hearkens back to a bygone era.

But Africa, where many people will never in their lives even see a land line, Africa is today the fastest growing cellphone market in the world. Internet cafes are booming and wi-fi, and wi-max are expanding at a breakneck pace. The continent is re-defining itself and its economic and technological options in ways we never thought possible before. And the continent’s future – in some significant ways – is tied to the sky. Which is just fine with Robert Boroffice.

Africa is looking up. Believe it.

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