Could aerospace be the new frontier for Africa’s societal transformation?

Monday November 19 2018

Debris following the Patel Dam collapse in Solai, Nakuru.

Debris following the Patel Dam collapse in Solai, Nakuru on May 11, 2018. The Dutch Red Cross and Airbus have before-and-after satellite images of the Patel Dam in Kenya, which burst and destroyed everything in its path. PHOTO | NMG 

By MICHAEL WAKABI
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As a consumer, Africa has not made the most of the transformative power of space technology.

Yet even as a late comer, aerospace offers the continent an array of solutions to its socio-economic challenges and it is not too late to join the value chain.

When Abbas Gullet, the secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross Society, received news that Patel Dam in Solai village, Nakuru County had burst its banks in the evening of May 9, his first reaction was to go through a mental checklist of what it would take to get help to the victims.

“I knew that it would take my team at least three hours to get to the site from Nairobi by road and perhaps another five days to complete the assessment,” he said recently.

Mr Gullet was part of a panel discussion in Toulouse, France, where aircraft and aerospace manufacturer Airbus was launching The Great Enabler: Aerospace in Africa Report on the potential application of aerospace technologies to address challenges in Africa.

That is exactly how the relief operation played out, with the field teams establishing that some 300 structures had been washed away, leaving behind four dozen fatalities.

Unknown to Mr Gullet at the time was the fact that his Dutch counterparts, the Netherlands Red Cross Society, through its partnership with the Airbus Foundation, actually had access to a sequence of satellite images showing Solai a day before the dam burst, during the disaster and a day afterwards.

“When we got the data from Airbus, it correlated with what our field teams had collected. But you can imagine how much faster our response would have been, if we had got this information much earlier,” he adds.

Drone technology

Many governments across Africa are still apprehensive about the full spectrum of aerospace tools such as drones, satellite imagery and data, tending to look at them in terms of their roles in defence and security.

But, in its Aerospace Africa report, Airbus to trying to draw attention to the civil application of these technologies and the role they can play in increasing access to healthcare, enhancing food security by making agriculture competitive and sustainable.

They can also help break down barriers to the movement of people and goods across the continent by adding fidelity to processes; support education, training and innovation and empower businesses with innovative products and solutions.

The report notes that the key questions for Africa remain how to connect people to markets and goods in a faster, cheaper and more efficient way, as well as how to improve agricultural productivity and access to healthcare.

A liberalised air transport industry could maximise aviation’s role as an economic engine for greater integration in Africa.

Also, precision farming supported by aerospace technology could enable the 60 per cent of Africa’s population employed in agriculture but contributing only 15 per cent of the GDP to produce more with fewer resources.

Where it has been applied, precision farming has helped to reduce waste in processes such as sowing and irrigation while increasing yields.

Africa’s maritime nations face threats to their fish stocks. Marine vessel monitoring and surveillance by satellite imagery can help tackle illegal fishing.

It is projected that the value of geo-intelligence services in Africa will increase from $40 million in 2012 to $150 million by 2020.

Drones can reduce the time and cost of delivering medical supplies to isolated populations.

Despite recognising these benefits, many government agencies are not proactive and regulatory challenges remain in the way of adopting space technology. For instance, operating a drone to gather data is still a protracted process in many countries because regulations have not been developed.

Mr Gullet argues that given the infrastructure deficit, the scale and frequency of disasters in Africa, the application of space technology responses would be faster, more efficient and most cost-effective.

Asia’s Green Revolution

According to Dr Jonas Chianu, the chief agricultural technologist at the African Development Bank, African agriculture gets only 25 per cent of the yields achieved elsewhere despite having more agricultural technology on the market than Asia had during its Green Revolution.

The report also looks at the potential of aerospace technologies to support African manufacturing and industrialisation, civil aviation, agriculture, healthcare and humanitarian assistance.

While many African countries are final consumers in the global aerospace value chain, they can still join the ranks of producers. Giving the examples of South Africa, Tunisia and Morocco — the African leaders in aerospace — the report argues that while joining in this value chain is challenging for many, it is not impossible.

“These countries demonstrate the complexities but also the opportunities for African countries to develop aerospace manufacturing and industrialisation capacity. Key among these is Africa’s potential demographic dividend, which will be achieved by investing in its youthful and increasingly techno-savvy population,” Bruno Gutierres, the head of Airbus Bizlab.

Citing mobile money which was first developed by a student at Moi University in 2005, was then adopted by Safaricom and developed into a global fintech product, Mr Gutierres says what many African ecosystems lack in means, is compensated for by “ambition, motivation and creativity.”

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