Kenya made a potentially game-changing step in science and technology when a nano satellite – 1KUNS-PF – was launched into outer space in Japan on Friday, May 11.
This milestone portends “potential” for placing Kenya in the league of space-going nations if authorities and scientists work with international partners to build on it.
The now space-orbiting satellite is a product of a quadripartite scientific collaboration between experts from University of Nairobi, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, Italy’s Sapienza University and the United Nations.
These international collaborations place the satellite launch in the world of diplomacy, specifically, science diplomacy. For, it is unlikely that the Kenyan scientists would have pulled off the feat without the financial, technological and expertise support from Japan and Italy.
Pessimists on social media and the press have poured scorn on this space-going venture. The argument is that we should prioritise pressing problems such as feeding our people, training doctors, managing floods, creating jobs, among other basics.
However, to conflate our well-thumbed governance challenges with efforts at advancing space science is to miss crucial points.
Kenya cannot wish away the need for access to data to assist with weather forecasting in view of extreme climatic events such as flooding, wildlife management in the face of poaching, earth mapping in support of geological exploration, among others.
To access satellite-sourced data, Kenya has predominantly relied on Western and Asian satellite data providers at steep costs. Acquiring our own satellite, even if it is only nano (small or minute), will reduce the costs of accessing data from other countries and commercial satellite owners.
With regards to creation of jobs, the satellite launch should be seen as a step towards creating employment in the scientific field, what with the global rise in fields such as artificial intelligence in the context of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The launch has been dubbed as a “first” for Kenya. However, we need to be reminded that Italy has been running the Luigi Broglio Space Centre at Ungwana Bay, located between Malindi and Mpeketoni, for over 50 years now. Italian, American and UK satellites have lifted off this site over the years since 1970. Reportedly, a number of discoveries have been made from the space missions launched at this space station including evidence of black holes using X-ray wavelengths.
The drawback is that agreements between Kenya and Italy for the running of the Italian space centre were crafted in such a way that Kenya only gets rent for hosting the facility. Leveraging science diplomacy, this agreement can be renegotiated with an eye on advancing Kenya’s fledgling space science ambitions.
The Malindi facility can become a major launching site for not just Kenyan satellites, but for the satellites of other nations. This would not only boost Kenya’s soft power by projecting the image of an innovative middle-income nation, but more importantly unleash a new space science economy creating new streams of national income.
Indeed, science has been at the core of international relations since the 1957 launch of the Sputnik 1 – an artificial satellite – by the Soviet Union touching off a space and arms race with the US and the West. It is only through back channels or track II diplomacy that a full blown nuclear conflagration was averted.
Today, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programmes are all based on advanced science and technology. The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and in 2013 are further examples of the intersection of science and diplomacy. In essence, science and diplomacy have merged and meshed into a liminal space.
It would be a stretch to imagine that Kenya is about to put man on the moon or to join the elite International Space Station. The launch of the satellite, however, provides an opportunity for Kenya to start incorporating science into its foreign policy formulation and practice. In so doing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs need not start from scratch. Kenya is indeed one of the few countries with a documented foreign policy document (2014) which articulates plans and strategies in economic, public, environmental and diaspora diplomacies. In recent times, a cultural diplomacy strategy incorporating sports diplomacy was released in 2016. Science diplomacy is the missing link.
In formulating science diplomacy, it would help for Kenyan scientists based in and outside the country to be consulted. It would also help to co-opt some of Kenya’s leading scientists into the ministry to run science diplomacy units and advice Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma and other diplomats on the opportunities as well as figure out implications of global science and technology dynamics on Kenya.
Wekesa is a media and geopolitics scholar at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, [email protected]