Kenya and Italy partners in space technology

Q1: Kenya has recently made history when a Kenyan-built space satellite called the KiboCUBE was successfully launched into space in a joint project with the Japanese Space Agency. But there was also an Italian collaboration in this project. Can you give us some details about that?

Well, this is how it began: In 2013, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and Sapienza University of Rome signed an agreement aimed at enhancing the exploitation of the scientific potential of the Broglio Space Centre in Malindi, fostering cooperation between Sapienza University of Rome and Kenyan universities. Among the programmes financed by the ASI in the framework of this agreement, is the programme you have asked about, the IKUNS, started in 2015, and devoted to the development of a university nanosatellite in cooperation between Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Nairobi.

The name of the programme – IKUNS – stands for Italy-Kenya University NanoSatellite. The aim was to transfer technology and build capacity in satellite manufacturing in Kenya, based on the long tradition in university nanosatellites at Sapienza, dating back to the San Marco programme.

Q2: And what is the background to the actual launch of this satellite?

What happened is that in 2015, the United Nations and Japan launched the UN/Japan “KiboCUBE” Programme, run by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which offers developing countries the opportunity to deploy their cubesats in low Earth orbit from the Japanese module Kibo of the International Space Station (ISS).

On the basis of the hands- on experience in cubesat manufacturing and operations acquired in the framework of the IKUNS project, a team of the University of Nairobi applied to the KiboCUBE announcement of opportunity in 2016 and won the selection.

The University of Nairobi’s proposal was aimed at the development of a cubesat named “1st Kenyan University Nano- Satellite Precursor Flight” ( 1KUNS- PF), prepared in partnership with Sapienza University, with the support of the National Space Secretariat of Kenya and the sponsorship of the Italian Space Agency and the two Italian companies NPC-New Production Concept and Roboptics.

The satellite hosts a student- made imaging system, based on a commercial micro-camera, planned to take low-resolution pictures of the Earth. This is a first step towards future technological developments, aimed at developing autonomous capacity in aerospace technology in Kenya.

One of the antennae at San Marco Project, currently known as the Broglio Space Centre, in Ngomeni., Kilifi County. /ALPHONCE GARI

Q3: But Italy’s involvement in space programmes in Kenya is not really anything new. You have the Luigi Broglio Space Centre (previously known as the San Marco Project) at Ngomeni in Malindi. Most Kenyans are not likely to know anything about this high-technology installation. Can you explain why Italy set up this space centre, and what kind of activities are undertaken there?

The San Marco Project was founded in 1964 by Prof Luigi Broglio, the pioneer of Italian space activities. The space centre in Malindi was initially managed by the University of Rome “La Sapienza” in collaboration with the Italian Air Force. Prof Luigi Broglio passed away in 2001 and in 2002 Italy and Kenya agreed to dedicate the centre to his memory with the name ‘Broglio Space Centre (BSC)’. Since 2004, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) took the responsibility of the BSC management.

Today, the centre counts about 210 employees, 191 of whom are Kenyans. Until 1988, the centre concentrated its activities on rocket launches for scientific research. The equatorial position is ideal for executing launches allowing saving on rocket fuel at lift-off.

Twenty- seven rockets were launched from the BSC offshore platforms and nine satellites were put in orbit. Today the BSC activities are mainly focused on satellites tracking and receiving data.

Q4: In all such bilateral programmes, we look to see if both countries benefit from the collaboration. What would you say has been the main benefit for Kenya? And what has been the main benefit for Italy?

Italy and Kenya signed the first agreement in space sector in 1964. This is the only project of its kind in Africa developed on the base of common interests and mutual advantages.

Kenya allocated this land to Italy in exchange for progressive development of Kenyan human capacity in space science and technology.

Finally, Italy and Kenya share cooperation programmes with third countries using the BSC and revenues coming from the relative services contracts.

Also, there have been benefits in terms of training in advanced space technology. For example, in June 2017, the Astronautical, Electrical and Energetic Engineering Department of La Sapienza University of Rome and the School of Engineering at the University of Nairobi launched the joint International Post-Graduate Course in Space Mission Design and Management, with the financial support of the Italian Space Agency.

italian embassy interview photo of Prof Luigi Broglio at San Marco in 1965

Q5: How do you see the role and activities of the centre evolving and changing in years to come?

It is very important to underline that in the future the centre will play a pivotal role in the implementation of development policies. Last February in Nairobi was held the International Space Forum (ISF) with the participation of 29 African countries and 14 others which were not from Africa, from International Space Agencies.

The final statement of the ISF expected that the Broglio Space Centre could collect the African needs and propose space application activities and training for the development of the African Capacity Building to achieve the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

italian embassy photo base malindi

Q6: And any benefits at all to the host community in Malindi?

Yes indeed. The Italian Development Cooperation has developed and concluded in 2012 the Malindi Integrated Social and Health Development Programme (MISHDP) in the same area.

A new programme is currently under negotiations with the National Treasury and Planning and the Coast Development Authority. The financial commitment from the Italian government tops €6.3 million in support of development initiatives in Kilifi county. The second phase aims to improve the delivery of education and health services and the productive activities in the fishery sector through a harmonised set of actions ranging from construction of essential infrastructures to award schemes for secondary school students. All the activities will be oriented in adding value to services and productive activities for the benefit of the people and local institutions.

Outstanding deliverables will be the tarmac road connecting the Mombasa-Lamu main road artery B8 to the Luigi Broglio Space Centre situated in Ngomeni; fifteen new classrooms for primary and secondary schools and annexed service blocks; a brand new and fully equipped fishery centre; a water well; a footbridge for better connection of the agricultural production areas to the market points; and the upgrade of the health facility of Mambrui.

The programme is in line with the objectives set out in Kenya Vision 2030 and in the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda. Furthermore, the programme pursues the “Big Four” priorities through the support also to the Blue Economy in an area traditionally devoted to fishery.