Interview with Nigerian Space Agency’s New Director General, Dr Francis Chizea

The National Space Research and Development Agency(NASRDA) is responsible for space activities in Nigeria. Since its inception in 1999, the agency has been able to actualise some of these mandates, including the running of the Nigeria National Space Policy, launching and operating Nigerian satellites in space, and their various facilities. 

Notwithstanding, the agency still has a long way to go. 

The appointment of the new Acting Director-General, Dr Francis Chizea is, by extension, a move to further consolidate the activities of the agency and to see it achieve its optimal goals. In an interview with Space in Africa, the new DG talked extensively on his vision for the agency, up-to-date projects, amongst other things.

So how has it been? We know NASRDA hasn’t been in the news for a really long time. Is this related to any internal process?

Well, you know, the economy has not been too good. Government is trying to secure money. Our major source of revenue as of today is oil, and oil sales have not been very good lately. The country is not able to sell as much oil as before, and the price of crude has fallen drastically, so, this has affected the government not being able to fend for as many projects. It is not just NASRDA but all sectors. Actually, you must have noticed that the country has not financed —it’s not a hidden story— critical projects or critical issues, but it is not peculiar to Nigeria only; most of the world economies have been in recession, trying to hold on. So, the funding of our space project has been affected, and if you have looked everywhere in the world, it’s almost the same. So, the scenario, especially when you look at most of the activities going on, is that it is more private-sector driven than the government.

Since the launching of the last satellite in 2011, there haven’t been significant projects at NASRDA, except NigeriaEduSat-1 launching in 2017. Also,  a lot of people are talking about a replacement for NigeriaSat-2—is the satellite still operational?

Well, I wouldn’t want to say there has been no major project. Other sections of the agency might not be the area of satellite launch; however, satellite launch is the major focus of the agency. We have started the process of replacing the NigerianSat-2. We need to get the replacement up. We have carried out some feasibility studies which are in line with what is expected [a]round the world and what the technologies are, and we are getting into the process of getting this done. I know we have done a memo to the council (that is the first legislative council), which has approved that we commence the process of looking for where to site the project. I mean it’s not good right, we have to build the capacity right here at home because we have the people who I am confident are able if the facilities are in place. So, we have the idea of where we are supposed to build the facility that can allow us to build satellite components up to a 1000 kilograms. The facility is not ready now, just civil work in that area, including recruitment and the costing of things. However, we have small site facilities around. We’ve been able to build some components for the spacecraft, so even for the satellite that we are planning to launch, one or two of the components that will fly out will be built by us. That is a major step forward at least, to demonstrate that, at least, our engineers and scientists are able to come up with space components that we need to fly the spacecraft.

Dr. Francis Chizea receiving the award of the best research institution in Nigeria on behalf of NASRDA at the 2019 Science, Technology and Innovation EXPO in Enugu

The Assembly, Integration, and Testing (AIT) facilities have been under development for some years now. Is there a set date that the agency is looking at for the completion?

Well, our AIT facilities, as we all know, are very expensive. Like you rightly said, the facilities have been under construction for a long time. I think the contract was awarded to— I’m not 100 per cent sure, I will like to confirm that — for over ten years.  One of the problems is that the equipment of equipment that we were supposed to use there are now obsolete and are not marketable, so our contractors are not able to scale with that. We want the equipment to be at par in the facilities, and these have not really changed the course of the project par say, but there’s also a lot of money to it; so, we are trying to take a very simple approach,  that is; get the civil part—get them ready— then we start building because the AIT facility is not just one bar or one space task. No, it includes clean rooms— bigger and the smaller rooms, where resources are going to be assembled and tested. If we are taking it as a whole, it might be a big problem, so right now the ministry is taking a look at it in a way that we can complete civil work and then taking this ground workshop one at a time. The earlier we get this running, the earlier we get our engineers ready.  As I said, we have a facility we are working on, and I know this administration is really, really interested in getting that facility ready before the end of our tenure in office.

You mentioned that in a lot of other countries, the private sectors drive the Space program,  how are you domesticating this private-public partnership model. The contractor for this project is a Chinese company, with most of the components for the project coming from China. So how exactly are you integrating private companies into all of that?

As I said, the only way our space program as a whole in Nigeria will move forward is when we have the active participation of the private sector in Nigeria. If you look at the present administration, one of the main focuses is to diversify the country’s earnings from oil alone, and one sector we know that can be of great help is the space sector. If we are able to have the participation of the private sector, most of the monies we’re spending on our space program will remain here locally. The presidency on its own is really enforcing a policy on PPP as a way to ensure that most of our— not only the space program—various sectors within the economy will survive and make money not only for the government but provide jobs. We are putting in new strategies; we are having many companies interested in the sector, from insurance to component manufacturing. If you look at it, some of our local companies here: new companies from Awka and Nnewi, petroleum companies,  all they need to do is to get us to provide them with contracts to build those components that are space-qualified; this is one of the ways. As I said, if we are going to build the next satellite based on that, most components for the craft must come from Nigeria.

We are not just looking at having the private sector come in to supply things, we are going to be looking at companies into manufacturing and building and not only that, we are looking at companies that will market our products. It is a major driver of the ministry that all our research findings should not be on the shelf anymore. This is a major requirement. Agencies are graded annually, these are a number of preempted things the office has been able to do, and this is also encouraging the private sector,  the government sector that [is] carrying out research, and looking for means to bring them together such that both parties get smug on whatever that is being done. This is our way of ensuring we bring in our private sector to invest.

There have been conversations around Nigcomsat operation and how the government didn’t get any returns from the satellites and how the government is trying to privatise. According to the Orosonya report, one of the things they tried to do with Nigcomsat is to sell Nigcomsat and transfer,  basically, their operations back to NASRDA. Do you think this is the right decision, and do you think that NASRDA is better shaped and in position for that?  Lastly, currently, there are over 3,500 people working in NASRDA, which is almost half of the people working in the entire African space industry. What do you think about overstaffing?

Well, the return of the operation of Nigcomsat to NASRDA is a step in the right direction. Nigcomsat Nigeria Limited was first of all established solely for the marketing products from the ComSat. Like you know, the Nigcomsat satellite is a major national asset, and as a national asset it has some security implications, so it should be managed by those who built it. If you noticed, NASRDA was the one that signed the contract of NigComSat. NASRDA was the one that built and launched the spacecraft before they started NigComSat Nigeria Limited, who eventually took over marketing and the operations. Handing the operations to NASRDA will be the best step in the right direction. Commercialising NigComSat will also be a step in the right direction. If it’s commercialised and people are buying the shares, it will be run by the private sector, and I can tell you nobody in the private sector wants to go into a place where it cannot profit, and they are well equipped and trained. Government is not established to make money out of these things, but the private sector is. If someone has their money in it, you will not just sit back and the government will finance loans from their pocket. From there, they get back the part of the money they used to build the spacecraft and establishing the facilities and at the same time, the government can keep the majority of the shares, but allow the private sector to run it, to make money. The facilities on board the NigComSat can be a huge money-spinner for the country if properly managed, but you know when the government manages things; it is not like the private sector, that is how it is in Nigeria, and everywhere in the world. It is not like when the private sector is pushing it, coupled with the fact that it is wrong for you to be the policymaker and also be a player, those are not good elements to growth, because you can only put up policies that are favourable to you to ascend that market. So the government will retain the majority rule, but then the private sector will run it. The market in Nigeria is big enough for us to make a lot of money. We still have lots of foreign entities making quite a huge amount of money in the country while we have our own satellite out there. For example, do you know how many millions of Nigerians subscribe to DSTV? I don’t have the right figures but I can assure you that about 50 million Nigerians are subscribed to DSTV. It is not official or substantiated [figure], but I know it is up to a quarter of the population. There are some homes where you have two, even in the rural areas, and they pay an average subscription of N5000 a month; do multiply it by that, and that it is the amount of money that goes to Multichoice from Nigerian subscribers. If they are not using or getting satellite transponders from Nigeria, they are from other satellite providers. If such services are being provided by Nigcomsat, then we know that a lot of money will be retained because most of this money goes to paying for transponders and service from Multichoice which is a South African company. Why would all these monies leave the shores of Nigeria? Now, if we have legislation that such services must patronise our transponders, we will be able to retain some of these monies back home. I gave this as an example to explain the situation. It’s over USD 60million a month, and they don’t even have a sales right; it is direct-to-home, so they are not even putting anything back to the local economy, unlike the GSM providers that provide masts, petrol. They operate the masts and rent large facilities for this, at least, some of the money is retained, something that is not applicable to DSTV. They are not even employing staff to reduce liabilities, they recruit agents. All these are driving out cost, reducing what remains in Nigeria. So every month, one can imagine what leaves this country from DSTV, not to talk of other providers who may not be that popular, but still make a large chunk of that money from this country. Talk about MTN and how much it is repatriating back to their country from here.

Dr. Francis Chizea (2nd right) participating in the African Space Agency Panel at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC.

Talking about returning Nigcomsat to NASRDA; let us examine NASRDA’s record of leading private companies, an example is the GeoApp that was established to commercialise the data from NASRDA’s satellites. We spoke with the director of the company last year when we were writing our report on the Newspace African segment of the industry. One of the things we discovered was that GeoApps have not been able to record any success since establishment, revenue is not exactly coming, what do you have to say on that?

Well, I would not say yes that revenue is coming, but probably not the way we anticipated or forecasted. With that, it has led us to go back to find out why that is so and what is happening. When you say GeoApps was inaugurated, I’m saying this for you to understand better, and you have government officials manning it who do not have the proper training to go out there and market it. At a point I have to call up solutions — I am a member of the board for GeoApps— and that is the trend, but that will change. For the first few weeks of me being in office, quite a lot of things are going to change. We have to ensure that when we are marketing, especially to other parastatals and MDAs as well, we let them know that NASRDA or space is not charged with the responsibility, for example, for agriculture, erosion, forestry control nor medicine; we were only charged to provide data and enhance those who have the mandate to do their jobs quickly, efficiently and cheaper. You know because they said these are satellites for agriculture or erosion control, the Ministry of Agriculture will not work with you, because they feel you want to take their jobs. You need to let them know that we are here to bring them in so we can do our pilot projects to demonstrate to them. We do this to get them into the system, so they can do your job quickly, efficiently, and quickly.

Over the years the focus has been to bring these people in, let them know they can use these facilities for work. By the time they are familiar with this, they will be the one to ask for things they need, but when somebody does not know what you are doing and you are selling yourself wrongly, like when you say it can be used for agriculture and others, that is a wrong statement, rather it can be used to help agriculture conveys a totally different and right meaning. Nobody will enjoy other people diving into their mandate, so that’s why most of them are not willing to work with you, but that has started changing now. We provide data for them to do their work and do it better and plan ahead, that is what we need to tell people. In a few days or weeks, I know, we are going to let a few contracts for Geo Apps, where our data will be used to run these jobs. It is important to let the officers know we are helping and not taking over.

You talked about the problem the Government is having with funding and finance. The ground station and facilities have not been working for a while, what is the way forward? Is there an ongoing plan to fix this or to build another one?

The ground station is being handled right now; if not for COVID, I can tell you the ground station will be working. It is being fixed by our engineers. They’ve carried out a whole lot of tests on the ground phase to see the workability, but some of the components (as you know, we have to import)  are yet to arrive because most the companies that were to provide these were shut down for a long time, but we are getting the ground station up for work in no time and of course, we are going to build more and upgrade the ground station. This ground station was commissioned in 2007 or so, before the launch of the NigComSat-2. We have two ground stations, the other was used for the NigeriaSat-1 and 2, that is the S-band and the X-band receivers. We have the S-band ground station working now. We have done some tests and put together a few components to fortify it. The proposal for the next satellite also includes another ground station. The problem we have is that we don’t have a backup. Whether we like it or not, components and equipment must fail, and we must be able to repair them. It is not strange anywhere in the world. We plan to have the second one, probably located somewhere in Nigeria which will serve as a backup, but when they are both working, it will increase our capacity. Backup is a major requirement, for example, you see the NigComSat-1 has a backup ground station in Kashi in China, but we don’t have a backup here because, the NigeriaSat-1, has SSTL ground station as a backup; when we have downtime, the automatic will take over control. We will do the required operations file, but with the changing rules and laws in the UK via the establishment of the Uk Space Agency, legislation and requirement to do such in the UK has changed and has become more difficult; that is why we need a backup here to ensure we reduce the chance of our data getting out.

On policy: the initial space policy that was drafted for Nigeria highlighted a lot of plans; short-term and long-term plans, we have passed the execution timeline. Unfortunately, the agency was not able to achieve some of those plans. Moving forward, will the agency propose for a redraft or an update of the strategy to highlight or show current happenings? For example, the agency wanted to work on astronaut training as far back as 2015, and send a national to space, which I believe, is unrealistic at this time.

That’s a very good question. One thing I have set out to do in the coming weeks is to review our space policy. The more reason behind it is because this policy was approved in 2001 and policies should be reviewed after 5 years. Currently, things are changing very fast, there are also some sentences you would want to change or add. So reviewing the space policy will entail reviewing all those things detailed in the 25 years road map for the implementation. And as you rightly know, the policy is in three phases with major mandates or achievements which are building a Nigerian-made satellite, launching a Nigerian-made satellite from a Nigerian soil, that is to say, we should be able to provide the rockery vehicle built in Nigeria. We have to be able to look at the policy once more and find out where we are in the implementation of that road map, and why we weren’t able to implement it to where it should as well as examine the obstacles; how can we overcome all of these hindrances. In a few weeks’ time, I am going to submit a document to the council to revise it,  of course, we have to revise this phase, which is the long term phase. By now, we should have had our astronauts and other things in place. We have to review and replay how we tend to proceed and get the government involved. We are working in hands with all committees of the agency. Most of these committees have sat down and now we are working on how to realign our map. Yes, everyone sets out a road map on what they want to achieve, but that does mean everything must be achieved. It’s giving yourself a very wide target. These are the major things to review based on the realities on the ground and what we will do now is by the time we reach every stage, we will sit down and review It and see why we have implemented it and get ready for the next phase. I agree with you, we have not been able to achieve some of the goals, but we will review these to push us forward in the right direction.

Is there something you want to tell the global audience? Something they should expect from the agency?

Well, just a short word to say that NASRDA as an agency has regrouped and is getting back to push space programs and research in Nigeria, and Africa as a whole.