Dr Abimbola Alale is Driving Nigeria’s Satellite Communications Ambitions

The African space industry is made up of highly prolific innovators, scientists, engineers, educators, researchers and enthusiasts across other sectors. Since the industry started experiencing continuous growth in the late ’90s, it has been pushed by phenomenal individuals. In this series, we are sharing the work of some of Africa’s leading Women in the Space industry. Meet Dr Abimbola Alale.

Dr Abimbola Alale is currently serving as the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communication Satellite Limited (NIGCOMSAT), headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria. She has pursued an active career in the Space Sector for over seventeen years, beginning at the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) where, as an Assistant Project Manager, she was part of the team that championed the manufacture and launch of the first sub- Saharan African communication satellite, NigComSat-1 in May 2007.

In 2019, she was re-appointed for another four years term in office by President Muhammadu Buhari and currently sits on the Honorary Board of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). In this interview with Dr Alale, she talks about her career, connectivity in Africa, and what the future of NigComSat will be.

As at your appointment, you were the first and only female CEO of a major satellite company in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. How does this feel, and what does this mean for Women in the industry? 

Indeed, I was the only female CEO of a space company in Africa, the Middle East and Europe as at the time I was appointed. However, there is no spectacular advantage regarding my gender within the space industry; the space industry is gender-free. What matters is the commitment, dedication and ability to conceptualise within the space industry and beyond. For someone to be in a position of leadership, he/she must be focused and be ready to face the challenges within the ambient of the industry. Since my appointment, more women have been appointed into various leadership positions in this sector in Africa.

Could you walk us through your career and how you were able to achieve all these? 

After my first degree, I decided to explore some of my childhood fantasy of space by taking a second degree in space science and management at the International Space University (ISU), Strasbourg, France. Schooling at the ISU gave me hands-on exposure to many areas of space activities which boosted my interest and passion for the industry. Luckily for me, I completed my studies at ISU during a time that the Nigerian Space Agency was in its infancy and based on this premise, I returned home to join the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) as a Senior Scientific Officer in 2001. In 2004, NASRDA started its communication satellite mission, and I was appointed as the Secretary/Assistant Project Manager to NigComSat-1 Project. In 2006, after the establishment of NIGCOMSAT Limited, I was appointed as the pioneer Director of Marketing, a position I held for eight years before being appointed as the Managing Director of the company in 2014. So far, so good, I have found my career path in the space industry to be rewarding, but it should also be known that I had moments of significant challenges along the way. In the course of pursuing an active career, I obtained my MBA and PhD degrees in addition to some relevant certifications and diplomas; all these were made possible with the support of God, family, friends and wonderful colleagues. 

What do you see as the future of NigComSat? 

Generally, I see so many good things happening to the space industry in Nigeria and most especially NIGCOMSAT Limited in terms of being repositioned to deliver innovative satellite service to meet national and continental broadband demands of the populace towards the digitalisation of Nigeria and Africa. Going further, I would very much like to witness NIGCOMSAT Limited procure and launch satellites from Nigeria through an indigenous satellite manufacturing and launching agency/company.

r-l, Nigerian Ambassador to Thailand, H.E Mallam Ahmed Nuhu Bamalli and NIGCOMSAT DG, Abimbola Alele at a meeting to explore Business Opportunities In The Asian SatCom Market

Based on our record, the Nigerian government has fully paid the loan used in acquiring NigComSat-1R, will the same path be followed for the acquisition of future satellites? 

For every investment either in space industries or other sectors, there are ways of financing capital intensive project of such; which can either be joint venture financing, public-private partner financing, equity financing. However, market dynamics will determine the direction of funding for future missions.

What is your view on the African Space Agency and what role do you think commercial companies such as NigComSat plays? 

African Space Agency is an excellent initiative for the continent in developing policy direction for space activities in Africa. I think commercial satellite companies should be integrated into the decision-making process of the African Space Agency (AfSA). NIGCOMSAT Limited will be willing to partner with African Space Agency in any capacity that will boost space development and delivery of innovative services to deepen broadband penetration to digitise the continent in conformity with global dynamics.

About 800 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa remain unconnected, what role does satellite communications play in this?

Satellite communication remains the quickest means of connecting difficult to reach terrains, unserved and underserved areas in sub-Saharan Africa due to the facts that are very easy to establish a satellite communication link, capability for multicasting, very reliable, and less prone to disaster and vandalisation. Therefore, African countries should utilise indigenous satellite companies in the implementation of the digital roadmap for Africa. 

Satellite communications services such as FSS, MSS and TV brings the most revenue in the African space and satellite industry. How best do you think African government can capitalise on this for economic growth and development. 

African governments can benefit from the revenue stream from satellite services if the industry is properly funded in term of space segment and ground infrastructure investment funding. We need local investors and banks to develop more interest in the space sector and see it as a commercially rewarding sector rather than a high risk one. A satellite company if adequately funded at the startup, can pull a turnover of $60millioin per annual.

Dr Abimbola Alele; Managing Director, Nigerian Communication Satellite Limited speaking at the 1st African Space Generation Workshop

Foreign operators such as Intelsat, Eutelsat, SES, YahSat, etc. are getting a large part of the revenue from SatCom in Africa. Do you think African based operators like NigComSat, NileSat, etc. can compete with them? 

Yes, of course, we can actually compete favourably with the big satellite companies; however, more capital investment must be injected to fund space segment and ground infrastructure adequately. No profit should be expected where you have less or poor infrastructural investments. More so, the government must be ready to be an up taker of the services because satellite communication services address a lot of developmental challenges, it provides a platform and backbone for the delivery of social-economic services (e-government, e-commerce, e-health, e-education etc.) to connect and integrate the people in remote areas to a digitalised world.

Companies are now looking at Low Earth orbit for satellite communications services, is NigComSat considering this? 

Maybe in future, there is nothing impossible. At the moment, our expertise is within the geo-belts. We can look at that too in future. It is always a pleasure to explore new dynamics in technologies.

Finally, what is NigComSat doing to address the Sustainable Development Goals? 

NIGCOMSAT Limited is a satellite communication platform provider for all forms of the internet of thing solutions as it affects all sectors. The Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) recently repositioned NIGCOMSAT as a strictly upstream company and established two downstream companies that would partner with the private sector to deliver services that are tailored towards achieving the set-out goals at stated in the sustainable development goals roadmap.