In Conversation with Rose Wanjiku, Project Lead and Systems Engineer at SayariLabs Limited

On 25 January 2022, SayariLabs Limited, Kenya’s first space company and provider of satellite services and space-based solutions, announced its commercial agreement with Endurosat to launch the first Kenyan 3U software-defined NanoSat dubbed “TAIFA-1” by April 2023. Also, the company announced that TAIFA-1 (“one nation” in Swahili) would be launched into orbit aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Space in Africa had a chat with the Project Lead and Systems Engineer at SayariLabs Limited, Rose Wanjiku Njogu-Mwangi, to learn more about the satellite project, and the company’s solutions and offerings.

What led to the TAIFA-1 satellite project, and how is the journey so far?

We realised that apart from the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world, there exists another gap between Kenya and the rest of the continent. Upon this realisation, we critically evaluated other developed spacefaring countries in Europe, Canada, and the US. We aimed to find a means of demystifying space and reducing the knowledge gap in Africa, starting with Kenya. So when we came up with the TAIFA 1 project, it was primarily initiated to serve as a technological demonstration tool, a precursor or test mission if you will, to show that we have the technical capability to develop a space system in-house and make a solution that would benefit the entire continent. So that was where the TAIFA-1 project started. So far, it has been a learning curve because the African space ecosystem is still developing in terms of innovation and technology. Therefore, most of the things we needed to learn were not within our immediate reach. So we have had to partner with different organisations (African and foreign) to build our human resource capacity in small satellite development. 

Can you talk about the ongoing satellite project, the specification and the stage of development?

I can only give concise information about the general mission because the TAIFA-1 is still in development, and as such, there will be some alterations to the specification. TAIFA-1 is a 3U earth observation mission planned to orbit Kenya for five years. We are hoping to launch by Q1 2023.

What are the specific problems that this satellite is trying to address?

Initially, our focus was to demonstrate our small satellite expertise. However, we are hoping to leverage the imageries from the EO satellite to develop products and solutions to help the government (and other decision-makers) manage our forestry and agricultural sectors effectively.

Who are your partners on this project?

As the authorising body for space-related activities in Kenya, we have partnered with the Kenyan Space Agency (KSA). Firstly, our partnership with KSA ensured that we followed all the necessary guidelines and regulations guiding space activities in Kenya. We are also looking at collaborating and cementing our place as innovators to ensure we can join forces to proffer solutions to problems facing our fellow citizens. 

We have partnered with the Nanyang Technical University (NTU) in Singapore. When we started this project, our knowledge of small-satellite development was limited. So we collaborated to enhance our engineer’s capacity in designing and developing a smallsat.  

In addition, we signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with EnduroSat, another milestone in our satellite development journey. As part of this agreement, EnduroSat organised a two-week educational training for our engineering team, dedicated to space systems and engineering and covering all aspects of smallsat mission analysis, design, and assembly. In future, we hope to partner with more companies whose goals align with ours both in and outside Africa to ensure that we continue to improve the space industry in Africa.

How do you plan to collaborate with the Kenyan government to reach your goal?

As I mentioned, we aim to develop products and solutions to tackle real problems. To this end, we will collaborate with different ministries and agencies within Kenya to explore how we can join forces to develop solutions that directly improve Kenya’s social, economic and environmental development.

How do you intend to leverage your team’s unique position to inspire more innovative solutions within Kenya and, by extension, Africa?

Firstly, we are partnering with the universities here in Kenya. Recently, we had a week-long programme in partnership with KSA where we took 20 students through a comprehensive training programme on the design and development of satellites. These 20 students were selected from the four beneficiary universities of the KSA FY 2021/2022 research grant, including the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenyatta University and the Technical University of Kenya.

In future, we would like to develop a facility [like a technology hub] that will be made available for universities, research institutes, and other private companies to hone their skills in space system development. Furthermore, we would like to demystify space for the young ones and hopefully increase the human resources for the incoming generation. We have noticed that space science sounds too abstract for many people to conceptualise. And this is where we would like to create initiatives that tackle this challenge in Kenya. 

Similarly, I should also note that we cannot cover the entire country. To this end, our approach would be to create a network where we select and train a few students,  who would also be charged with disseminating the information to their colleagues. We believe this is a more practical approach to improving the workforce in the Kenyan Space industry.

What does the future look like for SayariLabs? 

We hope to leverage our success on the TAIFA-1 project to build and launch a constellation of nanosatellites. Similarly, we are also planning on developing larger space systems, a 6U or a 12U CubeSat, to ensure that we can fit as many components as possible on board to realise better results. Also, with the constellation, we are looking to increase our coverage areas and possibly partner with other regions on the continent to develop solutions to tackle our continental challenges. We would also like to build a satellite Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT) facility. Our bottom line is enhancing the space ecosystem in Kenya and, by extension, the African space industry. As Africans, we need to develop our space industry to a point where each country can take charge of space projects void of foreign interventions.

Can you talk briefly about your team?

We are a small team of eight engineers from different educational backgrounds. We started with this small team to build and launch this first system. However, we hope to increase our numbers with more capable hands to help us achieve our goals. Currently, I am the only female and the project lead for the TAIFA 1 project. But the cool thing about STEM is that it is much more than just gender. It boils down to getting the right human resource to fit seamlessly into different roles. However, we hope to get more females on board, but they would be joining us strictly on merit.

What is your take on the mantra “Space for Africa by Africa.” 

Firstly, as Africans, we need to change our views about certain matters. When you take a critical look at several industries, you will realise that even as individuals, we can take charge of projects unaided. But collectively, as a continent, the reverse is the case. This boils down to several reasons and challenges going on since immemorial. For instance, we have an abandoned launchpad in Malindi, but it has not been revamped. This is partly because African states cannot collaborate to bring the launch site back to life. We have limited equatorial launch pads globally, and revamping the one in Kenya can open the continent to new businesses and development because we would be able to offer a targeted solution to companies worldwide looking to launch objects into the equatorial orbit.

So in as much as we can analyse the issue collectively, it is also essential to break it down into smaller bits which can then be addressed. If we can find a way to effectively collaborate on the continent, we will enjoy great success in the long run. However, one major challenge is that Africans even find it challenging to trust solutions made by other Africans. This is sad because, to some, they have married the term “made in Africa” to inferiority. For example, we are now witnessing many African-based component manufacturing companies generating most of their revenue beyond Africa.

Similarly, some attribute this challenge to the low level of trust between Africans. If that is the case, we must break the vicious cycle and start trusting each other. The problem might seem astronomical at first, but once it gets broken down into different facets, we realise that we need to have the right mindset and show pan-Africanism in our dealings and not just with words. It starts with two individuals or companies to keep the ball rolling. And I understand that building trust can not be instantaneous; it just has to be continuous. And with time, we can scale the efforts throughout the continent. 

Also, I am not oblivious that some African products might lack quality. But this is not just an African problem. This is a global problem as we have seen substandard solutions or products from other continents. But the difference in Africa is that “one bad egg equals no good eggs”. While on different continents, one bad egg really is “one bad egg”. This is something that we also need to emulate. We need to build quality and excellence in Africa to close the technological gap between Africa and the rest of the world.