Rwanda’s decision to venture into space science and technologies is geared more towards boosting socioeconomic development by leveraging the power of geospatial data and analytics to inform decision and policy making.
While for many countries, venturing into space is mostly about proving technological, economic and scientific prowess as well as boosting national prestige, Rwanda’s vision is far different from that.
The country is looking to tap into the immense opportunities of the space economy, which worldwide is valued at $469 billion but Africa contributes a small proportion of $19 billion.
Speaking during a sensitisation and awareness session held at City of Kigali Hall on Tuesday, Col. Francis Ngabo, CEO Rwanda Space Agency (RSA), said that Rwanda is looking to take advantage of the many opportunities in the space economy that remain untapped.
The session was part of the ongoing Rwanda Space Week community outreach campaign, which reached the City of Kigali after Northern, Southern and Western Provinces, with the final session set for Wednesday in Eastern Province.
The campaign is part of RSA’s effort to create awareness among stakeholders and players in space industry, the private sector, academia, young people and other industry captains or innovators looking to leverage the fast-growing space ecosystem.
“In recent years, anything to do with space technology was a reserve for developed countries like the US, Russia and other big economies, but today, each country, including Rwanda, has an opportunity to explore space technology and the opportunities it offers,” Col. Ngabo said.
“There is a lot for each country to take advantage of, without appearing like we are competing,”
“For instance, on our part, we have realised that if we can fully tap into the images we get from satellites, we can make well informed decisions based on the data we analyse and also come up with the right policies to boost our socioeconomic development,” Col. Ngabo said.
“It is an area I encourage young people here, especially students, to learn more about and be able to take the opportunities the industry offers,” he said, urging young science students from College Saint Andre and Lycée Notre-Dame de Cîteaux who were in attendance, to take up science subjects in line space.
Col. Ngabo said that the Government of Rwanda established RSA and gave it a mandate to explore and tap into these opportunities, and one of the key areas of focus is how this technology can be leveraged to not just improve service delivery but also make timely decisions and policies that benefit the people and the economy.
“If you are a student, this is a chance for you to pick interest and learn more about space technologies,” he said, pointing out that part of the capacity development phase involves identifying young and passionate talents to contribute to the vision.
Pudence Rubingisa, Mayor, City of Kigali, said that the country has a vision to build a smart city powered by technology and the work being done by RSA will feed into this ambition of turning Kigali into a smart, sustainable and livable city for the coming decades.
“We have had discussions with RSA to see how we can work together to achieve this vision, which feeds into the national agenda for sustainable development,”
“We are a city with an ambition to come up with smart solutions to improve the wellbeing of city residents, improving services delivery as well as developing a more resilient city whose planning and development is informed by real time data,” Mayor Rubingisa said.
Among other things, he said they want to see how satellite technology can help them to improve land use management, transportation of goods and people as well as mapping out areas where they want to put focus on in terms of prioritising what is more urgent -citing infrastructure development as one of those areas.
“For the students here, this is an opportunity to learn more because this is an industry with a great future and it is more about you the young people,” he said, emphasizing how the geospatial data generated by RSA is already helping in improving urban planning and development.
In his presentation, Georges Kwizera, Chief Technology Officer, RSA, highlighted the benefits of space technologies, pointing out that space is the 5th border of Rwanda and unlike the land borders, the space border is literally unlimited.
Discussions to establish a space agency started in 2018 with a small working group coming together to chart the way forward for the future of space technologies in Rwanda and fast forward in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the Government of Rwanda launched RSA as the national institution charged with overseeing space-based technologies and programmes.
The agency went on to sign partnership agreements with Japan to collaborate on space programmes and different satellite companies including OneWeb, SpaceX as well as local and international players currently working with Rwanda.
The first efforts went towards collecting satellite images for different government entities. Initially, each institution would secure its own images, so there was a duplication of services but today the service has been centralized.
“Our mandate is to advise the government on how we can utilize space technologies as well as building partnerships because you can’t do it alone,” Kwizera said.
“Our vision is geared towards developing a local space ecosystem, attracting investors and training talents, for us to be able to tap into the full potential of space technology for sustainable development,” he told participants.
Kwizera reiterated that Rwanda’s space initiatives are not geared towards proving the country’s superiority in space technology or be part of a race but rather how this technology can be used to improve the wellbeing of the people.
He pointed out that key space domains Rwanda is focused on include navigation, to improve GPS, air navigation, precision, agriculture as well as boosting communication- whether it is internet, VSAT, voice telephony and TV services.
Key among RSA activities include earth observation, which involves taking satellite photos of the planet for observation purposes, smart agriculture, urban planning, mining and disaster management.
This is done through machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. Through partnerships with Starlink/Spacex, Rwanda is looking to boost internet access especially in rural schools.
Under this collaboration with the Ministries of Education as well as ICT and Innovation, small antennas are set up to connect schools to the internet. The target is to connect all schools in rural areas.
It should be noted that in 2019, Rwanda entered a partnership with OneWeb, a global communications company to build the world’s largest constellation of satellites to bridge the Digital Divide and connect all the unconnected schools of the world, to support a satellite eco-system in Rwanda.
According to Kwizera, space navigation will boost Rwanda’s aviation sector, improving movement of planes by using satellites to map our shorter and quick routes and at the same time improve usage of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
Among other things, space technology will play an important role in Rwanda’s efforts to develop ‘smart agriculture’ using space-based tools which help in navigating agricultural machinery.
‘Smart agriculture’ activities supported by space technologies include land classification, mapping out which crops can grow where, farmland delineation, crop classification, yield estimation, disease management, monitoring water levels, disaster prediction and management.
Geospatial data and applications will also improve transportation in the city while the geospatial hub serves as a one-stop centre where the data is collected and analysed to inform decision making in all sectors of the country.
The hub will also boost research and academics, curriculum development, student exchange, feeding into small aspects of human life, down to a farmer in Nyamasheke or Nyagatare.
During the May rain disaster in Western Province, RSA was able to map out houses which were more affected by the flooding, which allowed rescue and emergency workers to move fast and efficiently.
“We were also able to monitor the flooding, damaged roads and the most affected areas, relying on space technology. We were also able to map out safer locations to move people and zones to station emergency services,” Kwizera said.
“At the time, they were not even sure if the rain would continue but by relying on this technology, we were able to figure out the course of action,” he added.
RSA is also able to monitor forest cover, to the small details as the rate at which trees are being planted or cut, whether forest cover is declining or increasing and how much carbon is being produced.
In regard to Infrastructure development, RSA is able to map out roads, landscape, mapping out bridges and helping engineers design infrastructure accordingly.
Next five years
Over the next five years, RSA is eyeing building a Space Centre of Excellence, improving geospatial data and analytics, manufacturing small satellites and building SatComms and ground stations/network.
Other areas of focus include capacity development, academic research, innovation, building a space ecosystem, private sector development by availing players with data and algorithms to boost investment.