“Ethiopians have been engaged in space science for [millennia]; we are trying to reclaim that.”
Tefera Waluwa has had an illustrious career in government: he’s served as Mayor of Addis Ababa, Minster of Defence, Minister of Capacity Building, and Deputy Prime Minister at different times. Despite his high profile, decades-long service in public offices, Tefera says space science has been a big passion of his since childhood; even during the period of armed struggle prior to the EPRDF’s ascent to power.
Now the veteran statesman has his eyes set on space. Since 2004, he has been serving as the Chairman of the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS). According to its website, the Society aims “to build a society with a highly-developed scientific culture that enables Ethiopia to reap the benefits accruing from space science and technology.” To that end, the Society established the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre, which is the first of its kind in East Africa. What’s more, Tefera says the ESSS now operates under the auspices of the federal government, which is planning to further develop its space programme by creating an aerospace institute, training PhD-level space scientists, and eventually launching a satellite into space. He says that this will help Ethiopia’s efforts in developing telecommunications infrastructure and monitoring large-scale construction projects, among other things.
EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with him about the state of the country’s space science programme and what the future holds for Ethiopia in that respect. The following is an excerpt
EBR: You are one of the promoters of space science in Ethiopia. What influenced you to do that?
Tefera: It seems that I am promoting astronomy, space science and technology in Ethiopia only in recent [years], but it has been an interest of mine for a long time. In fact, I’ve [been interested in it] since I was in [elementary school].
When I was in grade eight, I used to read books about astronomy. I was determined to study astronomy if I got the chance to join a university. And I was capable of joining university because I was one of the top students in my class. However, there were no universities that offered astronomy. But that never stopped my passion. I was planning to choose philosophy and law as second and third fields of study.
However, all these did not work because of the politics at the time. The [war against the Dergue] took me away from high school when I was a 12th grade student.
More than 15 years of my life was spent in the armed struggle. Even during the war, the passion was with me. I followed what was happening around the world, especially in the field of space science. So when I was in the bushes as a guerrilla fighter or in government office, or after retirement, I have always been interested in space science and astronomy.
Do you think Ethiopia has the capacity to develop a space science programme, which requires huge investment?
Yes, it needs huge capital. If we had allocated a budget from the very beginning, in an appropriate and proportionate manner, the investment needed would not have been this huge. But even today the problem is not because it needs huge investment, it is perceived as huge.
On top of that, it is still wrongly perceived as if [space programmes are] only for developed countries. The developed world has been utilising it for a long time. [These programmes were] not developed in a matter of [a few] years. If they did not work on it for a long period of time, we could not have got what we have now.
In the past Ethiopians had been following and studying astronomy. During the peak of the Axumite civilisation, there were various indications that Ethiopians were serious about astronomy. If you look at the Sidama people, they have their own calendar, which is directly related to astronomy.
So it is not only what you invest. You have to know the laws of nature, space, the stars, the sun and the planets to craft a calendar. The perception that a huge [amount of money] is needed to pursue space science is wrong. History tells us that Ethiopians have been engaged in space science [for millennia] and now we are trying to reclaim that. The only thing that differentiates us from the developed nations is that we abandoned it at some point. And now we want to go back and start again.
This is because without it we cannot achieve what we have planned. We can only become a developed nation if we [create] comprehensive programmes in science and technology. It is impossible to pick science and leave out the technology aspect.
Regarding its affordability, I say it is. If I can get around USD20 million right now, I can gather 30 students from engineering and other fields and I can get them trained to plan, design, compose, assemble and put a satellite into space.
Or if you pay the same amount for countries that have a launching pad, they will launch it for you. Is USD20 million that big? What about 10 times that amount? It is not. The express road from Addis Ababa to Adama, which is less than 100 kilometres, [cost] more than USD500 million. If the country has half a billion dollars over the next five years, I know how many things Ethiopia can have on its own in terms of space science and technology.
Do you think getting that amount of money will be a challenge for Ethiopia?
The challenge is the wrong perception. Since I left government office five years ago, I dedicated my full time to study the issue. By reading different researches, I tried to see the difference between the developed and the developing world and I found four basic differences. The difference is not about using the technology or not, because both groups are using it. The difference is in the level of understanding or the line of thought of societies in developed and developing nations.
Developed nations have never said that this is not something developing nations need. However, the developing nations’ line of thought is ‘we can come back to it after we developed.’ That is where the first difference lies.
The second difference is when the developed nations are using the space science and technology they utilise its full potential. When we are using it, we only use a very small portion of the potential.
The third is when the developed nations are utilising space science and technology, they are using their own [talent], which is their own educated and trained human power. When we are using it, we are using their brainpower. We hire their brains and their institutions. We are paying for them and they are making money.
The fourth is the developed nations are contributing their best to develop science and technology. Our role in developing the science and technology is zero or absolutely insignificant. So these differences have to be narrowed.
Do you think competing with advanced nations will be easy for developing countries like Ethiopia that are starting from scratch?
Why not? I can tell you a number of examples. Take South Korea: in the 1960s, South Korea was a poor country. At that time, Sudan, Ethiopia and Ghana were far better than South Korea in terms of economic capabilities. South Korea entered into space science in the 1970s. Now, South Korea is one of the competitors in the field.
China first started a space science [programme] in 1911. Unfortunately, they could not continue because of wars with colonial powers. After the wars ended in 1949, the new China was founded and they established the Space Academy of Shanghai in 1952. At the time, China was in absolute poverty. Now, they compete with the USA, Russia, and other European countries. In a very short period of time, they are on top of the Western European [countries].
Take a recent example, Nigeria. In Nigeria, some people were pushing the government to start a space science programme, but they were ignored. It was only realised after [Olusegun] Obasanjo was elected as president. Immediately after he took office, Nigeria started the programme and now they are reaping benefits.
There is an advantage for newcomers if they can quickly learn what has happened in the field within the last 200 years.
What benefits will Ethiopia get from a space programme?
The benefits will spread to almost every sector, including education, agriculture, industry and health. Every aspect of life will benefit from this programme. In fact, the country has [already] been benefiting from space science. I can give you a good example. Take the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It was planned, designed and is being constructed using information from satellites.
Does the government plan to assemble a satellite that will be launched in the next five years here in Ethiopia?
The experiences of developing countries like India, South Korea, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and others show that initially they sent their brightest [students] to developed nations for training. After a while those trained personnel and other expatriate experts returned to their respective countries. Within two or three years, most of these countries [were able] to design and construct satellites. But when I say constructed I do not mean every aspect of it. Parts of the satellite can come from abroad. Initially countries [may] import the parts and later on they can develop their own.
So the basic thing the government will do is sending young and talented people for training and bringing them back and making them train others in the [practical] work [of space science], not just the theory.
But experts in the field say that a space science programme in Ethiopia must start from the ground up, which means making it part of the national education curriculum in order to create local skilled manpower capable of handling the task.
Just like in any other field, we have no sufficient and competent human resource in the space science field. We do not have self-sufficient, well-educated and trained scientists in engineering and many other fields. So what do we do? We send talented minds [abroad for training] and eventually they will train us.
We are not going to rediscover space science. We will copy from other successful countries and then fully engage in science. It is the same thing when it comes to the agriculture sector. Is our agriculture as effective as advanced nations? No. That is why we are still learning from the rest of the world.
What is currently being done to develop the programme? What is its exact time frame?
Currently the Ethiopian Aerospace Institute is under establishment. The Entoto Observatory and Research Centre is already working on it. It [took] 20 students to train them in PhD-level [coursework and research] last year for the first time and [another group] this year. What’s more, the government took over the duties of the research centre.
The government has decided to take the issue seriously. It included the space science programme in the [second phase of the] five-year [Growth and Transformation Plan]. Now what we need is just to work out the full package of the programme, which includes the policies, programmes, strategies, legal frameworks and the institutions.
The Entoto Observatory and Research Centre was established by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) and was being managed by them until 2015, when the government took control. Why is that?
Such an endeavour should be under the ESSS in general. The Society can lead but the government should be represented. The ESSS… cannot play as comprehensive a role as the government can.
Why did the ESSS initially take the lead when it should have been the responsibility of the government?
It was because the government was not ready at all due to the wrong perception [towards space science that] I have been talking about. Had the government been doing it, there [would be] no need for [the] ESSS to be involved.
What I am telling you is, now, the government has not decided to overtake the role of [a] civic society, but it has decided to take the role of the government that was [initially] carried out by a civic [organisation]. That does not mean the ESSS is going to end [its role with the Centre]. It will keep on. But the question is ‘in what manner?’ The government will have a role and the ESSS will be there, playing its own role – not competing with the government, but [both will] complement each other.
What projects will the ESSS handover to the government?
There is a very big project around Lalibela, on a mountain called Abune Yosef, and a number of other projects on the same mountain, which are 4,200 metres above sea level. There are other projects the ESSS decided to handover to government-owned universities.
At what stage is the Lalibela project?
It is at its initial stage, so it is not yet completed. But pre-feasibility studies were completed and feasibility studies have begun. The studies should be finalised within the next 12 months. Based on the findings of the studies, we will learn whether this mountain is suitable for establishing a space observatory and research centre.
What is the cost of the Lalibela project?
I am not sure about the exact amount, but the infrastructure the ESSS has developed, with the scientific equipment we bought and installed there, is at least ETB25 million. The regional and federal governments have also invested hundreds of millions of birr for this project. The regional government is constructing more than 84 km of all-weather roads to connect the site to the major road. EBR
4th Year • January 16 2016 – February 15 2016 • No. 35