How investing in space could help Malawi

Malawi, like other nations, is realizing the need to develop its own space sector. In March 2018 discussions began between the Kyushu Institute of Technology (KYUTECH), Japan and Malawi’s National Commission for Science and Technology—a government arm tasked with developing and supporting scientific innovations that address the nation’s needs—to build Malawi’s first satellite.

While Malawi will not join KYUTECH’s upcoming BIRDS project, this very discussion was a significant step in getting the government involved and aware of the benefits of space. BIRDS is a KYUTECH-based multinational project in which students from various non space faring nations build and operate a nanosatellite in a period of two years. It thus trains these students, who can then return to their own nations to help in building the space industry there. It has been a very successful project with Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mongolia among the countries that have participated in and benefited from the BIRDS. Follow the project here

But one may rightly wonder of what benefit is investing in space? Doesn’t a country like Malawi have more pressing issues to put its money towards? Malawi, as with many other (low-income) nations, can benefit from investing in the development of its space sector in the following various ways.

Space technology has many applications including earth observation, remote sensing and communication. Malawi has an agro-based economy, with estimates of about 80% of her work force in the agriculture sector and 90% of the exports agro-based. In other words,any catastrophe that hits agriculture has cataclysmic repercussions across the population. Climate change poses just such a threat.

In January 2015, two weeks of unprecedented torrential rain in some areas caused floods in Malawi that destroyed a lot of property and disrupted many livelihoods. The damage cost the economy around USD51 million,a sum that no doubt affected the government’s 2015/16 Financial Year. Such a multi-million expense drew resources from other sectors and government branches so that the economic earthquake was felt by most of the country. Yet floods and droughts keep happening. It is not easy to pinpoint the cause of such disasters, but ever more evident are the economic losses from the increasingly unpredictable year-to-year changes in climate. Disasters such as floods may hardly be stopped, but governments could build systems that better anticipate them, as well as put in place appropriate policies and mitigatory systems that reduce the economic damage when the disasters do happen. Such systems and policies, however, need to be based on up-to-date and accurate data. One way to acquire such data is by utilizing space-based technologies, including satellites. This is becoming increasingly more viable for low income countries thanks to the recent proliferation of small satellites, such as CubeSats. CubeSats and other nanosatellites are relatively cheaper that can even be built locally—indeed they can be. They thus provide a unique avenue where by even low-income nations can, within a short time and with few resources, acquire invaluable pertinent data that contributes toward judicious policies regarding natural disaster management, climate change mitigation, and agribusiness decision-making in general.Space technology could therefore help Malawi rather directly.

But there is more. A space program can help Malawi economically in other ways. The global space industry is estimated at $400 billion, according to Forbes. Space is no longer for the big countries, with big budgets; since recently there have been several new commercial entrants into the industry.As many

African countries begin to ramp up their efforts in the space sector, new opportunities are arising on the continent. For example, there is a need for companies that develop subsystems and components for satellites, and an even dire need for stable and reliable African launchers. Small companies that provide mission planning or mission control services can be established even as we think of launching our own spacecraft. We need to encourage such indigenous startups that can contribute to the space value chain.

But perhaps you simply love to look into deep space, into the beautiful, complex starry skies and often you are excited at the mention of Canis Major and black holes and,eh, interplanetary travel…

Well, it’s indeed a vast world out there beyond the fathoms of man. Far beyond the blue skies and out of the solar system the earth appears to be but a spec amongst a gazillion other specs. It’s just a pale blue dot not as significant as you may think from down here; the great cosmos is a jungle of treasure yet to be discovered.

However, in addition to the fact we can revel in exploring the beauty of the universe, astronomy has many benefits to a developing country like Malawi that can be appreciated by the average person. The very first benefit is tourism. With much of the country being rural and far from the city lights, it is easy to find dark skies. Dark skies are ideal for observing the stars and their constellations(known star patterns) and meteor showers. A combination of the beautiful Lake Malawi and an observatory centre where there would be telescopes and other eyepiece equipment would be irresistible to tourists. Even those without prior interest in astronomy would be fascinated at the thought of being able to see the rings on Saturn and observe the other planets in detail.

The second benefit is defence and knowledge for taking caution.On February 15th, 2013 a meteor blazed through the skies of Chelyabinsk in Russia. It was traveling at a speed of almost 20km/s and shining as bright as the sun. It then exploded sending a shock wave that sent glass flying, and almost 1500 people sustained injuries. This was in Russia, but space rocks can enter the earth from anywhere and that includes Malawian skies. In our case there would be more casualties because we would be ill equipped to deal with it. The people would have not the slightest clue of such a phenomenon; they would be scared and there would be panic. There would be stampede in public places and little children would be the most vulnerable.This is a natural disaster just like earthquakes and people must be drilled on how to deal with it. Astronomy would help us predict the occurrence of such and we would be able to determine the trajectory hence be able to know the most endangered places. People would be evacuated or cautioned and drilled on how to deal with it.

Beside all this it is worth noting that astronomy forces mankind to push through abilities of current technology. It would help us build a science culture hence a pool of discoveries and/or improvements on current technologies. The country would improve in the areas of information technology, education and medicine. We would deal away with superstitions and enter a new era; a science era where kids are taught to reason and experiment before drawing conclusions. But before we can achieve all this we must deal away with the spirit of thinking short term and start thinking of generations to come. It begins with the innocent minds; the little children. So let’s encourage even the little ones to look into the skies, to look beyond Earth.