Remote Sensing Identified as a Critical Tool for Africa's Development

By Ruth Nabakwe
Paris, France

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 19, 2002

Nigeria's President Olusegun obasanjo's Senior Special Assistant adviser on Space Science and Technology Adigun Ade Abiodun has lamented that while remote sensing was a critical tool for Africa's development scientists at the heart of this satellite driven technology had yet to influence Africa's policy decisions in ways that would help to harness the strategy for the overall progress of the continent.

"Scientists in Africa must get involved in the political decisions made on Africa's development if space science and technology is to make a difference in Africa," Abiodun told The Perspective in an interview in Paris.

The Nigerian official was one of key note speakers at a three day meeting organized by UNESCO at which a new UNESCO Africa Network for the Application of Remote Sensing for integrated management of ecosystems and water resources in Africa was launched.

About 50 experts drawn from water resources sector, remote sensing institutions and space agency specialists from Europe, America, Asia and Africa attended the meeting.

Participants at the meeting agreed that remote sensing provided policy makers with vital information for economic planning and forecasting of phenomenon such as drought depletion of forests which served as vital data in early warning systems for timely action that was crucial for sustainable development.

The Nigerian President's adviser urged African scientists to work closely with political leaders through understudying them to identify their leadership's national development programmes.

"It is by scrutinizing these national agendas that those of us who call ourselves scientists can see how we can link ourselves to the process in order to influence a science led agenda to help the leaders achieve their development goals," Abioudun said.

He cited Africa's new development blueprint NEPAD as typical example of a continent-wide development programme expected to eradicate poverty, which scientists in Africa could influence through proposals for the harnessing of remote sensing as a tool to fight poverty.

In areas where remote sensing has been applied effectively whole communities have for instance become aware of the dangers of constructing houses in high risk flood plain areas and been empowered to promote food security through early warning systems on drought.

Scientists were urged to make the results of their work felt at local levels as the only way of making people appreciate the importance of science and technology in their lives.

Abioudin however lamented that the harnessing of science and technology such as space science had yet to be fully synchronized in Africa's policy decisions.

He attributed the lack of effective linkages of development planning to science to a lack of a deliberate policy on the issue.

"Most countries have no science led policies in Africa and when you have no policy it means that you have nothing to aim at, budget for or commit to but if scientists and political leaders can work together they would be able to identify what should be the long term goals of their own countries and the vision to aim at with science and technology being the cornerstone of that vision," he suggested.

In a bid to lay the groundwork for an aggressive science-led agenda for Africa, Abioudin said that political will was the most crucial first step.

"Many African scientists are now talking about the need to create an African space programme but I am saying that yes it will come but it is too soon because you must look at the history of the European Space Agency for instance..., how did they get to where they are today, we are looking at 25- 40 years behind time, when you look at Asia they have an Association of Asian countries and in Latin America they have the conference of Latin America dealing with space but when you come to Africa, Africa has yet to even convene a meeting on space at summit or even ministerial level," he lamented.

The Nigerian scientist was convinced that until political leadership in Africa recognised the importance of space science in their own countries development, not much progress would be achieved.

He cited examples of the importance of space science saying weather or telecommunications were some of the development agents, which could not be determined or effectively harnessed without space science.

"You cannot analyse weather today without space technology , you cannot telephone without space and you can not monitor or forecast disasters such as drought or earthquakes without space technology," Abioudin further said highlighting the importance of science in development.

According to him, Africa did not necessarily have to send its own satellite into space or strive to build rockets as these technologies were already available in space which Africa could use. What was needed, according to him, was simply a modest financial contribution by African governments towards the goal of promoting space science as the linchpin of its development process.

The Nigerian President's adviser suggested that Institutions such as the African development Bank (ADB), the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) as well as the newly established African Union and other continental wide organizations needed to get together to identify strategies to re-orient the continent's development direction towards space.

"This is the space age and Africa cannot afford to lag behind but needs to see what was happening in other parts of the world where the space age was transforming the development pace of most societies.

"As I am speaking now there are over 20 satellites that are now on the drawing boards in most places and in the next three years there will be about 100 communications satellites and in every Africa country today everybody has a GSM mobile phone but none is manufactured in Africa, they are all coming from abroad and yet there are a lot of human resources in Africa that can make contributions to these developments. Most telephone boxes in Africa are imported and yet when you take a telephone from France to call Africa you are going via satellite that stands at 6000km above the surface of the earth."

Abiodun urged Africa to realise that most of its financial resources was going out to support external development rather than internal development with the bottom line being that Africa's many scientists were not being fully utilised to contribute towards the development of the unlike the trend in other parts of the world.

Abiodun lamented that most of Africa's scientists were abroad in countries such as France, Germany, London, the USA, Canada, Russia and Australia where the environment was conducive and were contributing towards the development of those countries because the environment and infrastructure needed in Africa to enable them contribute towards the development of their own continent was lacking.

He urged African leaders to strive to make the science environment conducive for its scientists to become part and parcel of the continent's development process.

According to Abiodun, Africa could take advantage of UNESCO's mandate to promote science education on the continent because as he put it, "Africa not only needs manpower trained in science and technology but also educated so that they do not only apply the technology but understand through education the nitty gritty of the technology they are applying and that is where education goes hand in hand with training."

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