Tapioca and the Nigerian Space Agency

PopSci editor Nicole Dyer is currently blogging from the Pop!Tech 2007
conference, an annual powwow of "remarkable people, extraordinary
conferences, powerful ideas and innovative projects that are changing
the world" currently taking place in Camden, Maine.

__Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview Robert Boroffice, head of the Nigerian space agency. Now I know what you're thinking: Nigeria has a space agency? It's a common question, one that Boroffice fields constantly. "When I was coming through customs, the guy asked me what I did," Boroffice told me. "He couldn't believe it. It's amazing how people perceive Nigeria."

Of course the reaction isn't all that surprising. Nigeria is one of the poorest nations in the world, and space is notoriously expensive: It costs about $4,000 to launch a single pound into space.

But Nigeria has some pretty practical goals. It isn't looking to land humans on asteroids nor does it want to hunt for water on Mars or take snapshots of Saturn's rings—all those missions are luxuries, Boroffice says. Nigeria's goal is to use space technology to address problems here on earth, and, yes, to make money off it. With the help of China, it recently launched its first communication satellite. The plan is to rent out some of the bandwidth to private telecommunications companies, though it's unclear whether anyone will offer cell service to Nigerians. More clear cut are the benefits of the nation's earth observation satellite (launched in 2003 with the help of British company Surrey Satellites). It's monitoring things like crop health and desert encroachment, which is in turn boosting the nation's food supply. Boroffice told me that thanks to the earth-observation satellite Nigeria has had more success growing its staple crop, a root tuber that Nigerians use to make tapioca, among other things. (Nigeria, Boroffice boasted, is the world's largest producer of tapioca.)

Launching satellites also creates jobs: The Nigerian space agency employs 100 trained Nigerians. And there are more jobs to come, because Nigeria is about to begin building its own satellite manufacturing facility. It currently relies on China to build and launch its satellites, because China offers the lowest manufacturing costs and, unlike NASA, it's fully transparent about its satellite technology. "Most exporters put a lot of restrictions on the technology," Boroffice says. "With China we do not experience the same problem. We are not interested in buying a black box. We're interested in technology transfer. We're interested in learning how to make satellites on our own."—Nicole Dyer