Use satellites for national planing

23

BY PETER WANYONYI

As far as I can remember, the period between March and June has been marked by heavy rains in Kenya. In one of the earlier Kenyan curricula, this period was nicknamed “the long rains”, and rural Kenya’s agricultural calendar was planned around the period: farmers would till their land in December, re-till it and plant in February in time for the rains beginning March. Those of us brought up in the rural areas will remember that April – May was weeding season, and the April school holidays were the least cherished of all. Weeding maize and beans is no picnic!

Among some communities, this weather pattern was so important that children born during the period were given names reflecting that: among the Luyia community, girls born during the March – May period were named Naliaka (meaning, “one born during the weeding”), while boys born during the same period were named Wanyonyi (“-nyonyi” being the Luyia word for weeds). And yet, despite this extensive knowledge of weather patterns, Kenya still continues to be surprised by the weather. Last month, the long rains wreaked havoc across the country. Roads were flooded, illegal dams burst their banks and killed dozens, crop fields were inundated, and major cities across the country saw their roads turned into brown rivers of sewage and mud as silted-up drainage systems failed – yet again – to cope with the deluge from the heavens. How, one wonders, were we caught so unawares? And why, one asks, do the rains always catch us off-guard? Why don’t we ever learn from such occurrences? Kenya’s climate modelling and forecasting practice is archaic and almost useless. Much fun is poked at the weather forecasts on Kenyan TV, with good reason: most seem to be random guesses without any real science behind them. There’s zero consideration of the weather in national planning in Kenya, because the mandarins that run things in the relevant ministries couldn’t be bothered to do an honest day’s job, for once. But what would it look like if the jokers in the relevant ministries actually did their jobs?

The first thing Kenya would do is launch two or three satellites into space. This is easier than it sounds: satellite launches are commercial undertakings, and there’s no shortage of specialised companies willing to build and launch satellites for various uses at a fee. Kenya needs ground observation satellites to forecast climatic events like rains and drought with any accuracy, and one or two satellites in geostationary orbit above Kenya – perhaps one focusing on the country north of the equator and the other south of the equator – would suffice. They would collect wind, temperature, and atmospheric data for use in forecasting weather patterns as well as the severity of weather events like rains and droughts, meaning government planners would no longer be caught napping by severe weather. Such data could also be used to monitor the environment, detect land cover uses and types across the country, monitor air quality in and around cities, count wildlife numbers, and even expose many of the factors that drive poverty in Kenya – such as agricultural issues, water distribution, depletion of forest cover, and the extent of drought or desert cross the country.

Kenya’s economy is data-driven. Mobile money is behind the booming small and medium sized businesses mushrooming around the country, and the transfer of money using mobile phones relies on mobile networks. These are privately-owned, and are concentrated south of the equator in the country, where most of the population lives and where telcos make their profits from. Incentives and punishments from the Communications Authority have failed to entice the telcos into extending their networks meaningfully into northern Kenya, and those regions have consequently missed the economic benefits of mobile money. It is expensive to set up mobile infrastructure in northern Kenya, and foreign companies like Google and Facebook have proposed all sorts of “bandwidth aid” for such regions: weather balloons broadcasting free Wi-Fi, and similar contraptions. A data satellite or two would be an excellent way for government to provide subsidised backhaul for telcos willing to operate in the region.

Instead of paying billions to build mobile phone infrastructure in northern Kenya, telcos could be invited to partner with the government in blanketing the region with satellite-beamed data signals off a government-owned satellite. Northern Kenya also has heavy famine and disease burdens, and such satellites could be used to analyse disease vector populations, with the data gathered then driving national health and food aid planning.Finally, satellites can – and are – used for intelligence gathering operations. Kenya is at war in Somalia, and is usually forced to rely on United States intelligence to keep track of the movements of Al Shabaab terrorists on the border with Somalia, as well as of refugees fleeing the ravages of famine and war in that country. With a couple of good satellites in orbit, it would be easy to keep track of the movements of large groups of people – such as refugees moving into Kenya – and convoys such as those that Al Shabaab are famous for. 

Satellite building and launch costs have fallen drastically. A typical weather or data satellite costs about $300 million  (Sh30b) to build and launch into space. It sounds like a lot of money, but our telco companies would be paying back most of that money in bandwith leasing costs. The improved efficiency of planning for weather-related events as a result of satellite remote sensing would pay for the rest. In a country where billions are wasted on hare-brained schemes that achieve nothing for the common citizen, the launch and use of satellites in national planning would be a marked improvement in the government’s use of tax shillings