As the world’s poorest and least developed continent, it may come as no surprise that very few African countries own space programs. But what may surprise you is that one of its poorest yet most populous countries, Ethiopia, has managed to successfully launch one, a first for East Africa.
Sat on top of the towering Mount Entoto, near the capital Addis Ababa, the center so far consists of two telescopes sheltered within large dome structures. Switched on a few months ago, the observatory came with a $3 million price tag. Modest for space research that may be, but not for a poverty-stricken, resource-poor country ravaged by famine that spends, on average, about $25 per person on health services annually. And for a country receiving substantial help in the form of aid, such as from the UK’s Department for International Development, at first glance the endeavor may seem a colossal waste of money.
Certainly, members of the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) have had a hard time swaying the minds of officials that the skies are a worthy investment. But for the ESSS, it’s about substantially more than just a thirst for knowledge, and by no means is this an attempt to join the space race.
“Science is part of any development cycle. Without science and technology, nothing can be achieved,” said ESSS communications director Abinet Ezra, according to AFP-JIJI. “Our main priority is to inspire the young generation to be involved in science and technology.”
While the country may be on the receiving end of much-needed financial help, that is not to say this is a frivolous investment. In fact, the ESSS was actually funded by Ethiopian-Saudi entrepreneur Mohammed Alamoudi with the goal of building “a society with a highly developed scientific culture that enables Ethiopia to reap the benefits accruing from space science and technology.”
Still, there are many who believe the money would be better spent elsewhere, for example on food, healthcare and infrastructure. But there are immediate benefits to the center. The equipment negates the need for university students reading astrophysics to travel abroad for study, which is expensive. And ultimately, now that the program has backing from the relevant authorities, it is hoped that further on down the line a satellite will be launched with the purpose of improving communications and monitoring farmland, both of which would assist development.
“Being poor is not a boundary to start this program,” said Solomon Belay, director of the center and professor of astrophysics. “Engineering and sciences are important to transform our agriculture into industry.”