Kenya-Italy space agreement on hold after State questions viability

Inside San Marco Space Centre. (Photo:Courtesy)

By Juma Kwayera

A contentious space science research agreement that has been in force for the past 50 years between Kenya and Italy is in abeyance after a parliamentary committee questioned its viability.

This was after the committee toured San Marco Space Centre last month and raised integrity questions that suggest the contract is flawed.

The joint house committee that draws membership from education, energy, transport, and defence committees wants the Government to renegotiate the contract or take over the centre entirely.

The existing contract expired late last year, but it intends to expand its services to other countries other than Europe and the United States.

The chairman of the House Committee on Energy and MP for Karachuonyo told The Standard the facility has the potential to generate revenue for the exchequer besides elevating Kenya to a premier science and research centre because of its strategic position.

Centre underused

Engineer Rege, however, says the centre is underused.

“Kenya offers one of the only six optimum positions in the world for monitoring satellites orbiting the universe. At present, the space is used for monitoring acqua-satellites that give data on oceans. This data is useful for fishing by providing information on water temperatures and the like. Such information can be good for trawling in oceans,” says Rege.

Put to proper use, he adds, the centre can provide critical data on national security and defence, besides collecting data for local universities.

A document marked ‘Confidential’ that discusses past agreements between Kenya and Italy shows the establishment of the space centre in 1964 was intended to put Kenya at par with countries such as the US and Japan that had made significant strides in space science.

“San Marco is used as a tracking telemetry and command post to monitor and give information on satellites launched anywhere in the world,” says the Karachuonyo MP.

Lack of State interest and apathy by higher learning and research institutions has allowed countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt to overtake Kenya in space science. Even the University of Nairobi that had been co-opted into a twinning programme with the Rome University under the aegis of the Ministry of Education has done little to tap into the services San Marco provides.

Re-sign agreement

Neither Minister for Higher Education, Margaret Kamar nor her assistant, Kilemi Mwiria would respond to calls or text questions sent to their cell phones.

The parliamentary committee probing the function of the space that interrogated Defence Minister on Thursday wants to know the circumstances in which the ministry executed the contract.

It faces criticism that the space science agreement has not benefited residents of Malindi or the country in general despite generating billions of dollars for American and European space centres.

This was after a member of the committee, Emuhaya MP, Wilbur Ottichilo, raised the matter in the House that stopped attempts to renew the contract. MPs want all clauses of the agreement reviewed.

Comments contained in the confidential documents referred to earlier say: “If negotiations with Italian State cannot fit (sic) Kenya’s interest, the ultimate decision could be to re-sign the agreement to take a direct control of Broglio Space Centre.”

The MPs were also alarmed that the facility touted as a research centre has been converted into a commercial venture serving virtually all countries with advanced space science and technology without benefits percolating to Kenya.

In April, Dr Ottichilo, a space scientist, raised the matter in Parliament during question time. The question to the Minister for Defence sought information about the status of San Marco Space Applicants Centre in Malindi.

Agreement faulty

He wanted details about the conditions in which Kenya entered into an agreement with Italy to establish the space centre at Ngomeni in 1964; its future plans and programmes, and also an explanation why the agreement was executed by the Department of Defence.

In addition, the MP wanted data on what the centre is used for, and how much money the two Governments earn from the partnership, besides names and qualifications of Kenyans employed in senior positions at the centre.

After the committee that toured the facility located about 50km in the Indian Ocean off Malindi, there is a likelihood of a standoff, with MPs demanding reparation from San Marco Space Applicants Centre, the Italian firm that runs the station.

Ottichilo says the agreement is faulty and out of touch with technological developments, besides depending on ‘slave labour’ for the benefit of foreigners.

Defined as a research centre for space science, Ottichilo’s contract documents have been placed under the Ministry of Defence, raising more questions about the compatibility of the two “unless it is intended to hoodwink Kenyan authorities into agreeing to a faulty contract.”

In a response, the Department of Defence denies the allegations fishy dealings. Responding to inquiries about the status of the space station and its viability, Assistant Director of Public Communication in the Ministry of State for Defence, Bogita Ongeri, said the station is purely for research.

“Space science initiatives are not income generating projects. They are pursued for the contribution they make to the socio-economic wellbeing of a society. Therefore, the allegation that the project has turned into a commercial venture does not arise,” Ongeri says.

Non-remittance of dues

At the conception of the San Marco Space Centre in 1962 by Rome University as a research station for tracking and monitoring satellites in orbit, it was touted as an initial step toward anchoring Kenya as leader in the realm in Africa for the simple reason straddling the equator and the vast ocean to its east. However, the primary objective of the space was to change decades later.

According to official documents, the centre was taken over in 1995 by the Italian Government and turned into a space agency and began to engage in business.

“The understanding between Rome and Nairobi at the time was that the host country would get 70 per cent of the profits accruing from the business. The centre in Ngomeni in Malindi lies on the equator and has the capacity to detect any satellite in orbit anywhere in the world,” he observes.

At any given time, he says, the facility tracks more than dozens of satellites orbiting in the space at a nominal fee of 2,000 euros (Sh208,000) each per day. Besides non-remittance of dues to the Government, the parliamentary committee is questioning the use of ‘slave labour’ although the locals who work at the centre do the donkeywork.

The committee also alleges that the managers have compromised the media not to report anything about the space centre.

They have even supervised doctorate candidates, yet they cannot be elevated to management positions, the MPs say.

“They have not honoured the agreement that the proceeds from their investment be shared with the Kenyan government.

The business done is worth billions of shillings, but the Italian partners have been economical with the truth. They do not want to reveal anything,” complains Ottichilo.

At the end of last year, the Italian Government donated Sh200 million to the Coast Development Authority in the form corporate responsibility. Yet Kenya provides round the clock security, land and sea on which the centre is built. Yet the Kenyans who work there have no say,” he says.


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