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Nigeria’s own Nasa

When I meet Deji Inumoh, he says he is in the middle of a driving lesson. Yet it is not clear what Inumoh, clad in a blue zip-up coat to protect him from electrostatic charges, surrounded by red wires and a fleet of screens, but without a vehicle in sight, is learning to drive.

It turns out that the 35-year-old is one of a clutch of Nigerian space scientists, and he is learning how to drive a satellite. The trainee altitude control engineer is finding out just how precisely positioned Nigeria's next satellite - 700 miles from the earth's surface - will need to be in order to take accurate images when it launches next year. And he is doing it in Guildford.

This year, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, is also the tenth year since the birth of Nigeria's National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) and its own efforts to reach for the stars. Its first earth observation satellite - designed and made by the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd - was launched in 2003 and cost Africa's most populous country $13m.

Inumoh is working on the next one. The project, which also covers training for 27 engineers and making a test satellite, will cost in the region of $30m. This is amid a global downturn that helped send Nigeria's stock market tumbling more than 50 per cent, in a country where, the UN says, close to a third of under-fives are underweight and more than half the population lacks access to decent water. Nigeria even wants to send up an astronaut by 2015 as part of its 25-year space "road map". Many Nigerians wonder if their government - led by a former chemistry lecturer, Umaru Yar'Adua, who won deeply contested presidential elections in 2007 - is one celestial body short of a solar system.

In fact, space may be crucial to addressing many of Nigeria's most pressing and depressing statistics. "It's not an ego thing. We are not thinking of landing on the moon or going to Mars," Dr Seidu Onailo Mohammed, head of the NASRDA, says from Lagos. "We believe we can solve a number of problems."

Taking aerial pictures of Nigeria is no mere exercise in vanity. It could provide information to which the country at present cannot gain access, on potential environmental, social and political trouble - from the state of forests to the whereabouts of the secret tankers out at sea pilfering millions in oil revenues; from the spread of deserts to flood flashpoints.

“We want to assess problems that have devastated this land," says Dr Mohammed, whose family was too poor to buy a television when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Instead, aged nine, he heard it all on the radio. "When I was young I was excited by Apollo 11, but I never thought of having anything to do with space."

Now space offers solutions to development headaches. The country can also sell the satellite data, and in time may even make its money back. Forty years on, one small step for man could become one giant leap for one of the world's most promising developing nations.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War