Taiwo Tejumola is a Systems Engineer operating out of KyuTech. More specifically, he is helping to build nextgen satellites whilst also heading up a program to encourage space exploration and research by students from developing world countries. Taiwo currently has plans to launch five satellites planned on a Space X rocket in April under KyuTech’s Birds Project. Taiwo kindly joined us in the Fukuoka Now offices to discuss satellites, space junk, and his dreams of bringing his skills back to his home country of Nigeria.
In Japan: 3 years
Identity: Systems Engineer specialising in Space Engineering
You help make satellites for a living, how did that come about?
I grew up in Nigeria and, and when I was very young, I loved to see what was up there. I always wanted to know more about space. Technology in Africa is kind of primitive though, so I had to figure out how to make my dream possible. I studied sciences in high school and then did a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. After that, I worked for the Nigerian Space Agency for about six years. But I felt if I was to do a postgraduate degree in Nigeria, I wouldn’t get to where I wanted. I knew I had to go abroad and luckily in 2013 I had the opportunity to come to the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Kitakyushu.
How did that opportunity arise?
I came to Japan first in 2012 for the Cansat Leader Training Program, a program for people from the developing world to learn how satellites are made. I spent three weeks at Tokyo Metropolitan University, and got to know how technology is taught in Japan. Here, it’s very open, the professor won’t tell you ‘don’t touch this, don’t open that door’. You do everything yourself.
So I talked to my Professor at the Cansat Program and told him I wanted to come to Japan for a Master’s Degree, and he suggested the program at KyuTech. KyuTech is a great university because you can do the course entirely in English, though this is now probably a disadvantage for me, my Japanese is very bad for three years living here. The course I’m on is the International Space Engineering course.
How was it for you arriving in Japan for the first time? For me, coming from the UK to Japan was a big leap, how was it for you coming from Nigeria?
It was a huge shock. I’d travelled abroad with my job at the Nigerian Space Agency for conferences and training, but I’d never stayed anywhere long. The biggest shock is having to think of Japan as your home, really learning about the food, the culture, the way people behave. All of that has now influenced me to change and improve my life, but it was still a shock.
And you’re studying as part of the Birds Project to champion students from the developing world?
Yes, during my Master’s I was working on a satellite payload to measure plasma density. The satellite is called Horyu-IV and was launched last year from Tanegashima. Then, during the transition from my Master’s to my Doctorate course, my professor included me on this initiative called the Birds Project. It aims to help promote space faring for developing nations and he made me project manager. The initiative kicked off in October 2015 and we now have 15 students from six countries: Japan, Ghana, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Thailand. Between us we’ve made 5 satellites: 1kg, 10cm cubed satellites. They’re only small, but there’s a lot of ambition in the box.
Those satellites have actually been shipped to JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and are now on their way to be launched in the U.S. They should be launched in late April on a Space X rocket to the International Space Station and they’ll be deployed from there.
What are the practical uses of the satellites?
The satellites can do things like taking pictures of the earth, others can broadcast national anthems, emergency broadcasts and other information to receivers on the ground. But basically it’s training for these students. We hope they will go back to their countries and work for their own space organizations, or create new space organizations.
What are you researching personally?
My research is in system engineering. System engineering isn’t just electronics, or making structures or making software. It encompasses everything, and is about making decisions about how things should work.
Your computer for example. There will be a designer, who will have come up with the exterior design, a mechanical engineer would have come up with the layout, an electrical engineer the power. After all that, a system engineer has to think about how all of those different elements come together to create the final product. That’s my research.
So what kind of things do you have to consider when engineering satellites?
In terms of satellites, you have to think about the materials you use; materials that work well on Earth might not work well in space. You have to think about the electronics and whether they can survive in space. Then there’s the communication; how to achieve good communication at huge distances. And then you have to work out how to bring the whole satellite together at the lowest possible weight and cost. My research is very hands on.
What do you see as the future of satellite technology
Before, satellites used to be a Lockheed Martin job, or something done by Boeing, big companies. But now there are a lot of startups, small companies doing fantastic work.
I think the future’s very bright, there will be more companies launching small satellites. Last week, Planet Labs launched 84 satellites from India. Each satellite is only 3kg and will provide real time imaging of the Earth.
But what about space junk?
It’s a big problem. I’m currently taking a class on space policy and law. It’s taught by a member of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. We talk about topics like space sustainability and it’s definitely a problem that needs international cooperation. I know there’s a couple of organizations in Japan and in KyuTech working on solving these problems.
What do you like about your life as a researcher here in Japan?
I actually spend most of the time in my lab. It’s basically home, lab, lab, home. So I haven’t had much time to explore Japan.
But what’s the difference between say, your Japanese lab, and your work at the Nigerian Space Agency?
Well the main thing is how personal work in a university is. If I have an idea I can just email my professor and then get on with it. But in a company there’s no direct link between you and the top of the company and its harder to get started on ideas because of the bureaucracy.
Here, you also really have to work. You have to get results. No complaints, no excuses, you have to get it done. But that’s what drives this society. I come from Nigeria, where if things go wrong, people give up. In Japan, you have to work. There are times when we have fun, but work is first. It’s a challenge, but it’s also very important and rewarding.
What do friends and family back home say when you tell them you’re working to build satellites in Japan?
They are very interested. A couple of times, Nigerian newspapers have published articles on me. My friends and family are very proud.
Do you see yourself continuing your research in Japan? Or bringing your expertise to Nigeria?
Eventually, I want to go back. There are a lot of challenges in Nigeria and in Africa, and I see myself as being able to bridge a gap. I’d like to be able to bring my skills to my country, because there’s a brain drain.
People often don’t want to go back. Take communication. Here, if I want to talk to my boss I send him an email and he answers in real time. Back in Nigeria, internet is very poor in places, and it’s harder to communicate. Here, I don’t have to pay for research materials, I take my university ID, login and then can download the papers I need. It’s not the same back in my country and in many developing countries. So we need to bridge this gap.
What do you hope to achieve with your expertise in the long term?
In the long term I want to work in science and technology policy. That’s my dream. There are lots of problems making policy in Africa. Many African countries simply copy policy from abroad, from countries like the U.S., without fully understanding it. Policy needs to be locally rooted, not copied from abroad. I want to bring my expertise to that area, and make policy with local content. Maybe someday I’ll go into parliament.
Where do you go when you want a taste of home?
Most of the time I just cook for myself at home. But whenever I go to Tokyo I make sure I go to African restaurants. There aren’t so many here.
Where’s your favorite place in Fukuoka Pref.?
What’s your favorite Japanese word or expression?
Do you have any advice to newly arrived non-Japanese in Fukuoka?
Everyone has culture shock, but Japanese culture is very open. So just be open, and it will be fine.
When’s your favorite time of the year in Fukuoka?
Summer. It’s hot like home!
You can find out more about Taiwo by visiting the Birds Project website.
It’s our pleasure to introduce the many interesting non-Japanese living in and around Fukuoka. If you know of someone whose activities might be of interest to other readers, please let us know.
Interview by Oscar Boyd. Interview on Feb. 21, 2017.