African nations and space companies are working to pursue a collaborative continental space agenda, and to encourage the competitiveness of regional space capabilities, African space leaders said Thursday, May 20 during SATELLITE 2021’s EMEA + Asia virtual conference.
The African Union has adopted a continental African Space Policy, and Andiswa Mlisa, Earth Observation executive for the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), said the continent looks to improve Africa’s economy and quality of life through a collective approach to space.
“One of the major principles is the use of existing infrastructure,” Mlisa said. “Leveraging existing infrastructure investments comes up very strongly in the space policy, because there is a recognition that the continent already has existing capabilities within its countries. It also recognizes that it is very capital intensive to start from zero. Therefore, leveraging existing infrastructure and investments makes sense.”
Mlisa said SANSA is focused on promoting partnerships within the existing spacefaring nations, and preparing the way for those that still have ambitions to enter the space economy.
Rwanda is working to set up a space agency after its legislature voted in spring 2021 to establish the Rwanda Space Agency (RSA). Joseph Abakund, chief strategy officer of the RSA, said the country recognized how space can be a “force multiplier” and how space technology can be used to benefit national objectives. At this point, the agency is focusing on downstream activities, he said.
Abakund pointed to how collective action can increase the bargaining power of African nations. “There is power in numbers. If we're talking about working with the Chinese or the Indians or Europeans on a particular project, speaking as one voice in Africa gives you a lot more runway [than going] bilateral. There’s definitely a place for bilateral agreements, but for now, it’s helpful for us to cooperate,” he said.
Abimbola Alale, CEO of Nigerian satellite operator Nigcomsat, had a bold suggestion for how a continental space initiative could help regional satellite operators — first right of refusal for local commercial projects. Alale said there is not much room for small, growing, regional operators to compete with legacy Western satellite companies, and thus they cooperate with other operators.
“I would want to see the African space markets having a unified system. [One policy example] would give the indigenous African operators the first right of refusal for local content,” she said. “We should have an African Space Agency to come up with policies such as that to encourage us in whatever area we are operating, to focus more on those areas, provide excellent services, and have shared infrastructure to reduce costs for clients.”
Overall, Alale said Nigcomsat is looking to collaborate whether it’s with other African operators, or other operators like Eutelsat or SES, to learn and/or share infrastructure in order to bring down the cost of satellite services.
“More than ever, I think satellite services are needed in Africa, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. People in the rural areas and difficult to reach areas still rely on satellite communications,” Alale said. “We need to look critically at infrastructure sharing, to be able to bring down the cost and make Africa a digital continent. The few operators — we need to seriously consider collaboration, so that we can meet the needs of our people.” VS