Africa’s space community leaders want the rest of the world to stop referring to the continent as a homogenous, “developing” market. They do not want to be seen as a singular entity waiting for global commercial satellite service providers to swoop in and bring economic prosperity to a homogenous group of impoverished citizens. Africa is composed of 55 vastly different countries, each charting its own unique course to a space-enabled economy, built on a wide set of needs and priorities that change over time. The continent is, however, unified in its effort to cultivate an innovative and independently thriving space economy thanks to the emergence of a continental space agency that will share resources and foster collaboration between nations.
Industry experts outside of Africa are largely misinformed about the continent’s progress in space, says Dr. Tidiane Ouattara, GMES Coordinator and Space Science Expert at the African Union Commission. This is why he and the Commission attach a lot of importance to information sharing — not only on space matters, but on the continent’s integration, development and cooperation agenda as a whole.
“One common misconception among foreign space industry experts is to view the current Africa as a traditional dependent continent,” says Dr. Ouattara. “Things have long changed, and Africa now sits on international space formulation committees and has a guiding compass driven by its own priorities. Foreign experts often come to Africa and work on a project for a few years in a single country and leave thinking they know everything about the continent’s economic and environmental needs. They don’t.”
Dr. Ouattara offers advice for foreign companies who want to do business in Africa: “Come to us with the view that Africa is a partner in the business and not just a receiver of services.”
Some foreign observers still cling to the narrative of Africa being a war-torn, poverty-stricken continent, for which space is a brand-new portal to economic development, says Dr. Minoo Rathnasabapathy, an engineer with MIT Media Lab’s Space Enabled Research Group. While acknowledging that Africa does have its fair share of economic challenges, Dr. Rathnasabapathy, who grew up in South Africa, feels strongly that traditional views of Africa are outdated and ignorant of its achievements and rich history in space.
She points to examples such as the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), established in 1820 to calculate the first distant measurement to the nearest star, and to NASA’s Deep Space Network Station 51 at Hartebeeshoek, South Africa, established in 1961 to upload and download telemetry to and from space probes orbiting the Moon, Venus, and Mars.
“Space is not new to the African continent,” says Dr. Rathnasabapathy. “What’s new are: the opportunities to grow the sector from within the continent; unique opportunities for cooperation on an international, regional and national scale; the ability to reach the general public and emphasize the role space plays in their everyday lives; and the need to bridge the technical divide.”
Pontsho Maruping, recently appointed deputy managing director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), believes that the global space industry often fails to recognize the various approaches each nation is taking to its involvement in space. South Africa and Nigeria, for example, are both investing in space, but have different goals and milestones. Nigeria, she says, is in the process of developing a space heritage, while South Africa is building off of its already existing heritage.
“When the United States and Russia started their programs, the motivation was power and dominance,” says Maruping. “For African countries, the involvement is space is driven more by development needs. The other main difference is that the budgets are likely to be a lot lower than other regions. What this means is that African countries need to take more advantage of new technologies to access space — for example, small-scale launchers and small satellites to meet customer demands.”
Space in Africa’s Managing Director Temidayo Oniosun agrees with Maruping in that different countries with different priorities have different policies that guide their operations. “Nigeria is building capacity in Earth Observation [EO], while investing a lot in satellite communications,” he says. “Egypt is now pursuing astronaut programs. Ghana is still trying to develop the creation of a New Space hub. Angola, on the other hand, is pursuing both satellite communications and EO ambitions, while developing a national space policy.”
Space in Africa is an industry news and business analysis firm based in Nigeria that is chronicling the continent’s rapid rise in space activity. It also provides a comprehensive listing of the numerous independent and inter-connected space agencies established throughout the continent. Oniosun sees limitless potential in space for the continent and believes space technologies will play a critical role in solving regional challenges. “It is important for Africa to utilize space technology in an independent way, free of vested interests and preconceptions,” he adds. “Foreign business partners do play an important role in this process, but not if they come to Africa with ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. History shows that they don’t work.”
A Unified Space Strategy
During the past decade, Africa has seen an incredible acceleration in civil space activities. SARAO’s Maruping attributes this growth to various factors, most notably: a growing base of space professionals within the continent; diaspora and various collaborative programs that have enabled better access to space for new players; and the approval of an Africa space strategy by the African Union.
The African Union updates its “Space Strategy for Social, Political, and Economic Integration” every year. Dr. Ouattara and the African Union Commission designed the space strategy to strengthen the capacity of the continent’s existing space entities, coordinate their activities, and provide a cohesive approach in addressing diverse needs in space.
“This will include developing and increasing our space asset base to ensure maximum accessibility and interoperability,” says Dr. Ouattara. “There is also need for complementarity and minimizing duplication by fostering a culture of collaboration rather than competition. The strategy calls for the exploitation of the capabilities of existing national space programs on the continent, by promoting knowledge transfer and the sharing of best practice. Ultimately, this enables the creation of regional and sub-regional centers with both local and continental consequence that will serve as hubs for knowledge incubation, capacity development and technology uptake.”
Egypt has recently been approved as the host of a unified African Space Agency, which will have no territory of its own and also respect the independent civil space activity of each African nation. “Again, we stress the importance of acknowledging that space is a wide arena and that each African country will pick up a focus area guided by its national priorities,” says Dr. Ouattara. “In essence, we do not see 55 competing missions, what we see is 55 complementary missions that are all building blocks of the continental space agency. No country should be inhibited to develop their own unique capabilities and competences.”
Maruping sees this unified civil space agency functioning similarly to the European Space Agency (ESA). “Not every European country participates in ESA and I expect that will be the case with the Africa Space Agency,” she says. “I expect that there will be an increase in bilateral and multilateral missions as African countries start collaborating more frequently.”
For example, when the need comes to launch satellites, the African Space Agency will look to a country that has already developed launch capabilities. The different countries that have developed ground tracking infrastructure will help track those spacecraft.
Space in Africa’s Oniosun says that a unified African Space Agency will be most helpful to African countries without organized civil space programs, but still rely on data captured by satellites. “The majority of these nations are now realizing that it more beneficial to design a program around the current usage of space technologies and then set up national space and geospatial technology policies that will also aid the development of the industry,” says Oniosun. “For some, it's about the prestige of having a space program and the African Union Commission is also doing good work in making space popular is many countries. One of the success stories of our work in Space in Africa is also the fact that we have been able to improve awareness across Africa and globally, and this is also influencing the demand for organized space programs in various countries.”
Building a Sustainable Commercial Space Sector
At MIT, Dr. Rathnasabapathy’s research project, “Emerging Entrepreneurial Trends Driving Space and Innovation Ecosystems in Africa,” stems from a number of critical and influencing factors that are currently culminating in the continent. As Africa maintains its position as the world’s second largest mobile market and access to education becomes increasingly widespread, entrepreneurship within the African continent at a local and national level is rapidly growing. Dr. Rathnasabapathy is also seeing an emergence of funding instruments created to support the development of space applications, with some targeted specifically at the African continent.
But most importantly, Dr. Rathnasabapathy believes that the idea of Pan-Africanism has gained political and cultural momentum – such as the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) aimed at creating a single market, and the deepening economic integration of the continent, as well as the establishment of the African Space Agency along with the adoption of the African Space Policy and Strategy.
“The culmination of these factors is driving technology uptake and entrepreneurial trends both within and outside the space community,” she explains. “African nations are unique in their embrace of the growth curve for transformational use of technologies. At the same time, the continent is actively seeking to develop its infrastructure to ensure sustainable growth and development, training the next generation of the workforce in data literacy, training who will use data for improved decision making, and increasing indigenous space capability both in the private and public sectors.”
Dr. Ouattara goes so far as to say that it is almost impossible for an African country to sustain basic operations without the intervention of space, especially in regards to communications services. The continent’s vast and sometimes difficult terrain makes ubiquitous communications, which are required for essential services like air travel and meteorology impossible without the intervention of satellites.
“Commercial space is a necessity, and if a country has to derive maximum benefits at cost-efficient ways, there must be some efforts to develop these services locally,” says Dr. Ouattara. “Any country should be able to at least develop space downstream services. But, governments alone cannot develop such services in their entirety. It is upon the government to ensure a conducive environment for the local industry to develop competitive services, that either match or outmatch international services. Transportation is also central to any development endeavor, and space provides applications relied upon in the transport industry to facilitate the movement of people, goods and services.”
The utilization of Earth Observation and GIS data has increased in Africa in recent years, particularly in response to social, economic, political and environmental needs of the continent. Countries have been pursuing the use of space-based technologies as an essential tool for decision-making and help progress towards their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The African Union’s Space Strategy subscribes to the idea that the private sector is an indispensable partner in development and an engine of growth for economies. It calls for the active participation of businesses to address the requirements of the African space market. Dr. Ouattara points to a recent survey of Earth Observation activities on the continent, which has revealed that a significant percentage of commercial space companies contribute to agriculture and food security. “They also focus on aerospace and civil engineering, security, urban planning, disaster management, education and research, among others,” he says. “These companies have a diverse client base, with innovation at the core of their business strategy. They have applied networking to tap into business opportunities that would otherwise have remained unknown.”
While Africa has made significant progress in identifying needs and establishing civilian space programs, SARAO’s Maruping believes that there hasn’t been a strong enough effort to nurture commercial space industries on the continent. “Local industry relies on a growing local demand. It has been proven more and more that the commercial space industry brings a whole host of benefits through injecting better productivity, and attracting a wider range of investment sources,” she says. “It is therefore advisable for African countries to create an enabling environment for new actors by making it easy for new companies to do business. The existence of such companies creates high-tech jobs thought-out the value chain, exports opportunities and economic development.”
Maruping sees the landscape for Africa’s satellite telecommunication industry changing in the same way that industry analysts are seeing in other regions around the world. “Most of the traditional telecommunication industry in Africa relies on geostationary satellites, but the trend going forward is to provide the same services from Low-Earth Orbit [LEO],” she says. “These new constellations are a lot more focused on providing accessibility rather than just maximizing on markets. The LEO satellite providers can potentially be successful in Africa, but the need to match the motivations and needs of the various countries.”
The Role of Africa’s Space Startups
When asked whether or not space technology startups play a critical role in the advancement of the continent’s space-based economy, SARAO’s Maruping says that she often meets young people who have participated in a cubesat mission for their university one day and ended up being champions for their countries establishing a space program the next.
“I do not want to single out one company but I would like to mention Amaya Space, which is a spin out from the Cape Peninsula University of technology. They started as a university program focused on building human capital and managed to transition to a private company that will develop and launch constellations but also offered young people opportunities,” says Maruping.
As part of her research, Dr. Rathnasabapathy has been creating a first-of-its-kind database of African start-ups that are utilizing space technologies in key vertical sectors including agriculture, healthcare, transportation, and financial technology (FinTech), which prominently features satellite connectivity. “FinTech’s early roots in mobile money has grown rapidly to now include a range of financial services, and disrupting the financial services market as Africa embraces digital technology to drive efficiency,” says Dr. Rathnasabapathy. “As 5G satellite network operators provide the delivery of IoT [Internet of Things]-services globally, this technology adoption has the potential to see African countries to leapfrog other nations.”
Dr. Ouattara states that creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship is a critical mission for the African Space Agency. He believes that startups ensure the development of an indigenous space capability and capacity, and establish community sharing of experiences and best practices. He cites GMES and Africa, a collaboration with Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), which is an initiative of the European Union and the ESA. He says 20 percent of grants through the program were channeled to the private sector, mostly to startups.
“Startups are critical to creating a viable space market which serves user needs with varied technologies and products,” he says. “The youth represent the future for Africa, and for them in particular, startups provide a portent opportunity for capacity building, skills acquisition and employment. We have seen the youth take up opportunities provided by GMES and Africa to develop value-added services. They are driving inspiring ideas and initiatives contributing significantly to the development of the continent’s space industry.” VS
Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a research engineer with the Space Enabled Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, contributed to this article.