Creating greater inclusion for an African Space Agency
n the first part of this series, we looked at the historical challenges to regional science and technological cooperation in Africa and posited that with the adoption of the African Space Policy and Strategy, there is a new framework that has the potential to facilitate increased African-led regional cooperation, at least in the space sciences.
One avenue through which such cooperation can be encouraged is through the establishment of an African Space Agency. In August 2010, the African Union (AU) Ministers of Communication and Information Technology called for the AU Commission to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of such an agency, called AfriSpace.
The most vocal proponent of this was former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, with little public response from the region’s leading space nations. Through funding from the European Union, a European consortium undertook the feasibility study, highlighting the current situation of the use of space applications in Africa while also making recommendations and creating a roadmap for the establishment of the Agency.
An African Space Agency
As far back as the AU Commission’s 2014-2017 strategic plan, the AU highlighted a need to discuss the proposed creation of strategic pan-African space institutions and networks. However, it took until October 2017 for a draft statute for the African Space Agency to be considered by the second Specialized Technical Committee (STC) on Education, Science and Technology, and prepared for adoption at the AU Summit in January 2018.
Initial expert perspectives varied as to the need for, or viability of, an African Space Agency. One such perspective came from Dr Peter Martinez who lays out that the various arguments that had been advanced for this at the time were not compelling and relied mostly on pointing to the existence of other regional space cooperation organisations, or to debatable benefits. He proposed that greater emphasis should be placed on strengthening nascent national space programmes, fostering intra-regional cooperation and raising the profile of space activities in Africa's national and regional political structures. More recently, lack of political support, awareness and talent, as well as dependency on external support, insufficient coordination and regulatory restrictions have also been identified as challenges with an African Space Agency.
These concerns did not, however, deter Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia and Namibia who indicated their interest in hosting the African Space Agency. At the 32nd ordinary session of the assembly of the AU in February 2019, Egypt was endorsed as the official host of the headquarters of the AU African Space Agency. The agency will have four thematic focuses namely earth observation, communication, navigation and positioning, and astronomy. The African Union Agenda 2063 proposes the year 2023 for the establishment of the Agency. If we are all behind the AU's vision, then these will be laudable outcomes of such a programme.
The question to ask, however, is if Africa needs an African Space Agency when countries are struggling to provide basics like continuous electricity supply and affordable and accessible healthcare to citizens. I would not equate a Space Agency to something that is an immediate necessity for Africa, but as Professor Islam Abou El-Magd points out, "This will be [a] great achievement to stop fragmentation of the space activities in Africa. This will be the dialogue between Africa and other space entity [sic] across the border. It will be the voice for African member states in international space arena for the benefit of African member states."
The African Space Policy makes clear recommendations that existing capacity and expertise, which are currently vested in national programmes, must be used to support the African space programme. Some scholars argue that this poses the challenge of national versus regional interests, and of how disparate national priorities will be balanced by regional priorities. They recommend active involvement of national programmes in the African space programme while encouraging member states to develop space assets and expertise to become intelligent users of space technology and applications, and in the long run, integrated into the African space programme as active participants and financial supporters.
According to Space in Africa, there is a current base of 14 African countries with national space programmes. But while the African Space Agency Statute highlights that the Agency will work with national space agencies when interfacing with member states and in co-management of space activities for the continent, it is clear that a common African position for multilateral engagements should be driven by the African Space Agency.
Building on the stepping stone approach
I propose a graduated stepping stone approach to achieving a new level of inclusive African space cooperation that will be beneficial to all Africans. This can help countries develop wide capabilites in space science and technology, and support a transition that will lead to a competitive regional programme.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and its Plan for European Cooperating States (PECS) is an interesting stepping stone approach model to draw lessons from on how to slowly build in new countries to participate in the African space programme. This agreement is a bilateral engagement between a given country and the ESA, and allows the partner country to participate indirectly in all ESA procurements and activities. In 2001 ESA introduced PECS, opening up new opportunities for non-ESA European member states to participate more closely in ESA programmes.
In each case, the participation is to be defined in a five-year plan to be jointly worked out by the ESA and the country concerned. The agreement enables the country to increase its knowledge of the ESA and develop its space industry with the goal to improve its chances of winning contracts. At the end of the five-year period, the ESA assesses the progress made and decides whether a country is ready to become a full member of the ESA, or whether another five-year plan should be drawn up. The benefit of a programme like this is that there is a clear path towards full immersion into the programme; support as the country develops its capacity, and indirect contribution to the regional programme.
As the African Space Agency begins to determine its programmatic and organisational agenda, it will be important to plan for how to bring in actors who are at different capacity and technology readiness levels. While a challenge, Africa has an opportunity to model international space cooperation for the world through the development of a coherent programme that adequately shares benefits.
(Main image: Russia's Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft carrying the members of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition 59/60during blast off to the ISS from the launch pad in Kazakhstan on March 14, 2019. - Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.