Towards realising a regional African space programme

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Towards realising a regional African space programme

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

26 Mar 2019

4min min read

ver the past decade, African investment in space science and technology has grown, driven by Earth observation development programmes in Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa, and investment in satellite telecommunications in countries such as Angola and Congo. According to the Business and Market Analysis of the African Space Industry study by Space in Africa, over US$3 billion has been spent on space projects in Africa since 1998. Encouraged in part by the successful South African bid to co-host the Square Kilometer Array global astronomy project, the largest radio telescope to ever built,  new entrants have emerged in the African space arena.

Today, increased spending and activities are driven primarily by African agendas linked to (sustainable) development goals, and with a few exceptions, national space programmes are largely financed through national budgets and not foreign aid, as popularly believed. This has not, however, stopped critics from asking why developed countries like the United Kingdom are giving aid to some African countries with space programmes.

Why sustained African participation is failing

Also, little is shared about the development of African space projects at the regional level. In his address to the African Leadership Conference at 5th African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development, held in Ghana 2013, Dr. Adigun Ade Abiodun highlighted several initiatives with proposed or actual African participation that he posited had failed for various reasons.

One of these was the African Remote Sensing Council and Program, created in 1975, to establish an earth-based regional centre for receiving and processing data remitted by remote sensing satellites. According to Abiodun, the programme failed, in part, because it lacked political and financial support from its member states. It did rebirth as the African Organization of Cartography and Remote Sensing in 1988 following a merger with the African Association of Cartography.

Another such unfulfilled project was the 1979 joint African-Indian proposal for the establishment of an International Institute for Space Sciences and Electronics (INISSE) and the construction, in Kenya, of a Giant Equatorial Radio Telescope (GERT). This was the most comprehensive regional proposal for fundamental basic science and technology research in Africa, with an estimated cost of US$15 million, which failed due to lack of further funding. Also, the Regional African Satellite Communications Organization (RASCOM) project has been riddled with challenges and has not provided the full range of expected benefits.

Where space projects are African-led, there have been mixed results. For example, the outcomes from the African Resource Management Satellite Constellation (ARMC) project between Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya, and South Africa are yet to be determined.

The lack of opacity around African regional space cooperation may be explained by historical factors. First, the majority of space-related projects at the regional level do not appear to have been initiated on the continent and were primarily donor-dependent. As highlighted by Adebayo Adedeji, in reference to the African Remote Sensing Council, the application of remote sensing to resource development was undertaken at the national level mostly by foreigners working on grant-aided project. Thus the foundations were often not built – because of the lack of manpower – for continuation of these projects

'Turn-key' projects undertaken in Africa have not classically led to the development of full systems because they do not serve as stimuli for intellectual development, with no tangible concern for basic research to address fundamental problems facing the continent in the long term. This is linked to the lack of visibility and ownership of regional programmes and the apparent lack of political will to fully engage in the process, as well as a lack of capacity to adequately address issues. Finally, projects have suffered from the lack of coordination at the African Union (AU) level, as well as with national space programmes making it unclear from a governance perspective how the space projects should be managed so as to benefit from synergies.

The promise of the African space policy

In Sudan in September 2012, the Ministers of Science and Technology recommended in the Khartoum Declaration that the AU Commission develop a space policy for the continent in collaboration with relevant stakeholders and taking into account remote sensing applications and satellite imagery processing. Following the Declaration, the AU Commission endorsed the establishment of a Working Group on Space Science tasked to develop a draft African space policy and strategy. Comprising members of the African Leadership Conference and national space agencies, an initial draft policy was completed in October 2013 and presented for consideration with the final document adopted at the AU Summit in January 2016.

The strategic approach in implementing the African space program, as proposed by the space policy, is to adopt a philosophy driven by addressing needs in response to relevant user requirements. The strategy focuses on priorities that underpin the key priority areas of political, economic, and social affairs, namely around disasters, health, ecosystems, biodiversity, and climate. However, Earth observation will form the primary focus of the African space program as this application is viewed to have the most potential to address the socio-economic challenges of the continent.

In a paper presented at the 67th International Astronautic Congress in Mexico in 2016, space science experts Ganiyu Agbaje and John Olusoji made recommendations in reference to the African Group on Earth Observations (AfriGEOSS) which provide some distinct advice for the coordination of the African Regional Space Program. To this end, they must “design a robust and enduring capacity building program that will build on the existing capacity to enable each country enhance its scientific and technical knowledge and experience in space science and technology in addressing Africa’s needs”. Secondly, some basics need to be taken care of, including the need to fix basic infrastructure, particularly low internet bandwidth and lack of basic technology equipment and for sensitization and awareness to be built into the projects.

The African space policy and strategy is a welcome development in light of the AU Agenda 2063 objective to exploit all possible opportunities available in the short, medium and long term, so as to ensure positive socio-economic transformation within the next 50 years. On the global scale, it serves the purpose to contribute to the elaboration of the variety of perspectives necessary to move forward the dial on more effective and inclusive global space governance. With a policy in place to facilitate increased regional cooperation, it is hoped that some of the historical limitations that have prevented successful science and technology cooperation in the region will be averted. 

(Main image: South Africa's KAT-7 telescope, a seven-dish array which is a precursor to the much larger Square Kilometre Array near Carnarvon on 4 July  2012 in the Northern Cape, South Africa. – Jaco Marais/Foto24/Gallo Images/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.