Much like any industry or venture as complicated and expensive as the space industry, the space industry is usually entered first by the government, with a corollary centralised operation system. This is because the government is usually the only entity with enough resources – finance wise and workforce wise – to venture into such expensive projects.
This has been the case with the space industry. The federal governments of interested countries carried out the first dances with space. The African space industry is not any different. However, unlike our European, Asian and North American counterparts with a now commercially driven and decentralised space programme, Africa’s space industry is still largely centralised, being undertaken by the government and its agencies.
The Present African Space Industry
The African space industry is largely government-driven. This can be attributed to a lot of reasons which are not relevant for this analysis. However, despite its initial success, the African space industry cannot rely only on centralised governmental activity. Governmental agencies, due to a lack of strong incentives for the efficient allocation of resources, poor aggregation of dispersed information, and resistance to innovation due to reduced competition – amongst others – are severely limited in their capacity to establish a self-sufficient space industry. Herein lies the essential need for a commercially driven space industry. A centralized, government-led space programme will inevitably focus on “space-for-earth” activities in the public interest, such as national security, basic science, and national pride.
This vulnerability is perhaps visible in Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited’s (NIGCOMSAT) struggles, which is almost entirely owned and managed by the government. Egypt’s NileSat is a good example of the right approach, with its fortunes increasing after it became publicly traded.
A Commercially Driven Space Industry
Prominent space-faring industries have experienced a shift in operational models, realising the importance of a commercial Industry. The shift from public to private priorities in space is especially significant because a widely shared goal among commercial space’s leaders is achieving a large-scale, largely self-sufficient, developed space economy. Historically, private-sector leaders have been issuing warnings that a centralized model would undermine progress on public and, especially, commercial priorities in space.
In the United States of America, public-private partnerships “spurred activity and innovation within the space sector that heralded a broadening of the space economy”. According to Matthew Weinzierl, they led to an increase in private non-satellite-related commercial launch activity that included a drive toward “reusability”—that is, the capacity to employ components of launch vehicles and spacecraft multiple times.
Thanks to this approach, SpaceX has entirely upended the rocket launch industry, securing 60% of the global commercial launch market. This exemplifies the necessity of a commercially driven space industry.
Ensuring a Commercially Driven African Space Industry
Africa has already taken its first steps in ensuring a commercially driven space industry. Africa is enjoying the new entrepreneurial space age and beginning to see more startups and commercial spin-offs. Commercial ventures are developing space technologies and offering space-enabled services to address market demands in various sectors, including telecommunications, defence, security, maritime, aviation, mining, agriculture, environment, development, education, and health.
However, Africa has a long way to reap the full benefits of a commercially driven space industry. The regulatory frameworks in place do not create an optimum enabling environment for private sector participation. Most space-faring African nations barely have a national enactment, much less a dedicated enactment seeking to maximise the benefits of the private sector.
In certain other cases, the government, instead of taking a purely regulatory position in the space market, they venture into the market themselves, posing an unnecessary challenge for private entities who often cannot compete with the inexhaustible resources at the control of the government. NigComSat’s fielding of a Direct-to-Home (DTH) platform, NextTv, in 2019 as a reflection can be seen as an unfortunate example of this.
As mentioned above, the next step to take in Africa’s space industry is its commercialisation. The shift from public to private priorities in space is necessary because a widely shared goal among commercial space’s leaders is achieving a large-scale, largely self-sufficient, developed space economy. A commercial space industry – with its appurtenant efficient allocation of resources, structured aggregation of dispersed information, and affinity for innovation due to increased competition – will unavoidably propagate Africa’s space industry into a new dawn of capacity and self-sustainability and self-sufficiency usually associated with and are consequences of a commercially driven space industry, as it has historically done.
This is not to say that the government has no part to play in a commercially driven space industry. Historical analogies suggest lessons for how the public sector can play a facilitative role. To ensure a commercial space industry, the government must create an enabling environment. This could be by way of necessary enabling legislation, funding, partnership, amongst others.
A commercially driven space industry may not be the panacea to Africa’s space industry challenges. Nevertheless, the advantages of a commercially inclined industry may permanently address the industry’s present pressing predicaments.