Africa and space technology; the 21st century vista

Although the African continent represents about 20% of the Earth’s land mass and some of its richest endowment of minerals, it accounts for just a fraction of a percent of global space spend. What this means in practice is that other countries have their foot in the door (or are sitting in the space club lounge in comfy chairs), while African countries stand outside and purchase space products from those who are reclining in the aforementioned lounge.

And a major reason for this is that entrance to the global space club – and even crossing the threshold – is very, very expensive.

“The widespread problems of poverty, inequality, unemployment, disease, armed conflict, and political instability in Africa have made the priority given to space in the continent a subject of political debate,” writes political scientist Samuel Oyewole . “Moreover, the cost of space is worrisome, given the ratio of foreign aid to public expenditure in Africa.”

But while we’re counting cents, the big players in space are throwing around dollars. In 2014, African civil space programme spending was about $185-million compared to the global $42.4-billion. Total global expenditure on the space was about $330-billion . The largest African spenders were Nigeria ($66-million), Algeria ($45-million), South Africa ($31-million), and Angola ($26-million).

Those numbers, put forward by space market consultancy Euroconsult , highlight two things: first, Africa is responsible for a tiny proportion of both civil space spending and global space spending; and, second, industry spending dwarfs civil spending, but it does so by building on government investment. Without government investment in space, you don’t get an industry that burgeons around it.

That’s the thing that’s lagging in Africa: government investment in space. But, that said, in 1991 there were no big-budget civil space programmes on the African continent, according to the European Commission’s Eurostat database

Today, though, some African countries are getting in on the space economy . Part of the reason for this is that sub-Saharan Africa’s overall satellite capacity use increased 11% annually between 2009 and 2014, according to Euroconsult.

In fact, even the AU has recognised that the continent needs to start playing in this space. In 2016, it adopted a space policy and strategy which laid out, first, why Africa needed to be part of the space economy, and second what it needed to do to get there.

“Africa has to rapidly increase its capacities in Earth observation, navigation, satellites and communications,” Sarah Anyang Agbor, the AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, said last year.

But the recent focus has not been the programmes or plans to make the African space economy a reality. Rather, it is who gets to host the African Space Agency. Although the creation of a space agency is not explicitly mentioned in either the policy or the strategy, this is the issue that is getting attention – rather than the governance framework and implementation plan which are what the space strategy lays out as the next steps for developing space on the continent.

There is a fissure between the top-level decisions and the work taking place on the ground. “We need to be able to launch our own space programmes,” Hambani Masheleni, a senior policy officer in the African Union Commission told a session on space in Africa at the Science Forum South Africa in Pretoria in December last year. “We need the African Space Agency to implement policy. The role of [the African Union] ends with the development of policy. We need to have a clear implementation plan.”

However, there are a number of big question marks over this implementation plan, and how having a space agency will further the development of space activities on the continent. There are already space programmes in a number of countries, with significant overlap – something which the African Union’s space strategy highlights.

Val Musami (PhD), head of the South African National Space Agency and former chair of the African Union’s space working group, is pushing the establishment of a Committee of African Space Institutions (CASI). “You need the national space agencies to gather together and work as a collective,” he said. He said it would complement the top-down approach of the African Space Agency by co-ordinating the competencies at a national level.

But African countries with space agencies or institutions are already ahead of the majority of other states on the continent: their government has established a organisation for space activities, and laid out funds to do it.

However, even if a country has a space agency, those funds are not enough to realise Africa’s space ambitions, which are, well, ambitious. “You need political will,” Munsami said. “And to get that, you need to demonstrate the socioeconomic benefits.

That is the only way that governments will prioritise funding.” So, when you talk to African policy makers about space, you need to talk about monitoring natural resources from space; satellite telecommunications infrastructure; or building a cohort of highly trained scientists (whose skills can transfer to industry). Space for space’s sake is not enough.