Most African countries have frail healthcare systems, a reliance on the informal economy, high poverty levels, overpopulated cities, massive refugee populations, which makes them susceptible to the effect of the virus. There is an absence of a structured, comprehensive and aligned approach to digitalisation, limiting the readiness for a post-COVID-19 contactless society. Indeed, in the world that is coming, e-Government, e-commerce, e-health, e-education, all need to be embraced urgently through policies and regulatory frameworks that respond to the needs of each country. Also, data privacy, cybersecurity and cybercrime need to be addressed to guarantee the protection of the critical infrastructures underlying the digital world and ensuring data sharing mechanisms essential to living in this future.
The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa 2020-2030 aims at a “common, coordinated response to reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution”. The strategy will build a Digital Single Market (DSM) for Africa, close the digital gap, harmonise policies, legislations and regulations as required to “stimulate and accelerate digital transformation for national, regional and continental development integration priorities of the African Union”. The role of digital infrastructure, including satellite communications, in the digital world of devices (the Internet of Things – IoT) and platforms, is expressly recognised. The Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA), on its turn, contains the main goals concerning ICT and innovation in Africa, and, among others; food security, disease prevention and communications are all highlighted as goals to which digitalisation can play a central role.
The Africa Health Strategy 2016-2030 already aims at “strengthening health research, innovation, ICTs for health, technological capabilities and developing sustainable evidence-informed solutions for Africa’s health challenges”. The strategy highlights that “universal access to affordable high-speed broadband communications technology” is vital in this respect. The African Space Policy and Strategy also addresses this topic; highlighting how many African countries must cope with large-scale disease outbreaks, and how telemedicine may help to meet these challenges, including through health risks early warning systems. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need to digitise societies and, in this scope, the space sector will play a crucial role.
The role of Satellite Communications
Satellite communications (SatCom) are essential for e-education and e-health, including remote medical diagnosis, advice and follow-up (thus contributing to lessening the number of people present in hospitals during a pandemic time). These tools are relevant for broadcasting and Internet communications, which are essential for awareness and information purposes. They are also pivotal to the smooth running of e-commerce and e-payments, which have seen consistent growth as a result of a pandemic. Satellites are increasingly cheaper, and they are made with COTS components and are thus an essential alternative for terrestrial systems, or at least as backup systems. They will contribute to supporting the increased digital society arising after COVID-19, including for e-health purposes, especially in the 5G world.
Satellite navigation (SatNav) plays a central role in supporting epidemiological analysis and location-based services. SatNav will play a fundamental role in the increased robotic and automated society that is inevitably emerging in the post-COVID-19 contactless world: this covers autonomous mobility (cars, drones, public transportation), factories and warehouses, sanitation of infected areas and hospitals, among others.
Lastly, satellite Earth Observation (SatEO) is playing an essential role in assessing the impacts of the pandemic, including epidemiological mapping and identification of vulnerable populations, as well as the environmental effects of the worldwide lockdown. SatEO will continue to play a decisive role in epidemics prediction and assessment, particularly in cases where epidemics are impacted or related to climate change or with sociological behaviours. For instance, the closeness of human settlements to the wilderness may give indications relating to the potential transmission of diseases from non-human animals to humans.
African countries need to invest in the development of the space sector and indigenous capabilities in this area: this may mean, of course, the construction and operation of national satellites, which is now facilitated by the decreasing costs resulting from automation and serial production, the industrial Internet of Things and 3D printing. But investment in space activities does not necessarily equate with the construction and launching of satellites. Indeed, other space-related activities, both upstream and downstream, are also relevant in this respect. The setup of ground infrastructures for receiving satellite links and data, the lease of satellite capacity, the production of components and software, the distribution of satellite data and the provision of Big Data Analytics services, and the development and provision of navigation and location-based services and devices are essential factors. In all of them, investing in capacity-building and the development of the private sector remains vital to ensure countries tackle the current challenges effectively and withstand external disruptions more efficiently.
Funding space activities face constraints in a world hard hit by the pandemic. Changing government priorities may severely impact a sector still heavily reliant on public programmes. Start-ups and SMEs have not only been affected by the decrease of available private funding, orders delays and cancellations, but also by social distancing measures that prevent the operation of incubators, accelerators and R&D activities that require on-site presence. These challenges, however, can also be effectively tackled, and a set of opportunities may emerge for African countries. Here are recommendations for the African space sector in the post-COVID-19 world:
- Accelerate the implementation of digital agendas
It is essential to develop national digital plans that align with the African Union policies and individual nation needs. There is the need to ensure the development of infrastructures, capacity-building and applications for the contactless society, from e-health and e-education, to e-government, e-commerce and e-payments, and including digital ID to ensure seamless access to electronic services. Approaches to promote the development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things, are also relevant. Digital plans need to take full advantage of satellite networks, especially considering the constraints connected with underdeveloped ground infrastructures and remote areas, to ensure equal access by the whole population to digital services. In this scope, the implementation of measures to promote innovation and R&D activities and facilitate the development of the private sector in testing new technologies can also play an important role: this would be the case of regulatory sandboxes, innovation hubs, experimental legislation and exemption clauses.
- Double-down on efforts to tackle climate change
COVID-19 has diverted the attention of some governments from climate change to the more urgent need to respond to the pandemic. But, as a continent severely impacted by the effects of climate change, Africa cannot afford to look away. Technology here, too, plays a vital role; from the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy to the replacement of animal farming (responsible for between 13% and 18% of greenhouse gas emissions globally) by plant-based alternatives, and including the circular economy and biomaterials. Satellite technology will support new products, services and applications (e.g., operation and management of electrical grids and automated vehicles in smart and regenerative agriculture).
- Push for more autonomy in critical sectors and create healthy global interdependent systems
The pandemic has brought to the fore the high levels of dependency between countries with impacts on their resilience to withstand global challenges. The focus on regional manufacturing and post-globalization is not new. This trend was spurred, by technological advancements that bring production costs down (such as robotics, the Industrial Internet of Things or 3D printing) and bring production closer to the consumer. At the same time, ensure more personalisation and quicker delivery times. COVID-19 accentuated this demand as countries called for reindustrialisation in critical areas. There was also a demand for transparency and traceability in global supply chains. Here, too, the SatNav will aid the operation of automated systems or for traceability purposes.
- Promote the private sector and ensure support and financing to SMEs
The resilience of an economy to shocks depends mainly upon the private sector and its diversification. Countries heavily dependent on oil and extractive industries will be hit hardest by the pandemic, as are significant infrastructure and construction works. Start-ups, at the forefront of innovation, and PMEs, which are usually the backbone of a country’s corporate landscape, are also being confronted with the loss of jobs and business. In this context, even though the pandemic may have diverted government attention from the space sector, satellites remain essential for connectivity, observation and navigation. The space sector is a state-of-the-art sector that can bring innovation and economic diversification upstream and downstream, with cascading effects to other areas of the economy.
The role of space technology in the digital society requires budgets to expressly acknowledge such role and keep supporting the private sector through public programmes. Besides, start-ups and SMEs also need to become more resilient and assess measures to that effect.
The trend of products becoming services will allow the development of businesses that will not require the construction of their satellites to set up satellite networks, as well as the provision of space-as-a-service. Increasing attention to contracts is also necessary. The importance of ensuring that agreements address the impacts of unforeseeable events like COVID-19 is paramount. The pandemic caused the suspension of deployment and launching activities due to stay-at-home orders, and the operation of satellites may be impacted by similar events, thus requiring the implementation of systems for distributed remote service. New financing models may have to be assessed and supported beyond typical venture capital from project finance to asset-backed finance, including security packages.
- Develop sound and equitable international partnerships
The economic crisis arising from the pandemic requires a new look at the relationship between Africa and foreign alliances, primarily to ensure a more equal relation beyond the often-usual donor-recipient one. For instance, when it comes to the relationship between Africa and the European Union (which is the largest investor in Africa, with a foreign direct investment stock of EUR 222 billion, well ahead of the United States (EUR 42 billion) or China (EUR 38 billion), the EU Joint Communication “Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa” notes the goal of intensifying cooperation through partnerships in five key areas: green transition; digital transformation; sustainable growth and jobs; peace and governance; and migration and mobility. Investments in health care are also mentioned, including the development of infrastructure and capacity to cope with outbreaks of diseases. The ACP-EU Partnership Agreement (CPA) of 2000 (Cotonou Agreement) in revision reflects; the environment, food security and agriculture, health and education, research and technological development, disaster preparedness and mitigation as well as post-disaster reconstruction.
One of the goals aimed by the EU is cooperation on preventing and addressing communicable and non-communicable diseases, support access to medicines and vaccines, and strengthen the capacity of African countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks. The importance of digitisation is expedient, as is the role of space data and technology in boosting the African space sector and supporting policy and decision making. The approach in this new Africa-EU relationship is especially relevant in the COVID-19 world and the face of economic decline. The pandemic did show, however that more attention may have to be given to health resilience and to the use of digital means in this scope, to which space data and technology play an essential role. It has also led to calls that African governments should have in place the financial means to withstand shocks to avoid having to always depend upon outside help.
- Develop robust laws and regulations
The success of the digital investment, and of the use of space technology for this purpose, requires comprehensive legal and regulatory frameworks to attract private activity by improving the business environment: this includes structures directly connected with the digital world that may be sector-specific (e.g., financial services, agriculture, energy), but also cross-sector laws in relevant areas such as the data economy, privacy, cybersecurity, cybercrime, intellectual property and consumer protection. In a pandemic society, it is crucial to ensure that robust laws and structures are in place to protect civil liberties and human rights. Space laws are becoming increasingly relevant, especially in countries building or launching satellites, as such laws create the transparency and security private actors need to perform space activities in a country. In this respect, the pandemic has shown that regulatory frameworks need to take in consideration the impact of crises. For instance, they may need to address what happens to a satellite privately owned when the company becomes insolvent as a result of lack of financing arising from economic crises (as happened recently to OneWeb). A new manner to address the drafting and content of laws focused on the outcome and risk-based approaches is also becoming increasingly relevant as a means to promote innovation and ensure that legal frameworks are not hindrances to the technological development that is ever more vital in the post-COVID world.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing crisis, is impacting African countries, as poverty, inequality and hunger will increase. But the emergency can, and should also be looked as an opportunity to do things differently: diversify and digitise economies, create a knowledge-based and green society and promote the private indigenous initiative. In all of it, the space sector is an indispensable tool to steer through these troubled times to more robust, resilient societies and economies.