How outer space can help African countries to develop
More African countries are investing in outer space. Indeed, Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and, as a result, the use of space-based products, services and technologies are rising.
Investment in outer space can take many forms, the most popular of which is the development and launching of national satellites. But investing in outer space could take many other forms. Some of these include: capacity building in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) via engaging in hands-on projects on CubeSats; structured and far-reaching use of satellite data (including Earth-Observation and navigation data); installation of antennae and ground stations for reception of signals as well as surveillance and tracking of space objects (including satellites and space debris); active participation in regional and international organisations dealing with space matters; and implementation of national measures and initiatives to encourage more input from the private sector, notably in the development and manufacturing of components, software and other items for satellites, launchers or probes.
African investment in outer space is no surprise. Indeed, the role of outer space in sustainable development and in proffering solutions to global challenges cannot be overemphasised. For instance, communication satellites contribute to connecting people in remote rural areas and help to bridge the digital divide. Remote sensing satellites allow the collection and use of data that can be applied to various causes such as climate change, migration, security & defence, and management of natural resources. PNT (positioning, navigation and timing) satellites play a central role in traffic management and coordination of disaster response, amongst other things. According to statistics provided by the World Bank, more than one million people below the poverty line require space-based technologies for assistance, education and health services (The World Bank Group, 2013: Poverty: Data). Furthermore, outer space is a relevant tool for a country to flex diplomatic muscles in the international scene, as it is a source of prestige and influence.
At the international level, the United Nations has formally recognised the importance of outer space in sustainable development, specifically in achieving the 17 goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To this end, both developed and emerging countries are stepping up their efforts in navigating the space industry, concurrently with the investment being made by the private sector – in what has been called the “second space race” – heavily relying on advances such as small satellites and reusable rockets (which substantially decrease the cost of space activities) and on new space activities, ranging from suborbital flights to space mining (which open up new sources of revenue).
In the same vein, the African Union is taking strong steps in outer space matters. In this regard, the African Union approved the implementation of the African Space Policy and the African Space Strategy. The African Space Policy’s purposes are the development of space products and services to address the economic, political, social and environmental challenges of the continent, as well as the development of indigenous space capacities both in the public and the private sector. It contains six policy principles: addressing user needs, accessing space services, developing the regional market, adopting good governance and management, coordinating the African space arena, and promoting international cooperation.
The African Space Strategy, on the other hand, contains a set of strategic measures aimed at responding to the needs of the continent through the use of outer space. It comprises nine strategic actions: leveraging space-derived benefits; strengthening research, development and Innovation; developing and utilising human capital; institutionalising a corporate governance structure; adhering to regulatory requirements; building critical infrastructure; fostering regional coordination and collaboration; promoting strategic partnerships; funding and sustainability. It further mentions that outer space plays a central role in achieving the objectives of the AU Agenda 2063 and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) 2024. To put it in context, the Strategy indicates that 90 per cent of the strategic objectives of the AU requires space applications for their effective implementation. The African Union also ratified the statutes of the African Space Agency and has just approved Egypt as the host country for the headquarters of the new agency. In accordance with the statutes, and among other points, the African Space Agency will support member states and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in building their space programs and coordinate space efforts across the continent, raise awareness of the benefits of space programmes for Africa, and coordinate a continent-wide regulatory framework for space activities on the continent.
It is crystal clear, then, that outer space is a central tool for each and every African country and that investing in this area is crucial for the development of the African continent.
Investing in outer space for development – the role of a national space strategy
Many African countries are investing in outer space by delving into several initiatives and projects, including, as indicated above, by launching national satellites. But the central role of outer space in socio-economic development would have to involve a structured approach that aligns all investments and relevant stakeholders, whilst at the same time creating the right environment for both commercial activities and research, development & innovation. This can only be done by following the footsteps of the African Union and approving a National Space Strategy.
National policies and strategies need to be set up at the federal level to determine the approach to be taken by a country in outer space. These documents have the benefit of clearly identifying the priorities and main objectives of a country in outer space, therefore creating more transparency, coordination among all decision-makers, and more predictability as well as security for private actors. In fact, until a country adopts a concrete National Space Strategy, space matters would be addressed in silos, by each ministry or competent agency. This leads to fragmentation and duplication of efforts, while at the same time preventing the implementation of a concrete approach to outer space matters. It also prevents efficiency and causes African countries to miss out on gains that could be otherwise achieved by a uniform approach to space activities.
A national strategy for dealing in outer space that is well coordinated, planned and communicated also has the advantage of sending a message to the world: the country’s seriousness in investing in outer space, and openness to other relevant stakeholders (including companies, R&D institutions and civil society) to contribute to the country’s national space effort.
In summary, a space strategy:
- Structures and harmonises all measures required for the development of outer space activities in the country;
- Takes advantage of the characteristics of the country for outer space activities, iif applicable – e.g. its geostrategic position);
- Defines and allocates responsibilities;
- Increases awareness on the importance of outer space activities and calls all relevant stakeholders to participate in the space effort of the country; and
- Positions the country on the international stage as a country that recognises the importance of outer space.
Drafting a space strategy that is able to achieve all these goals is no small task. It is not enough to simply put a country’s space-related goals and objectives into writing. Ultimately, a National Space Strategy is that document that provides an opportunity for a country to think through all the immensely vast options it has at its disposal for investing in outer space and choosing the ones most relevant. In this scope, several points need to be taken into consideration.
The first has to do with Awareness. Acknowledging the positive impacts and benefits of space activities for the country and its population is vital. There are two recurring challenges here that need to be addressed.
At the public level, a country needs to avoid an unstructured view of the benefits of outer space for the development of the country: many countries have some ideas and thoughts, as well as some initial projects, on outer space, but these are usually concentrated on just one or a limited number of ministries, public agencies, institutions or universities. While it is fundamental that the role of developing outer space activities is assumed by a well-defined public entity or group of entities, all relevant actors may have to be heard. Guaranteeing dialogue among the different stakeholders who play a role in space activities or who benefit from space activities may hence be relevant, with a view to guaranteeing that the National Space Strategy and its goals are fit for the whole country. It would also help to reduce costs, as a single investment/project in space may have benefits that extend to all areas of a country’s activity: for example, the receipt/acquisition, processing and distribution of space images are in many instances done separately by each public entity that needs to use them. A single point of acquisition, processing and distribution within the Public Administration would definitely go a long way to cut costs and improve efficiency.
At the civil society level, there is a need to clarify the population of the role of outer space in the day to day life and how space products and applications can actually improve peoples’ lives. It is also important that countries become aware of international organisations and initiatives that are capable of playing a relevant role in a country’s path to space exploration. Not only does the United Nations – through the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – play the central role here, but there are also other organisations even within Africa, that need to be taken into consideration in terms of space dynamics. For instance, at the continental level, ACMAD (“African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development”), RASCOM (“Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation”), RECTAS (“Centre for Training in Aerospace Surveys”), RCMRD (“Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development”) and AOCRS (“African Organisation of Cartography and Remote Sensing”), as well as ALC (“African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development”), are all initiatives that are worthy of consideration. Coordination of the National Space Strategy with the goals of the African Union should also play a central role.
Regional initiatives are also relevant. Even if a Regional Economic Community (REC) does not expressly address the need to venture into outer space, it is important to note that synergies can be obtained by investing in outer space with regional goals (e.g., investing in developing services and applications that are needed at the regional level and are lacking, thus promoting private activity and exports).
Approach: A National Space Strategy needs to be able to structure a vision on how to use outer space to respond to the country’s general and sectoral goals. African countries usually have national development strategies and sectoral development strategies, with somewhat detailed priorities over time. Assessing and identifying how outer space products, services and activities can help achieve such priorities is one of the responsibilities of a National Space Strategy. In addition, because the manner of achieving such goals (and their feasibility) is dependent upon the resources of the country (human, technical, infrastructure, etc.), there is a need to understand the right type of projects as well as their implementation path and needs – from launching national satellites to investing in STEM capacity building.
Capacity building: One of the main challenges faced by emerging countries involve capacity. There is a need to have enough trained and qualified human resources to implement outer space projects and programs, and effectively use space services and products. This is a growing concern in African countries because there is a clear understanding that countries need to be independent/autonomous in their space activities: cooperation with other countries and entities is needed, but this does not mean that these countries should only be purchasers of space products/services. On the contrary, countries need to strive to be relevant space actors and make an effective contribution to space affairs, instead of being only consumers of space technology.
Another angle of capacity relates with the use of space services and products by the final users: successful investment in outer space requires also that space technology can be effectively used by the people whose problems space activities aim to solve.
On the other hand, if a country wants to develop space private activities, capacity building for this purpose is important. In fact, investment in this area by promoting national space companies and attracting foreign companies needs to go hand in hand with ensuring that nationals are able to work in such companies and are themselves able to create new projects in this area. This will promote a dynamic entrepreneurial economic environment that will play a very important role in the development of the country.
Financing: despite the fact that space activities are themselves a source of income (from distribution of satellite images under value-added products to exploitation of orbital slots and capacity lease), the dividends appear at a later stage when the country has already created its own path in space activities.
Thus, in the beginning, when the first steps are being taken, financing needs to be taken into consideration, as the feasibility of the space goals and projects desired by the country very much depends on the amount of financing obtained. If a country recognises the importance of space activities, financing through the national budget or through the collection of fees in a certain sector (e.g., telecommunications) is always the first option to be considered. However, countries may be constrained by shortages in their budgets to address all needs, and in such situations, turning to international institutions (such as development banks and development agencies of partner countries) and national institutions (banks, direct investment, etc.) is not uncommon. Obtaining financing for space activities in this manner is however a big challenge, as the connection between development and space needs to be explained to those outside the space community.
A successful investment in outer space requires adopting a common vision and set of priorities through a National Space Strategy that is able to address the above challenges and that reflects the specific needs of the country: in outer space, as in many other areas, one size does not fit all.
Regulating outer space activities: the role of national space laws
Space activities are not carried out in a legal blank space. There are five UN Space Treaties that address the most important aspect of outer space activities: the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Registration Convention, the Liability Convention, and the Moon Agreement.
The Outer Space Treaty covers the main principles and provisions relating to space activities, some of which are as follows:
- The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind;
- Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind;
- Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
- The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all state parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, the use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited;
- State parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorisation and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty;
- Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space;
- A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body;
- State Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and/or adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.
The provisions on registration of space objects (such as satellites) were then developed in the Registration Convention. Space objects must be registered before being launched into Earth orbit or beyond. Registration shall be done at two levels: (i) national registry and (ii) UN Register (the United Nations Secretary-General). This registration shall be done by one of the launching States (which are the states that launch or procure the launching of an object into outer space, or from whose territory or facility an object is launched). As a result, in any given situation, there can be, potentially, four launching states. However, only one of them can be the State of registry before the U.N.
The liability provisions were developed in the Liability Convention. According to the provisions of this Convention, launching States are internationally liable for damages caused by a space object. There are two categories of liability according to the criteria of the location of the damage: (i) absolute (or strict) liability, for damage on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight and (ii) fault liability for damage elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth to a space object.
The five UN Space Treaties are applicable to all States, specifically, States that are party to the Treaties. All Treaties are universally open to all States. It must be noted that not all States are parties to the same Treaties, or to all five UN Space Treaties. In this regard, the Outer Space Treaty is a broadly accepted legal instrument with 132 parties (including all of the most important spacefaring nations), followed by the Rescue Agreement with 124 parties, the Liability Convention, with 119 parties, the Registration Convention with 76 parties and the Moon Agreement, with only 24 parties (numbers include ratification, signature and declaration of acceptance of rights and obligations, as of January 2019).
One of the first steps for a country investing in outer space is to become a party to the UN Space Treaties, especially the Outer Space Treaty, the Registration Convention, the Liability Convention and the Rescue Agreement. This is very important to avoid pitfalls, such as cases (not uncommon) where contracts for joint projects require a party to perform certain obligations that can only be carried out to the extent that the relevant country is a party to the UN Space Treaties.
It is thus of extreme importance that African countries, in their path to outer space, are aware of the principles and legal import of space activities (from registration to liability, including responsibility, sustainability and even the “peaceful uses of outer space”).
Countries interested in space would also need to join the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1959 to govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity. The Committee has two subsidiary bodies: the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, and the Legal Subcommittee, both established in 1961. COPUOS has 92 members and is one of the largest Committees in the United Nations.
In addition to the above, countries shall also enact space laws. In respect of this, the African Space Strategy itself notes that “A regulatory framework should be institutionalised to support Africa’s space activities so that the continent can compete effectively in the global space market, in line with international treaties, conventions and principles.”
National space laws are a central instrument in this respect: they are the ones that, at a national level, reflect the provisions of the UN Space Treaties and regulate national space activities.
National Space laws usually contain provisions on authorisation, supervision, registration and liability:
- National authorisation provisions usually establish that space activities (which cover, most commonly, the launch of space objects and their operation, with some laws also addressing return) shall be authorised. The provisions usually contain the procedure for authorization, including the requirements the applicant and the space activity shall meet, as well as information/documentation to be submitted;
- Supervision provisions usually establish the right of the competent entity to monitor space activities, including by means of performing inspections and requiring the submission of information;
- Registration provisions usually require the registration of the space object in accordance with international obligations;
- Liability provisions indicate that any liability the State may incur at the international level shall be borne by the entity carrying out the space activity. It is common for the State to bear some part of the liability especially if there is no fault by the space actor (as this is a means to promote private activity), as well as to require insurance.
Space laws addressing the above items are an important instrument for States to be able to comply with their international obligations. They also protect States in light of their international obligations (such as in the case of liability).
However, these laws may be insufficient to respond to the growth of private space activities. They may also be insufficient to respond to the new trends in space activities, such as small satellites, constellations of satellites or reusable launchers. For instance, traditional space laws usually contain authorisation procedures that take into consideration each individual space object (such as satellites) thus disregarding constellations of satellites. They also do not usually cover the mere landing of reusable launchers. Traditional space laws are also inadequate to promote private space activities when they create burdens that are difficult to comply with by new entrants (e.g., complex and lengthy procedures, amounts of insurance that disregard the actual risk of the space operation, lack of distinction between commercial activities and scientific or testing activities).
Therefore, when devising a national space law, a country shall look both at its goals when approving a space law, as well as international trends. Well-designed space law can be a very helpful instrument for the development of space activities, products and services at the national level.
Other steps a developing country can take to promote space products, services and activities
The approval of a national space law is a central step for the development of space products, services and activities. But other aspects need to be taken into consideration.
Firstly, countries should assess whether other laws or regulations need to be enacted. These may include, for instance, regulations for the assignment of orbital slots.
Assignment of orbital slots follows an international regime under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and a national regime. At the international level, orbital slots are either pre-allotted to countries (the so-called a priori planning procedures which aim at guaranteeing equitable access to orbit/spectrum resources for future use) or may be required in a mechanism of first-come-first-serve before ITU (the so-called coordination procedures aimed at guaranteeing the efficiency of orbit/spectrum use and interference-free operation). Requiring slots before ITU is in general done by national administrations and, once they are granted, the national administration assigns them to interested entities. National administrations may hence do well in approving clear rules for entities that wish to obtain orbital slots, as this can also be an important source of income.
Other regulations that may be considered are those that have to do with the use and distribution of Earth Observation data and images. There are also countries approving laws covering the operation of spaceports, suborbital flights and space mining. The extent to which any of these could be relevant for an African country would naturally require a case-by-case analysis, taking into consideration the needs and goals of the country.
In addition to the legal framework, countries shall also set up an organisational structure, which may include a space agency but shall always include an authority tasked with authorising and supervising space activities carried out in the country and/or by nationals.
All in all, a structured approach that covers a National Space Strategy, a National Space Law, a National Space organisational structure, and other national regulatory initiatives as needed, are all important steps to guarantee that the path of African countries to outer space is as successful and bright as it can be.
Magda Cocco and Helena Correia Mendonça are space law specialists who have been working on the development and drafting of national space strategies and national space laws across African countries. They advise on space contracts, including satellite building, launching and operation, development and supply of components, and cooperation as well as know-how agreements. They equally assist in the assignment of orbital slots and in matters relating to spaceports, space surveillance and tracking, and space cyber-security. Magda Cocco is the Partner of Vieira de Almeida & Associados (VdA), an international law firm that focuses on ICT law, as well as the Aviation, Space and Defence areas of legal practice. Helena Correia Mendonça is a Principal Consultant in VdA’s ICT and Space legal practice areas.