How The UK Space Agency International Partnership Program Is Contributing To SDGs Across Africa

CABI PRISE project. Plant doctors in Ghana alerting farmers how to treat pest-diseased crops (credit: UK Space Agency)

The International Partnership Programme (IPP) is a five year, £152 million programme run by the UK Space Agency. IPP focuses strongly on using the UK space sector’s research and innovation strengths to deliver a sustainable economic or societal benefit to emerging and developing economies around the world. IPP is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF): a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government, which supports cutting-edge research and innovation on global issues affecting developing countries.

IPP seeks to use space solutions to make a positive and practical impact on the lives of those living in emerging and developing economies through partnerships with end-users in the target countries to increase their capacity to respond to specific challenges. Over 33 projects have so far been commissioned and below are some of the projects being implemented across Africa and the institutions implementing them: 

  1. Project on deforestation prevention in Ivory Coast through Vivid Economics
  2. Project on Forests 2020 in Ghana, and Kenya, through Ecometrica
  3. Project on Advanced Coffee Crop Optimisation for Rural Development (ACCORD) in Kenya and Rwanda through Earth-i
  4. Project on Pest Risk Information SErvice (PRISE) in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia through CAB International
  5. Project on Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) in Uganda through Rheatech
  6. Project on Flood and Drought Resilience in Ethiopia and Kenya through Airbus Defence and Space
  7. FireSat project in Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa through ClydeSpace
  8. Project on Modelling Exposure Through Earth Observation Routines (METEOR) in Tanzania through the British Geological Survey
  9. Project on Satellite Enablement for Disaster Risk Reduction in Kenya (SatDRR Kenya) through Avanti Communications
  10. Project on Coastal Risk Information Service (C-RISE) in Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa through  Satellite Oceanographic Consultants (SatOC)
  11. Project on South Africa Safety Initiative for Small vessels’ Operational Takeup (OASIS-TU) in Madagascar, and South Africa through exactEarth
  12. Project on iKnowledge in Tanzania through Avanti Communications
  13. Project on SatCom for Nigerian Health Services through Inmarsat
  14. Project on Property database for Dakar City in Senegal through Airbus Defence and Space
  15. Project on Renewable Energy Space Analytics Tool (RE-SAT) in Seychelles, and Mauritius through Institute for Environmental Analytics (IEA)
earthi ACCORD project. Image of Kenyan farms. (Credit: Earthi)

To learn more about the International Partnership Programme, Space in Africa had a chat with the Chief Scientist and Head of SDG at the UK Space Agency, Chris Lee, who is championing the expertise of UK across a variety of International Partnerships. Up until February 2018, Chris was Head of International Policy (since 2014), acting as the lead contact with other Space Agencies as well as the promotion of UK space exports and space-linked inward investment alongside Government colleagues. 

What is the UK Space Agency doing in Africa? You seem to have a lot of African projects, and so we are interested to know what they are, why you do them and what is the benefit for everyone?

Firstly we are not specifically targeting our projects at the continent of Africa, although it is the case that a number of our projects are with African countries. The UK’s government’s Aid strategy is committed to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on Overseas Development Assistance. This is a legal requirement and that means 13 billion pounds a year, every year, is devoted to Aid programmes. Most of this activity usually passes through the Department for International Development, DFID. DFID certainly has an African strategy, very much aligned to Digital Data. 

However, a few years ago, the government decided to make part of this Aid funding (about £1.5B)  available to my parent department, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS. BEIS focuses on collaborations in research and innovation.  Here, satellite data has a really compelling narrative, but this is not always appreciated in emerging economies. The UK Space Agency, therefore, offered to lead an activity – the International Partnership Programme – to showcase what could be offered. This is very much focused on innovative use of the data in support of Development Aid objectives. As a focus, we decided to partner with nations that promote research and innovation as key national policy objectives and a number of these are in Africa. We secured about £150M across a five-year period from 2016-21 for this activity. 

Vivid Economics IMAGES project. Deforestation alerts produced for Cote D’Ivoire (Credit: Vivid Economics)

Space systems are a broad sector and we can’t do everything with this investment – so we chose to focus on those countries that are set out as eligible by the Development Assistance Committee (the so-called DAC-list) and we support projects devoted to showcasing the use of satellite data rather than building and launching satellites themselves. For us, it’s all about smarter governance here on Earth through the use of satellite technology. This mirrors a programme we have similarly set up with our own government departments. Public policymakers can be a bit suspicious of satellites and our aim is to showcase best practice. 

In addition to this, we must try to ensure the projects we support are sustainable and that they will live beyond the lifetime of the project. We believe the best way to ensure this is to bring some commercial incentives to the programme. We ask our industrial, academic and international partners to choose projects where they will also invest resources (time, funding, equipment or some mix) into the project to focus the attention on sustainable delivery beyond the end date. I guess this can be seen as “skin in the game” and tends to make the projects more realistic in what they will deliver at the end. When we put out our two Calls for Proposals in 2016 and 2018 we were interested to see a lot of suggestions came from Africa and Asia. 

Meanwhile, the UK already had links with satellites in Africa through industrial associations with Nigeria and Algeria and we have a big science engagement with South Africa through the Square Kilometre Array programme.  In particular, both Nigeria and South Africa were an early focus for our activity. These have now expanded to include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and others as you listed. In Tanzania’s case, it was around tele-education. They wanted their children to have quality educational content delivered through satellites into remote villages.

The point we made to the bidders is interesting. The best proposal never truly mentions the word “satellites” because it’s not all about satellites, it’s about the applications enabled because of the satellites. The innovation is in the service, the solution and not the space technology. It’s not always obvious. We remain very excited by a possible Cubesat that can detect Fires more quickly than traditional satellites or aircraft and we have explored this a little with South Africa but the real need is to better understand how the quicker data can be used out in the field. If you have no fire engines in the right place it doesn’t matter how quickly you can spot the fire!

So, you must think about end-end solutions. Indeed we want to upskill civil servants in our partner countries. They are not always scientifically trained and may have no life experiences of how to apply satellites in support of policy, so we’ll try in a forthcoming Call to offer something like an MBA training programme on the role of satellite data in public policy, to showcase what space can do and what space cannot do. I mean, sometimes satellite data is not the right solution or is still experimental despite the headlines. 

Ecometrica F2020 project. Forestry dashboard for Ghana (Credit: Ecometrica)

Which of the universities are you working within the proposed MBA satellite activities?

This is only an idea at this stage and we hope to issue a calling note seeking ideas for funding in early 2020. I want to hear whether this has merit and if so who wants to be involved and how. UK universities such as Leicester, Strathclyde and Surrey already offer satellite training programmes but the policy focus is new. They will certainly not fully appreciate the Public Policy needs in each country or region and so they need to partner in-country with appropriate national institutes etc in the delivery of any such course.

In your ClydeSpace Firesat Programme with South Africa, part of it has to do with skills and knowledge transfer. One of the interesting things about this is that these students may wish to start up some companies themselves. Why is that so? How does it integrate into this homeland? Is the goal for them to go back to Africa to start these companies or scale-up companies in the UK?

OK let’s unpack this. Certainly, a role for IPP is to support knowledge transfer in the New Space paradigm. As you know CubeSats will become an increasingly important component in satellite data services and understanding what these can and can’t do is important, especially if national governments expect to procure an operational data service. The University of Strathclyde has been working with ClydeSpace to demonstrate how CubeSats can be built and to transfer this knowledge. However, this is only part of the story. Certainly, these engineers will go back to Africa and could build more CubeSats but the satellites on their own do not meet a sustainable case. The training needs to be allied with an applications programme so that a full data service solution can be understood. Make or buy? If I can make an analogy, not everyone these days wants to build mobile phones but they do want to develop innovative business applications that exploit them. I see a similar situation with CubeSats. In IPP we hope to show where the value lies, not just what appears to be the sexy satellite element. I would like to see people coming over to the UK to learn about data, engineering, user needs, business skills and going back to Africa saying, I can see a national need (say tracking animals in the bush), I can imagine an app to deliver this and I can imagine a CubeSat system that can give me the data. The business case for this can be supported by a local insurance company and I can pull the business case together for the banks. And I even know partners in the UK who can help me deliver this.

How does this affect the current FireSat programme with South Africa?

It’s a work-in-progress. Firesat represents one end of our IPP project portfolio with more emphasis on the space segment and we plan to look harder at the user demand along with our national partner in South Africa. At the other extreme, we are developing ground terminals in South Africa in support of CubeSat services for maritime vessel tracking through our partnership with ExactEarth and Stonethree. This will yield ultra-low-cost transponders for fishing fleets. Meanwhile, we are working with Ugandans in their water and meteorological depts, Kenyans in drought management and the Ivory Coast in forest monitoring. Hopefully, some of these will lead to locally inspired data services.  The focus for IPP is to develop the innovative implementation of existing technology. Satellites are already in orbit, they already provide data, so we are developing applications that exploit data to monitor crops, to detect pests, to predict drought or educate through satellite services.

That’s interesting. So, are you saying if there are projects in Africa that are aimed at solving basic socio-economic problems, they could attract some funding from this?

Yes, if they have national government support. We tend to work through government departments rather than NGOs since in our experience the governments understand the need and underpin the long term commitment to demonstrate sustainability. That is not always the case but certainly the majority. If the education department in the government say they have this particular issue that can be solved by a satellite in the loop or a health department say they have that issue, those are the sort of processes we’ll work with. However please remember, it’s not our project. The UK Space Agency facilitates the project by providing some key funding.  The real players are the industrial, academic and national govt partners across all the participating countries.  

Can private companies in Africa be partners?

Yes, we work with private companies in countries. Indeed, at the end of the day if it is going to be a sustainable business, the chances are that private companies will be involved somewhere in the chain.  However, we need to ensure local governments support the processWe are learning lessons on the best way to make this work.

So what’s your personal role in all of these?

Okay. When I proposed the programme along with colleagues four years ago, I could see the merits because I had been working with the International Charter “Space and Major Disaster” organisation as the UK Board Member and I could see how useful satellite services can be in times of crises. I also understand how our own government now relies on satellite data services. In my wider International Policy role I would come across countries who would ask me about how to set up a Space Agency (we are a new Agency ourselves) but had not fully addressed how to demonstrate the value of space to other internal government departments. In my experience funding inside government is always a challenge and so it’s necessary to showcase satellites as a benefit, and service and not something glitzy. What may inspire the youth like going to Mars may not always inspire the Treasury! Later I moved on to become the Chief Scientist and the IPP team separately started really getting into its stride. We have a great team– really committed to helping all countries take the benefit of the so-called “space enabled economy”, not just a few. However the IPP leadership role still needs to be ambitious and forward thinking rather than just the delivery of the 30+ projects and so I was asked to step back into the programme and look to develop wider links with the UN, ESA etc.  

What’s the size of the funding you provide?

It’s 30 million pounds per year, and we tend to select projects of a significant size to have a real impact So, the project tends to be about 5 million pounds plus matching contributions in some way. This can vary. One project is closer to 15 million pounds, several are around 3 million. Importantly these are not demonstration studies. They are more “pre-operational” because we understand that the government needs to see something real that works before they could then support a service.  Again on the finance side, it doesn’t have to be commercial or national govt financing for the eventual solution. For example, it could be the World Bank stepping in, the Norwegian Investment funds and so on. The focus is a sustained project. We’re hoping that’s the way our project will move forward with Ivory Coast – here the project team develop a monitoring product for the local, regional and national forests to better determine what is being grown (including illegal cocoa crops in the margins of the forest canopy) and how local farmers can be brought into a regulated value chain. 

We are now almost 4 years into our 5-year programme although we hope to see this continue into future years. We have funding for one more round (call 3) which will be of shorter duration to fit into the one year that remains. We expect to have approx 8 million Pounds available for this round and a further smaller call on the Public Policy Course will be announced later this year or early 2020. More information about submission of application is available here.


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