Insider’s Guide to Business Success in the African Space Industry; Excerpts

On 11 August 2023, Space in Africa organised an informative webinar titled “Insider’s Guide to Business Success in the African Space Industry.This event marked the inaugural instalment of its webinar series aimed at unravelling the intricacies of the African space ecosystem.

The event drew 227 registrations, comprising prominent figures from the space sector, emerging NewSpace enterprises, leaders from national space agencies, international space entities, space enthusiasts, students, and other key stakeholders. The primary objective was facilitating a collaborative exchange of insights and innovative concepts for nurturing and expanding space ventures within the unique African space ecosystem.

The webinar focused on a series of targeted discussions, delving into specific segments of the industry that hold promising business prospects for both local and foreign players. These sectors encompassed Earth observation, geospatial solutions, satellite and components manufacturing, and satellite communication. Through thorough exploration and analysis, participants had the opportunity to glean valuable information on how to cultivate space enterprises from the ground up in Africa.

A notable event highlight was the presentation of case studies showcasing successful businesses that have thrived in the African space industry. Attendees gained valuable insights into strategic approaches for establishing a reputable brand presence and enhancing credibility. An essential aspect of the discussions revolved around aligning business offerings and services with the distinct requirements of core African space stakeholders, including governments and key players.

Distinguished speakers lent their expertise to the event, ensuring a well-rounded examination of the challenges and opportunities inherent in conducting space-related business in Africa. These speakers included Dr Zolana Joao, the General Manager of the Angolan Space Management Office; Viola Kirui, the Co-Founder and Director of Geospatial Research International; Reuben Oshomah, the Regional Director for West Africa at Avanti; Alex Fortescue, Maxar’s Sales Manager for the African region; and David du Toit, a Business Advisor at Dragonfly Aerospace.

Click here to rewatch the webinar.

The diverse lineup of speakers ensured a comprehensive and holistic exploration of the intricacies of operating within the African space industry. Mustapha Iderawumi, a Senior Analyst at Space in Africa, hosted the webinar, effectively steered the discussions and facilitated a productive exchange of ideas and experiences.

Here is an excerpt of the event proceedings.

Dr Zolana, while giving his opinion about the implications of the NewSpace Economy on the African Continent, the potential opportunities within this market, and suggestions for effective business models, noted that the NewSpace Economy holds significant potential for Africa, referring to the private sector’s increasing role in space activities. Africa’s space economy is projected to reach USD 22.64 billion by 2026, up from USD 19.49 billion in 2021. In his opinion, the challenge is that most private companies (80%) are based in South Africa, with 90% of their activities outsourced abroad. However, Dr Zolana expressed that opportunities exist in the downstream sector, constituting 80% of the space economy’s value and offering lower entry barriers, underscoring the potential for private sector growth in Africa’s space industry.

When speaking about the trend where most sales are made to foreign clientele rather than within the continent, David admitted that while their business is thriving, it operates exclusively internationally, with no local or African clientele. Furthermore, he spoke of challenges securing local investment despite international success and noted limited government support for larger satellite projects. He stressed the need to address collaboration and investment issues moving forward.

While discussing ingredients for business success within the industry, Alex noted that the focus must be on understanding African cultural nuances for individuals from foreign companies. Alex shared an anecdote about a meeting misunderstanding in different countries with peculiarities, which stressed Africa’s diversity with 54 nations and over 3000 tribes, highlighting the importance of cultural awareness. Regarding regulations, which he noted as another key ingredient, Alex highlighted flexibility, citing a contract arbitration clash with local rules. He said collaboration with local space partners was vital to overcoming cultural barriers and effectively coordinating services.

Reuben spoke about the challenges newcomers face in Africa, including gaining acceptance due to technological differences and navigating diverse regulations. In addition, he submitted that operating in remote areas with limited infrastructure posed logistical difficulties. Reuben highlighted their strategy of becoming an African company, establishing regional offices in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa to address these. This local presence enabled effective engagement with local authorities and customers. He emphasised Avanti’s significant investment in critical infrastructure, with USD 800 million (75% of Avanti’s total investment) allocated to Africa for gateway stations in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Reuben concluded by stressing adaptability to overcome ongoing challenges when entering new countries.

While speaking on the challenges associated with disruptive technology and its adoption by the government and other relevant stakeholders, Viola acknowledged that those challenges include infrastructure limitations, lack of capacity, government regulations, and resistance to change.

Viola noted a positive trend in Africa, particularly in her country, Kenya. She highlighted the government’s recognition of the significance of space-based technologies in policies and the establishment of local space agencies, indicating a growing awareness of their potential.

She then delved into a successful project in collaboration with the Regional Center of Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) in 2020. The project aimed to create a satellite observation-based tool for the socio-economic valuation of degraded ecosystems. This initiative addressed the need to understand the actual value of natural resources to combat degradation. The tool evaluated services and goods from natural ecosystems, facilitating informed decision-making and resource management. 

While advising businesses entering the African space market and seeking contracts with national space agencies, Dr Zolana mentioned that entering the African space market and securing contracts with national space agencies requires a thorough understanding of the unique context and challenges in the region. Drawing from his experiences, he outlined several key strategies and considerations for businesses aiming to succeed in this domain.

Firstly, he stressed the need for realism, pointing out that only a handful of African countries contribute significantly to the continent’s GDP. Consequently, opportunities for private companies to secure contracts with space agencies are limited. Dr Zolana noted that the African economy is fragile and susceptible to global economic fluctuations. He highlighted the importance of demonstrating how space initiatives can address societal challenges and improve people’s lives, especially in high unemployment rates and pressing social needs. Dr Zolana emphasised the necessity of aligning space projects with government policies and priorities to secure funding and support.

A critical piece of advice he offered was adopting a user-centric approach. He emphasised the importance of understanding the real needs of African users and focusing on solutions that directly address those needs. Dr Zolana acknowledged that not all space endeavours require substantial funding and highlighted the potential for innovative and cost-effective solutions to impact various sectors significantly.

Dr Zolana shared an example from Angola, where a low-cost tool for oil spill detection was developed with indigenous technologies and local engineers. This tool solved a critical problem for the country’s oil agency and demonstrated the potential of leveraging local expertise and resources to create impactful solutions.

Alex shared his views regarding balancing local adaptation with maintaining Maxar’s core values and global standards while operating in different regions. He acknowledged the notable differences between operating in Africa and other regions, including cultural diversity, financial challenges, currency fluctuations, and political stability. He emphasised that Maxar’s core values are steadfast, and while they don’t compromise on them, they aim to instil these values in their partners and customers.

Regarding leveraging space technologies for sustainable development from the African government’s perspective, Reuben emphasised that Avanti focuses on empowering individuals and strengthening communities. He pointed out that Africa remains the least connected continent globally and discussed the urgency of providing basic connectivity infrastructure to ensure the continent’s young population can thrive.

Reuben highlighted the potential of Africa’s youthful demographic, underlining that this advantage could be a disadvantage without proper connectivity and access to education and information. Avanti works with various partners, including mobile network operators, governments, and NGOs, to bridge the digital divide in underserved areas. He mentioned that Avanti has successfully connected over 1000 villages and aims to extend its reach by connecting an additional 5000 schools and villages in the next five years. Reuben concluded by reiterating Avanti’s commitment to Africa as a region of immense opportunity and its dedication to narrowing the digital divide through strategic partnerships and investments in infrastructure.

While speaking on the need for downstream Earth observation (EO) companies to differentiate themselves to avoid duplicating efforts and offer novel solutions, Viola highlighted the evolving landscape of the EO downstream segment, where players have significantly increased. She noted that this growth is driven by the recognition of technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics, which have expanded the possibilities within the sector. Contrary to the past, a robust capacity and skill set is now available, evident from the rise in universities offering related courses.

Regarding the challenge of avoiding duplicity and ensuring innovative solutions, Viola emphasised that the field still holds untapped potential, especially in analysing spatial data science. She urged young entrepreneurs to stay open to learning, adapt to new technologies, and envision future needs to create relevant solutions. Collaboration and synergies among service providers were stressed as crucial, ensuring that all required skills are combined to create novel solutions. Viola encouraged support for emerging entrepreneurs, calling on government institutions, development partners, and private sector entities to offer mentorship, scholarships, data access, and platforms to foster growth. She also noted the importance of industry players promoting discussions about the need for supportive policies and environments to accelerate the advancement of the earth observation downstream sector.

David shared insights into the strategies Dragonfly Aerospace has implemented to navigate the challenges of operating a manufacturing business in Africa’s space industry. He emphasised the difficulty of sustaining satellite and payload manufacturing capabilities, stating that it requires a substantial investment in resources and research and development (R&D).

He mentioned that Dragonfly Aerospace’s advantage lies in having more than 25 years of experience in manufacturing satellites and payloads, specifically Electro-optic payloads. However, sustaining such capabilities without government or national support is challenging. David highlighted the need to balance revenue from sales with investment in R&D, which is crucial to staying competitive in the international market.

Regarding the disruption of supply chain logistics, David acknowledged that supply chain management is a global challenge, especially in electronics. He noted that Dragonfly Aerospace has vertically integrated its operations, doing everything in-house except for solar panels. This vertical integration enables the company to maintain control over its supply chain.

David submitted by addressing the challenge of dealing with obsolescence due to rapidly evolving technology. He explained that components often become obsolete as technology advances, requiring constant requalification of subsystems to ensure their compatibility with the latest components.

Dr Zolana highlighted critical factors for success in African businesses, particularly in the space industry. He stressed the importance of collaboration to avoid duplications and emphasised redirecting funds from foreign satellites to support local initiatives. He underlined the need for strong policies, regulatory frameworks, and a supportive business ecosystem. Dr Zolana noted the critical infrastructure challenge and highlighted the broader business challenges facing the private sector. He called for building essential skills, improving space literacy, and adapting business models for Africa’s unique context. He concluded that creating a favourable business environment should be the initial focus, enabling successful private sector engagement in Africa’s space industry.

Keep an eye on our website and social media platforms for updates on upcoming episodes in Space in Africa's webinar series.


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