The European Commission has recently proposed an African-European partnership for the continent’s digital transformation as part of their strategy with Africa. Earth Observation from space is identified as essential digital technology providing information for evidence-based policy and decision making.
The vast amount of free data to be processed and analysed requires adopting the latest digital tools such as cloud computing and innovative machine learning techniques. The EO AFRICA (African Framework for Research Innovation, Communities and Applications) initiative will contribute to full EO data access and usage across Africa, overcoming low-bandwidth and infrastructure bottlenecks that persist across the continent. The initiative is driven by African user needs and follows a long-term vision (>10 years) for the emergent digital era in Africa. It builds on 17 years of experience gained through the ESA TIGER initiative and its African network of EO experts. It aims to facilitate the sustainable adoption of Earth Observation and related space technology in Africa.
The flagship of the EO AFRICA initiative is the EO AFRICA R&D Facility, led by the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente, in collaboration with SERCO Europe, TU Wien, VITO Remote Sensing, CS Romania, and the CS Group.
Space in Africa had a chat with Dr Diana Chavarro-Rincon and Dr Zoltan Vekerdy of the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) at the University of Twente. Dr Vekerdy is the Manager and Coordinator of the EO Africa project, while Dr Chavarro-Rincon is leading Promotion and Outreach for the project.
The main objective of the EO AFRICA R&D Facility is to foster an African-European R&D collaboration enabling an active research community and creative innovation processes for continuous development of EO capabilities in Africa. The principal objectives are:
- Identify and respond to EO research challenges specific to the African environment.
- Facilitate an African – European exchange in research and know-how.
- Develop innovative EO algorithms and applications adapted to African solutions.
- Foster innovation to create open-source tools for sustainable uptake in Africa.
- Leverage fully the benefits of cloud computing & development tools for African and European researchers.
- Support the uptake of new technologies such as crowdsourcing, drones, IoT in Africa.
Tell us about the EO AFRICA R&D Facility
Dr Vekerdy: This project is closely related to and is like a follow up on the ESA TIGER Capacity Building Facility we have been implementing for several years. ITC has been involved in many capacity development projects in the past around Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation. ESA recognised that there are many problems that EO and additional satellite infrastructures can solve on the continent. The TIGER initiative already aimed at linking Africa to Europe. The EO AFRICA initiative is building on TIGER’s success.
The ITC-led consortium won in a hard competition. This project will establish collaboration between institutions in Europe and those in Africa. Each of our partners on this project brings specific expertise to ensure successful implementation of the project, which started on 1 March 2021. Africa being a diverse continent, needs special attention and special tools to address its special problems. We are not just looking at research and development; we are also looking at the applications sector while capitalising on the special knowledge of institutions in Europe to address Africa’s specific needs. We start with a need survey, where we rely on, among others, the feedback of the 9000 strong alumni network of ITC as well as on the networks of our consortium partners.
Dr Chavarro-Rincon: There are other projects on the continent using EO to address African challenges, such as the Digital Earth Africa or the GMES & Africa. Our primary focus is on capacity development through research and innovation, which is a niche in comparison with the other programmes.
What is the project timeline?
Dr Chavarro-Rincon: Research calls will be launched at the beginning of 2022 based on need analysis. One call will be announced at the end of 2021, and another one in 2021. The call will stimulate research between African and European partners. Our goal is not to finance full-fledge projects but to test new technologies, provide a platform for computation, access all Copernicus data services and provide seed funding to support the utilisation of technological know-how. In the second year, we will prepare the Africa Road Map. We will simultaneously run the space academy and innovation lab up to the end of the third year while publishing several scientific and technical papers on the results of the project. ESA is planning a follow-up of this first phase to continue the activities by considering the Road Map and building upon the results.
Why the companies that made the consortium?
Dr Vekerdy: The task has two major requirements: to provide the most up-to-date cloud environment for research and support activities in this environment at the highest technical and scientific level. Two partners are ICT companies, the CS Group and CS Romania. They are well known and have been involved in other ESA projects concerning computational activities. They will develop the Innovation Lab where African institutions will be able to work in the cloud. We have others who are focusing on the application and space technologies side.
Serco Europe is advanced in linking space technologies with users. CS and Serco in the past were running the RUS Copernicus platform and programme for ESA for training users in the European environment. TU Wien is a very well-known University in Hydrology and also participated in the TIGER initiative. VITO Remote Sensing, a research institute of Belgium, has also been heavily involved in space research, the SPOT Vegetation programme and developing agricultural databases with experience working in Africa for a long time.
What are the countries and regions where the EO Africa Project will be implemented?
Dr Vekerdy: We are implementing in all the countries in Africa. We aim to provide bi-lingual (English and/or French) training for the regions.
What role will the private sector play in this?
Dr Chavarro-Rincon: There is the opportunity to team up with European partners to implement ideas as part of the project. The research facility will be open to all. We are also going to be teaming up with two innovation labs in Africa while creating opportunities and activities with these hubs. We stimulate the private sector to join the Facility.