In late August, African leaders and international organizations convened in the port city of Yokohama for the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) to discuss the future of Africa, and Japan’s role in it. The Conference emphasised Tokyo’s attempt to shift its relationship with Africa from development assistance to business-led engagement.
The summit focused on “Advancing Africa’s Development through People, Technology and Innovation”, with public sector entities, development organizations and private sector players in Japan looking to strengthen collaboration with their African counterparts.
One of the major highlights of the summit includes Tokyo’s commitment to driving space inclusion in Africa. The Conference hosted the Africa Space Forum, the first official side event aimed at strengthening collaboration with Japan’s space actors and their African counterparts.
Over the past few years, Tokyo has shown interest in the African space industry. However, the message and commitment exhibited at TICAD7 and Africa Space Forum were those of deliberate strategy, and recognition of the role of space in solving development challenges in Africa.
During his opening remarks at TICAD7, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, described Japanese cooperation in Africa’s space sector as an example of “quality” engagement between Tokyo and Africa, citing an instance of a small satellite built by Rwanda in collaboration with the University of Tokyo that will provide valuable agricultural data.
“Let us raise our eyes now to a place beyond the earth. Soon, up there, a small-sized satellite [RwaSat-1] built by Rwanda together with the University of Tokyo will emerge. From space, the satellite will observe crop harvests and the state of water resources in Rwanda,” he said.
Rwanda’s collaboration with Japan is not the first of its kind in Africa. Japanese institutions have collaborated with their African counterparts through the BIRDS and KiboCUBE projects.
The BIRDS project, officially known as the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite project, is a multinational program aimed at supporting developing countries and research institutions to build their first satellite. In Africa, the BIRDS-1 project supported Ghana’s All Nations University and Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology, Akure to build GhanaSat-1 and NigeriaEduSat-1 respectively, in collaboration with Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology.
Similar to the BIRDS project, the KiboCUBE programme is an initiative of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The first round of the KiboCUBE initiative enabled a team from the University of Nairobi in Kenya to develop a cube satellite that was successfully deployed from the Japanese Kibo Experiment Module at International Space Station on 11 May 2018.
In June 2018, JAXA/UNOOSA selected the Mauritius Research Council (MRC) for the 3rd round of the KiboCUBE initiative. MRC is currently developing a Cubesat to be launched in October 2019 as Mauritius’s first satellite in space.
Beyond capacity development programmes such as the BIRDS and KiboCUBE programmes, Japan is also exploring to increase orders from Africa for its growing small satellite launch capability.
JAXA is anticipating to record its first launch of an African satellite on 11 September with the planned launch of RwaSat-1 and Egypt’s NARSSCube-1 onboard the Japanese Kounotori 8 (HTV-8) unmanned cargo resupply mission to the ISS.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.