At the beginning of 2010, there were only moderate discussions about the space industry in Africa. This was not because the industry was nonexistent but because very little awareness existed for it. This would change in the years that followed as several projects were launched on the continent by national governments, private entities, research and academic institutions, and enthusiasts in the space industry. By 2019, Space in Africa reported that the industry was worth USD7.37 Billion, with 41 satellites launched in total. Notably, however, none of these satellites was launched from an African country as no African nation had a rocket launching site. This meant that satellites built for Africa were either developed in other countries altogether or developed in Africa then taken to other countries to for launch. Several African countries have since started working and making plans towards being the first to launch from home soil and also send an African astronaut into space from Africa. But the journey may be longer for them.
On 17 August 2020, Space in Africa published an analysis on some of the challenges preventing large space and telecoms projects from being executed from Africa. The analysis focused on the hindrances Elon Musk would have faced if he had attempted to launch the SpaceX project from South Africa, his birth country. As it hit professional networking site, LinkedIn, a comment popped, mentioning that “Netloxh will develop, manufacture and launch rockets from South Africa with satellites for the purpose of research and space exploration.” I followed up with the comment to understand the possibility of this happening anytime soon, and it would result in a series of back and forth communication with the CEO of Netloxh.
What is Netloxh?
The information on the company’s website reads that “Netloxh Space does extensive research, development, designs and manufacturing of the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft in testing. Our test launch facilities are based in South Africa. Our rockets capabilities to launch to orbit with payloads are well established.” Netloxh integrates AI, IT, Robotics and Engineering, App development, and Cyber Security for Aerospace activities.
The CEO of Netloxh, Hans Botha, a South African man with an animated grin, dark curly hair, and grey beard, was very excited to talk about the company over a Zoom call. In describing the company and their projections for the African Space Industry, Botha mentions that Netloxh “have been developed specifically out of the need of research & space exploration and also to move away from governmental exercises and defence mechanisms”. He says that they want “to focus purely on research and peaceful exploration of space”. Wearing his half-smirk, Botha adds that “If you look at our remote capabilities in South Africa, in terms of ground to space and satellite monitoring and space operations, South Africa has been extremely developed in those specialities of the space industry, but we lack the capability of taking our own satellites up into space, taking astronauts up into space instead of looking through telescopes to the galaxies”.
“We have to go up in space and explore hands-on what is basically going on in space. So, with that as a background, Netloxh as a private company shares the ideals I had as a boy to explore space as we look up to the stars and touch it”.
Everybody can dream about space, but how do we get there?
Asides the fact that rocket launching sites are hard to maintain, rockets are quite expensive themselves. Despite SpaceX breaking the market and launching a rocket for about USD57 million, not a lot of private companies can take on this challenge, not when countries in Africa are still struggling to. Only 11 countries launched 38 of Africa’s 41 Satellites by the end of 2019. However, Botha believes that Netloxh can break this barrier.
“Surely, there are challenges to overcome, but in South Africa, we are busy working with SANSA, the South African National Space Agency and also with a lot of our space leaders that exist in the board of SANSA platform to establish and reopen basically the space board in South Africa. You know, where the stumble blocks are coming up is to understand the reason why we need to launch. Something else is that we have to revisit the treaties that have been signed to guarantee that South Africa is not building a weapon of mass destruction or one that is loaded with nuclear materials. When we launch, it will not be for defence purposes, it’ll be for exactly why Space X is launching. It’s to explore, it’s to move to other planets, to build and construct in space. It’s for peaceful purposes. So, we are currently working through a lot of legislation from Netloxh perspective to basically pen down the whole launching site exercise and the reasons why we do it. So, yes, I’m not gonna (sic) move away from the fact that there are some difficulties in it but it’s not gonna (sic) stop us from moving forward and leaping into space.”
When I asked if Netloxh is planning to build a rocket launch facility, Botha says confidently, “Definitely, yes! and it’s actually moving at this stage and I want to say that yes, Netloxh will open up the space board again and we will definitely launch. At the beginning of 2021, I’ll say from February/March, first rockets testing will be done”.
Rocket testing in itself is not the same as launching into space, but if a bird will fly, it must first learn how to flap its wings. As Netloxh continues to work on its researches, driving through legislative encumbrances to help South Africa fly from home, I ask Botha how and who is bankrolling Netloxh, considering that the ecosystem isn’t as boisterous for financial support, and the coronavirus pandemic has made things even harder.
What about money?
The positive CEO shares his secrets. “I had to start-up with my own capital at first and as we continued, we drew the attention to what Netloxh are aiming to do and in foresight, what we are trying to achieve. I think, hand-in-hand, with SpaceX and what they are trying to do, from the African continent point of view, we have the same purpose as well but in terms of funding, it’s costing millions to achieve this. We are currently busy securing USD100 million as well through a couple of investors that are very keen in the space industry and to take it beyond that. That’s our first phase of funding that will be available to us to continue early next year till around February/March. We have a Phase 2 and a Phase 3, we’ll talk about USD 400 million at play as well. So, in total, we are working with a budget of USD 500 million towards the 2021 and 2022 business year.
Acknowledging some setbacks suffered by the company, Botha, smiling, adds; “Muhammed, first of all, we need to acknowledge that the pandemic has been a terrible worldwide event that set back economies terribly, and surely, we are feeling it in South Africa, as well as at Netloxh. Timelines have been affected. We had plans to have a test launch in 2020 but obviously, since March, we went into lockdown in South Africa… hard lockdown where the economy has been shut down so, surely, we have been affected for about five months. A lot of our activities that were planned for 2020 are basically moving forward to 2021. So, yeah, I think, things concerning the pandemic are under control in South Africa and I hope in the rest of the African continent as well but we are slightly opening up the economy in South Africa. We are currently set at Level 2 and we are talking about going to Level 1 soon but yeah, we’ve been terribly affected in terms of that.”
Making sure that the goals of Netloxh are not misunderstood, or misconstrued solely as a South African project, he emphasizes that “this is not only for South Africans… I need to stress it and I cannot stress it enough. Netloxh is there for Africa and for African development and for the whole continent to benefit from this, and I think our future discussions will be around involving a lot of African people into the space sector, specifically. We are not South-ist and I need to stress that very good. We are not a South-ist company. We are there to develop humankind from the African continent, from African people. Everyone sees on the news what America is doing and what the UK is doing and what Russia, Japan, China and all those people. Where’s Africa, Muhammed?”
To infinity and beyond
Enjoying the conversation, and looking forward to seeing more of Netloxh, I ask for the company’s projections, of which Botha replies “first of all, we’ll have our launch vehicle and launching site fully established and our first two rocket sizes to basically launch different pilot sizes are currently in development. We are looking at the next two years. I want to establish that first, but to launch and test specifically from our coastline is the first priority. Secondly, another thing that we are working on currently is to establish our astronautic training centre to train up astronauts and to also bring our youths into these areas where we’d talk with our universities to open up the training line for students as well in terms of astronautics and space.”
“I think it’s worth it. There’s a lot of value in this. We do it, first of all, for passion. The passion of reaching for the stars to fulfil our dreams. But one needs to understand one cannot do it without money. There’s money to make. There are economies that need to grow out of this sector. It’s a strong sector which countries can benefit from but after all, we are in early stages and we just need to hang in there and develop this into the strong powerhouse it needs to be on the continent.”