The Role of Media as a Catalyst in the African Space Program

While it is true that all, if not most African governments, are aware of the capabilities and advantages of using space for sustainable development in the region, the same cannot be said about the ordinary African citizen. This thought came to mind while stargazing, anxiously anticipating the fly-by of the International Space Station over Zimbabwe. The phrase “Is it is a bird, is it a plane” looped in my mind as I considered how many well-meaning Zimbabweans and global citizens, had seen this curious white orb floating through the sky, and passed it off for the latter. Explaining the idea of a football field-sized satellite orbiting around the earth at breakneck speed (7,66 km per second or 27,600 km per hour) to even the most well-informed populace seems especially difficult when one doesn’t have a point of reference to contextualise the benefits of these phenomena. 

History and examples from different regions have shown, however, that the media has had a decisive role in generating public interest in the happenings of outer space. Without the media, the concept of space and its benefits would very well go right over the heads of the ordinary African citizen (much the same way the ISS often does).  Media is not a one-way street. It is also a powerful tool that lends voice to the opinions of the masses and can be a mediating platform for dialogue between the interests of the State and the people. The bottom-line principle then is there needs to be engagement.

With the internet, media, and its multifaceted digital platforms, there is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the State and its people concerning space affairs. This is how public opinion is formed, which should be nurtured as a fundamental policy point for the AUC, as expressed in its policy and strategy for the African space programme. Indeed this is one of the goals of the AU Space strategy, Section 2.4, which states that “increasing public interest in astronomy and improving science education help to develop a more skilled workforce.” Again within the same policy, one of the Opportunities identified is in “Maturing public awareness and knowledge of the societal benefits of space applications.”

Section 3.3 of the African Space Strategy says; “develop a robust public awareness campaign that targets and solicits the support of all sectors of society for the manifold benefits of space science and technology and its potential to foster economic growth and address societal challenges, especially the needs of large rural communities”. Again, a necessary aspect of the strategy is the need for supporting programmes. Perhaps media will be an essential leg for this endeavour and especially bridging the rural-urban divide, as digital media consumption becomes a norm across both societies.

As a matter of good governance and management, the African Space Policy also reiterates the clarion call for a sustained public awareness campaign citing that “hence, there is a need for a significant awareness campaign that will educate and inform African decision-makers, politicians and the public of the benefits of space science and technology”. This section gives credence to the idea that spatial data is a vital tool for decision-making, not only for the public, but also for decision-makers in all sectors of the economy, and that much should be done to build data-driven decision-making through awareness-raising on how this can be achieved through space. 

This is where the media can play an accelerating role within the African space industry. In a growing global information economy, ignorance will be the bane of our existence. Several African governments have indeed demonstrated political will by investing in space science and technology; however, this is only one essential aspect of development. The other portion encompasses the role of the citizenry and their valuable contributions to the space industry. Without awareness of space opportunities and knowledge, few individuals would be motivated to pursue space sciences or STEM-related disciplines; this translates to a shortage of human capital, and a stagnation of the industry.

One has only to read the profiles of this year’s Top 10 Under 30 to understand the immense role the youth and other up-and-coming space professionals have to play in promoting the African space economy. Therefore we need a dedicated space awareness-raising campaign that headlines the growth and achievements, even the baby steps of the African industry, to draw more determined and skilled personnel to support national space agendas. We also need innovators, not only to disrupt the market but also to decipher their talent into a usable, accessible format so that all sectors and demographics of society can glean an understanding of these endeavours. Once this is achieved, more members of the public can identify and contribute their developmental needs and actively engage with their governments on how best space resources can meet their demands.

Therefore, the critical step now is to ensure that political will is bolstered by citizen participation in space, and this, of course, can be fulfilled by an educated population. The unfortunate factor, however, is that lots of African space milestones mostly go unreported, especially those predating this current decade. This includes turning points in African and national space developments such as the signing and ratifying of relevant international treaty laws, membership of the UNCOPUOS, and even the establishment of national space agencies. Accordingly, these should all be instances of national prestige that draw the admiration of the people. Instead, and lamentably often so, such achievements are tucked away in government archives and away from the curious gaze of the direct beneficiaries of these endeavours. 

In a recent video interview with Space in Africa, Dr Tidiane Ouattara confirmed that the AUC was seeking platforms to share with all Africans the progress made in the industry thus far. Regrettably, the role of the media is often overlooked in bringing the wonders and knowledge of space exploration down to the grassroots level, to the ordinary human being. But long gone are the days when the space sector was a purely strategic domain shrouded in military secrecy and technical language. Over time there has been a gradual shift in the media’s role, and during the infamous space race years, the press used catchy headlines to keep the public informed and the government accountable to its commitments. 

So aside from being a watchdog to the achievements and milestones of African space developments, the media can take an active role in the process, successes and even failures of the industry. African states should partner with the media to bring space education to people like you and me, and especially those who aren’t reading this opinion piece. Few would know, but many would be in awe of the far-reaching implications of space technology, currently being championed by the downstream and upstream services in the public and private sector. Now, there are at least 73 companies in the African Newspace industry contributing towards clean water, ending hunger, good health, climate action and quality education.

For this reason and many more, there needs to be a cognitive shift in the sustainable development impact of space technology in Africa, and remove the misconceived “pie in the sky” or spaceship notion that usually comes to mind. Public relation is a vital element for space missions. Africa stands to gain from this deliberate form of agenda-setting within the industry, and undoubtedly, a constant flow of information will only serve to establish momentum and a dedicated pool of informed, enthusiastic African citizens for space, and a transparent, accountable African space governance. 


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