Vieira de Almeida’s Approach to Providing Comprehensive Space Policy and Legal Services in Africa

Helena Correia Mendonça, a Principal Consultant at Vieira de Almeida, speaking during the 2024 NewSpace Africa

Vieira de Almeida (VdA) is an international full-practice law firm headquartered in Portugal. It extends its services to Portuguese-speaking African countries and Timor-Leste and has extensive experience working in various African nations. They specialise in providing comprehensive policy and legal services catering to the public and private sectors. Their offerings include assistance in drafting space policies and laws, facilitating contracts and partnerships (including development, construction, sale, purchase, launch, and operation of satellites, as well as downstream products and services), designing support packages for the space sector, conducting capacity-building and awareness programs, offering guidance on regulatory and compliance matters, and aiding in the incorporation and financing of companies.

Their expertise spans various issues crucial to the space sector, ranging from space law to telecommunications, data access and sharing, cybersecurity, intellectual property, cutting-edge technologies (such as artificial intelligence, robotics, DLT/blockchain, nanotechnology, and biotechnology), and testing and experimentation frameworks. Furthermore, they regularly publish a quarterly Space Brief, analysing the latest sector developments. Their team’s engagement with the space industry has led VdA to be the sole Portuguese law firm Who’s Who Legal (WWL) recommended in the “Data Security & Transport – Space & Satellites” global ranking.

On the sidelines of the 2024 NewSpace Africa Conference, Space in Africa had the opportunity to chat with Helena Correia Mendonça, a Principal Consultant at Vieira de Almeida, to understand the company’s model for providing comprehensive policy and legal services catering to the public and private space actors in Africa.

Given Vieira de Almeida’s experience in drafting the first space policy for an African country, what insights can you share on the unique challenges and considerations involved in establishing regulatory frameworks and policies for the space sector in the African context?

Based on our experience, several priority aspects must be considered when drafting space policies and regulatory frameworks for African countries. Firstly, it is crucial to tailor these frameworks to each country’s specific opportunities and challenges, avoiding replicating foreign practices that may not align with their unique circumstances. This approach ensures that policies and laws are understood, accepted, and effectively implemented.

Awareness and capacity building plays a central role in this process. By fostering a deeper understanding of the role of space in sustainable development among society at large, we can garner commitment to investing in the sector. This approach also promotes the space sector’s development using indigenous resources, thereby enhancing Africa’s autonomy in this field and preventing African nations from solely being consumers of space technology. Capacity-building encompasses technological aspects, policies, laws, relevant organisations, and potential partners, clients, and suppliers. This holistic approach facilitates adopting best practices and lessons learned, enabling countries to leapfrog if possible.

Coordination with continental (such as the African Union Space Policy, Strategy, and Agency) and regional (regional economic communities) initiatives is another critical aspect. African countries can play significant roles in such initiatives and leverage projects for further development. This benefits the sector within each country and fosters synergies that enhance competitiveness. Furthermore, initiatives need not be confined to the space sector; given the pervasive role of space products, services, and data across various sectors, integrating space technology into programs, projects, policies, and plans in other sectors can catalyse the development of the space sector in Africa. It’s essential to adopt a holistic view of space policies and laws that extend beyond strict space matters and involve other sectors to stimulate the growth of the space market.

Planning for governmental changes is equally vital. A space policy must remain in force, applicable, and appropriate, even with new governments, especially when establishing long-term goals. This continuity instils trust in the market and encourages investment, ensuring sustained growth and development in the space sector.

How does VdA approach drafting national space laws and regulations, particularly in balancing the interests of various stakeholders, such as governments, private entities, and international organisations?

When drafting space policies and laws, our initial steps involve examining the country’s goals outlined in national policy documents and engaging with relevant stakeholders, including workshops involving both the public and private sectors. We typically produce an initial report summarising the country’s policy objectives and how the space sector can contribute to achieving them. This report proposes preliminary priorities and goals, which are then communicated and discussed in a dynamic, dialogue-based process. By incorporating diverse perspectives, including concerns, existing projects, and partnerships, we ensure that space policies and laws are tailored to meet the country’s specific needs and challenges, even those not explicitly stated in official documents. This approach fosters stakeholder commitment from the outset, facilitating their involvement and preventing silos and duplication of efforts.

Given that space technology impacts virtually all sectors of the economy, it’s essential to ensure that stakeholders are aware of ongoing developments, how they can contribute, and how they can benefit from the proposed space policies and laws. We provide clients with information on relevant international organisations, facilitate relevant contacts, and make recommendations.

Our work considers priorities in the short, medium, and long term, institutional and financing frameworks, and potential partnerships. Moreover, we recognise that space laws should adhere to international legal obligations and promote private-sector activity. Accordingly, we devise legal approaches to address licensing procedures, registration procedures, liability and insurance obligations, fees, consequences in case of a breach, and competent authorities, among other aspects. We provide explanatory guidelines alongside our proposals, elucidating the benefits and impacts of different options in light of the country’s goals and the sector’s evolution. This approach fosters a comprehensive understanding of critical topics, facilitating informed decision-making and ensuring a coherent and aligned legal framework.

Can you discuss VdA’s experience negotiating partnerships and memoranda of understanding between African governments and/or private entities in the space sector and the key factors contributing to successful collaborations? Is there some uniqueness in working with an African country versus another region?

We prioritise several aspects when negotiating contracts and partnerships for African clients. Firstly, we strive to establish a level playing field between our client and the counterparty, mitigating any power imbalances during the negotiation process. Recognising that each African country possesses unique characteristics, resources, and goals, we ensure that any project, service, or product being developed, provided, or acquired aligns with our clients’ objectives and is tailored to their needs.

Honest dialogue, transparency, and adaptability are fundamental to fostering successful collaborations. We believe that open communication and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances are essential for building trust and achieving mutually beneficial outcomes.

Capacity-building is also a central consideration in our negotiations. Knowledge sharing plays a vital role in most partnerships and contracts, serving as one of the primary objectives of collaborative projects. Without adequate knowledge transfer, parties to the contract cannot aim to become autonomous in a given field. In other contracts, knowledge transfer ensures the client can continue benefiting from the service or product. This is particularly critical for emerging countries in Africa, which often face challenges with resources, including human resources, technology, and data. Partnerships and contracts must address local needs and priorities while ensuring that skills are developed and capacity is built within the region.

What strategies does Vieira de Almeida employ to ensure that the contracts and agreements it drafts for clients in the aerospace industry comply with relevant international laws and regulations while also protecting the interests of African nations?

When negotiating contracts, it’s imperative to consider applicable international obligations arising from international space law, particularly the UN Space Treaties. While these treaties don’t directly apply to the private sector, their obligations are often reflected in national space laws applicable to private actors.

In our negotiation process, we typically focus on two critical points regarding international space frameworks: firstly, identifying which international obligations should be reflected in the contract, and secondly, determining which party is responsible for complying with them. It’s essential to recognise that not every international obligation needs to be translated into a contractual obligation, especially when flexibility is necessary due to resource constraints, which is often relevant for African nations. Conversely, addressing specific aspects of international space law in the contract can help clarify which party is responsible for each obligation and allocate responsibilities accordingly, particularly considering resource availability for compliance.

For example, when negotiating contracts, we assess whether our African client can fulfil contractual obligations based on international space legal frameworks, such as registering a space object with the United Nations under the UN Registration Convention. Suppose compliance isn’t feasible (e.g., the country isn’t a party to the Convention or lacks national legislation mandating registration for private operators). In that case, contract revision becomes essential unless the nation can join the Convention or enact relevant legislation before the contractual obligation takes effect.

Additionally, international space law emphasises the importance of considering the needs of developing countries, ensuring that these concerns are appropriately addressed at the international level.

Furthermore, we factor several other conditions into account. For instance, a party may need to integrate a contractual provision to comply with its national law. In other cases, standard provisions such as cross-waiver of liabilities may be established in the contract. In all instances, we evaluate the acceptability of such provisions under our client’s applicable laws, available resources, and potential risks.

What is VdA’s approach to advising clients on regulatory matters, such as international spectrum management and orbital and frequency allocation, in the context of African countries’ specific needs and challenges?

Our first step always involves thoroughly understanding our client’s objectives, business activities, and concerns. We may request initial clarifications to ensure our advice is tailored to our client’s needs. Our advice typically operates on three levels, as necessary. Firstly, we examine the applicable national law, often requiring communication with relevant authorities to ensure alignment and prevent future issues. Secondly, we assess potential foreign laws that may apply and how they could impact our client, particularly in international projects or collaborations with foreign partners. We may engage with local counsel to ensure comprehensive understanding and compliance in such cases. Thirdly, we analyse applicable international laws, such as those outlined in the UN Space Treaties or ITU Radio Regulations, depending on the nature of the advice provided.

For example, our approach varies based on several parameters when addressing orbital slots and corresponding frequencies. These may include whether the African country has specific national regulations on the matter, whether the operator seeks to use a pre-allocated orbital slot, or if they intend to utilise a slot already registered to another entity, necessitating drafting an agreement for this purpose. A significant challenge in this area is the scarcity of orbital slots, with developed countries often monopolising the most desirable slots. To mitigate this, measures at the ITU level and technical measures have been proposed, such as pre-allocated slots, streamlined filing procedures, measures for satellite constellations, and optimisation of slot efficiency.

We guide our African clients through obtaining orbital slots and frequencies before the national authority and ITU, assisting in navigating regulatory requirements and negotiating necessary agreements to secure their interests.

Can you discuss Vieira de Almeida’s strategies for staying up-to-date with the rapidly evolving regulatory landscape and technological advancements in the space sector to ensure its advice and services remain relevant and valuable to African clients?

Our knowledge management team is pivotal in collecting, analysing, and disseminating daily information on laws, regulations, and relevant news about the African market. We have dedicated knowledge management lawyers focusing on the space sector and related sectors such as ICT, aviation, and defence. In addition to providing daily briefs, these lawyers send regular updates covering a broad range of information related to the space sector, with a particular emphasis on African markets. We leverage artificial intelligence tools to enhance the analysis of this information, ensuring that our insights are comprehensive and up-to-date.

Our New Frontiers Business and Digital Frontiers practice areas are dedicated to exploring the new opportunities and challenges arising in the future. They work closely with our space lawyers and advisors to anticipate developments in the space sector. Moreover, we have launched the VdA Tech Hub, a platform and innovative approach to legal services that examines digital opportunities and challenges across various sectors, including space, and also focuses on the African market. Furthermore, in collaboration with Nova School of Law, we have established What’s Next Law, a research and development centre focused on emerging legal topics such as disruptive technologies, mobility, artificial intelligence, space, biotechnology, and smart cities.

Our local African offices and partners ensure that our knowledge and expertise remain current and relevant. They serve as VdA’s front line in Africa, possessing in-depth knowledge of local markets and regulations. This comprehensive approach has enabled us to participate in numerous space projects in and for Africa, collaborating with international organisations, governments, and private companies. These projects have enriched our expertise in African countries and provided us with valuable opportunities to contribute to the advancement of the space sector in the region.

How does Vieira de Almeida plan to collaborate with local legal and advisory firms in African countries to better understand the nuances of domestic laws and regulatory environments and provide more tailored and context-specific guidance to clients?

VdA, through its VdA Legal Partners network, maintains a presence in seven (7) jurisdictions, offering coverage across all Portuguese-speaking countries and Timor-Leste. Additionally, we are active members of various legal networks, granting us access to a diverse pool of advisors spanning multiple countries. Our approach to advising African countries always involves collaboration with local counsel, whether through our offices or carefully selected partners chosen for their specialised knowledge and expertise relevant to the specific matter. This ensures that we understand the local laws and regulations and gain insights into their practical application, the most effective strategies for compliance while aligning with our client’s objectives, and any existing needs within the country.

This extensive and detailed knowledge base enables us to provide guidance on developing new laws, assist in public consultations for the creation or amendment of legislation, and offer comprehensive advice to a wide range of clients, including national, international, and foreign entities. Through our collaborative efforts with local counsel, we strive to deliver tailored and practical solutions that meet the unique needs of our clients in the African context.