In 2001, Elon Musk conceptualized the Mars Oasis, an experimental greenhouse project to grow plants on Mars. Musk tried to buy cheap rockets from Russia for the success of this project, only to realise that buying rockets wasn’t so cheap after all. Frustrated, he returned to America to look for other ways for the project to work out. In 2002, he sourced for a warehouse big enough to house his ideas and reached out to rocket engineer, Tom Mueller, who agreed to work with Musk to facilitate the design, building and assemblage of more cost-efficient and highly effective rockets.
The SpaceX company was born. Since 2002, SpaceX has had over 100 launches, including the recent success of being the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station. But there is more to the success of SpaceX and more importantly, Elon Musk.
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, where he taught himself how to program. Musk’s mum is a Canadian model and his father is a South African engineer. Not wanting to serve in the South African military, Musk obtained his Canadian passport at 17 and relocated to Canada.
In 1992, Musk left Canada to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in economics and stayed for a second bachelor’s degree in physics. After leaving Penn, Musk headed to Stanford University in California to pursue a PhD in energy physics. However, his move was timed perfectly with the Internet boom, and he dropped out of Stanford after just two days to become a part of the boom, launching his first company, Zip2 Corporation in 1995. Musk became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
Over two decades of doing business in America later, Musk is worth $69.3 billion and is pioneering some of the most important technological advances of this era. When one thinks about Musk’s early start into tech, one can only imagine how Africa would have benefitted if Musk had stayed back and developed his businesses in South Africa. But would Musk have been able to achieve his potential if he had stayed back in South Africa?
One of the world’s leading innovators is Dr Thomas Mensah, who devised a new and faster method of accomplishing a fibre optics manufacturing procedure, the draw and coating process, that brought him four patents. This process has allowed for faster and easier access to the internet, birthing many new companies like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Dr Mensah was born in Ghana to a Cocoa farmer and businessman, who allowed him to explore his genius at a young age. Dr Mensah studied chemical engineering at the University of Science and Technology Kumasi in Ghana. He was awarded a French scholarship to study chemical engineering at the University of Science and Technology at Montpellier, France. He would graduate from that school in 1978 with a PhD, while also completing a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the year before. Like Musk, Dr Mensah relocated to the United States in search of an enabling environment for his genius.
Dr Mensah worked for Corning Glass Works from 1983 to 1986, in its fibre optics research division in Sullivan Park, New York. In 1986 he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories in Georgia, part of a group of facilities that had long been one of the leading research enterprises in the United States. His work there centred on fibre optic reels that could be used at supersonic speeds in the U.S. military’s guided missile program. Mensah realized several more patents from his work in the field of missile technology.
Both Elon Musk and Dr Thomas Mensah have contributed immensely to aerospace, astronautics and global telecommunication systems through their innovations. What is unifying in the stories of both men is that they had the privilege to leave the African continent, and thrive in enabling ecosystems. Many scientists, engineers, innovators and researchers of African descent have taken this path and emigrated outside the continent to work in top agencies like NASA, ESA, UKSA, and the likes; creating, building and making space-faring more enjoyable for the world and their host countries. The factors that have helped these scientists outside the continent are holding many innovators back in Africa. If Musk had similar opportunities in South Africa as he did in the USA, Africa would have successfully launched satellites into space from African soil. But 22 years after sending the first African Satellite into space, Africa does not have a working rocket launch site, nor enough support for people like Musk and Mensah. Here are some of the challenges hampering growth in the African space sector.
Policy and Political history
Many African countries in the ’80s and ’90s struggled with economic stability, governance and a body of regulations that guided their economies. As of 2020, according to the ease of doing business ranking, only one African country (out of 55), Mauritius, is in the top 30 list of countries with favourable ease of doing business economy. With many governments in Africa leaning towards mixed and socialist economies, intellectual responsibilities of great proportions have to go through governments, which are known for red-tapism and favouritism, creating a chaotic and unstable environment for innovators. If Elon Musk, for instance, wanted to register his business in South Africa in 2002, it would have taken him a longer processing period than it did in the USA. It is noteworthy that in recent times, some African countries like South Africa and Nigeria are leaning towards e-registration, which are commendable.
Similarly, the preexisting acknowledgement of space and telecommunications sector development factored into the ease with which people like Musk and Mensah thrived in America. In 2010 USA introduced a new space policy allowing for private participation in its Space industry. Prior to this, it had a body of regulations, government institutions and scholarships to encourage participation in the space sector.
In Europe, the EU had a space policy in 2007, a feat which Africa did not achieve until 2016. Despite South Africa launching its first satellite in 1999, the combined effect of apartheid, state regulations, ease of doing business, and the absence of rocket launching capacity would have made it difficult for companies like SpaceX to thrive (and South Africa is even one of Africa’s leading Space ecosystems).
Business development and support
If SpaceX would have had financial support in South Africa as it did in the USA is another consideration. Even Elon Musk mentioned himself that he was able to thrive the way he did, only because he went to America. Elon’s first business, Zip2, an online city guide founded in 1995 was acquired by Compaq for $307 million in cash and $34 million in stock options. This kind of financial support for the private sector is not available to many Africans. In August 2008, SpaceX accepted a USD20 million investment from Founders Fund. The possibility of a private company in Africa, with such lofty ideals as SpaceX, getting this amount of funding can only be imagined.
Patents and Intellectual Rights Protection
In the case of innovators like Dr Mensah, intellectual property protection in Africa is still at an abysmal level. Laws protecting Patents in Africa are mostly outdated. Despite the harmonization brought about by the TRIPS Agreement, most of the African countries still apply their outdated legislation. For instance, whereas a patent is valid for 20 years in Germany, France or The United States, in Angola, Ethiopia, Gambia, or Madagascar the validity is 15 years. In some cases, it is even less, as is the case for Tanzania and Namibia.
The nature of Patent laws in Africa often allows the Government to carry an overbearing interest in the execution of patents. For example, by invoking the ‘public interest’, governments are able to break patents and grant compulsory licenses. The public interest is used as an excuse to rip off legitimate intellectual property rights holders. Dr Thomas Mensah’s Fiber Optics innovation connects over a billion people to the internet platform, as well as helping Astronauts communicate with Mission Control. He would have had to contend with many lopsidednesses in Africa.
Also, the effectiveness with which Patent offices work in the USA is not the same as it is across Africa. In the USA, there are technology centres (TCs), with each TC having jurisdiction over certain assigned fields of technology. Each TC is headed by group directors and staffed by examiners and support staff. The examiners review applications for patents and determine whether patents can be granted. An appeal can be taken to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board from their decisions refusing to grant a patent, and a review by the Director of the USPTO may be had on other matters by petition. In addition to the examining TCs, other offices perform various services, such as receiving and distributing mail, receiving new applications, handling sales of printed copies of patents, making copies of records, inspecting drawings, and recording assignments. Using Nigeria, one of Africa’s leading Intellectual Property countries as an example, the reverse is the case. To begin with, TCs are not present in the administration of Patents, and it has been noted that Patent offices often delay the process of examining Patents due to lack of sufficient experience on the procedure.
Sometimes, the Patents are sent outside the country (and the continent) to TCs and other private professionals, who then assess the Patent, ensuring that it meets the criteria set in the Patent and Design Act, for originality. This process is not only slow but very expensive and it discourages many innovators from moving forward with their innovations on the continent.
Legal framework for entry of private space-faring companies
Towards enhancement of fair participation in the space race, in 1961, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) adopted ‘Resolution 1721: International co-operation in the peaceful uses of outer space’. The focus of this resolution was hinged on five main treaties that aimed at uniting space countries. This regulation paid attention only to national governments, limiting the participation of private firms in space-faring.
What countries like the USA have done is to make local regulations that allowed them to co-opt private firms into space-faring, allowing for more participation in the industry. However, in African countries, many of the space regulations do not have exact provisions on this. This blindspot is preventing a total entry of private firms into space-faring activities in Africa, while also not allowing governments to have effective regulatory control over the activities of these companies through actions such as launch permits, controlled operations licenses, questions of ownership and restriction of the spectrum and radio frequency allotments.
Is this a closed road for Africa?
There is no doubt that Africa has the intellectual capacity to compete in global markets, however, what many African countries lack is the foresight and dexterity to recognise and maximise these intellectual potentials, forcing them to either die in frustration on the continent or move to more favourable ecosystems, usually the USA. If Africa intends to benefit from its own intellectual powerhouses, it needs to consider massive reforms across various sectors. Ease of doing business ratings need to be improved for many African countries. This will not only encourage more businesses but will equally attract more funding, investment and venture capitalists.
In the Patent registration department, many African countries need to revisit how ideas and innovations are protected under their various legislations, to encourage accessibility and protection for these ideas. There is an opportunity for STEM students if African countries consider Technology Centres where innovations are examined for their originality and if they meet legal standards. This will create more job opportunities, faster registration and administration of patents and encourage more research across the continent. Also, the TRIPS agreement needs to be ratified locally, with more African countries meeting the minimum standards in the agreement. Despite 42 African World Trade Organisation member countries being signatories to the TRIPS agreement, not many have acclimatised themselves with the agreement. If leading African economies like South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria locally adopt and live by the TRIPS agreement minimum expectations, other smaller economies will be encouraged to keep up.
In terms of economy, more African countries need to acknowledge that Governments cannot and should not be in charge of all or most businesses. Governments are better suited as regulators and not as competitors. If more favourable policies are made that will encourage private participation, with the government stepping aside as regulator and not competitors, more businesses will grow in the African Space, telecommunications and astronautics industry, pushing Africa to the fore of the space race.
Africa might have missed out on the opportunity to host Musk’s SpaceX or house the Fibre Optics inventions of Dr Mensah, but it should not miss out on the fourth industrial revolution for the same factors. It would be unforgivable.