In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union both staked their prestige on the remoteness of space. The two superpowers invested millions of dollars with a specific milestone in mind: to be the first to have human beings walk on the Moon. The stakes were high. Success would shock the entire world and strike a symbolic blow of power, perhaps the most significant of the Cold War. At that time, Edward Makuka — a leader of the Zambian resistance against British colonial rule and a high school teacher — was also working on his own rocket in a workshop on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka. His aim was to build a low-cost interstellar gadget. D-Kalu 1 was to land on the Moon before anyone else. Its crew members were to be two cats and a 17-year-old student, Matha Mwambwa. She would be the first “afronaut,” a term coined by Makuka. The plan called for many other African astronauts to follow in Mwambwa’s footsteps. Enough to eventually colonize Mars. Three meters high and made of copper and aluminum, D-Kalu 1 never got off the ground.
Since Makuka’s innocent extravagance, the African space sector has been forging ahead on the international stage. Today, it is an industry worth around $20 billion, according to estimates by the Nigerian consulting firm Space in Africa. The company’s head of operations, Anna Aikohi, adds that 22 African countries already have space programs. Following the launch of Egypt’s NileSat 101 in 1998, the continent has been steadily adding satellites and now has more than 50 in orbit. This is still a very small percentage of the nearly 5,500 satellites (around 3,500 of which belong to the U.S.) orbiting the Earth. But it is enough for Africa to have decided to create a common space policy.
In 2019, the African Union (AU) announced its space strategy. Last January the African Space Agency (AfSA) was launched, a flagship to coordinate efforts and generate synergies. It already has a physical headquarters in Cairo, but for the moment most of its rooms stand empty.
Following the launch of Egypt’s NileSat 101 in 1998, the continent has been steadily adding satellites and now has more than 50 in orbit, a very small percentage of the nearly 5,500 satellites (around 3,500 of which belong to the U.S.) orbiting the Earth
Tidiane Ouattara, an expert in space sciences at the AU, expects its 156 permanent posts to be filled next year. Outtara highlights the importance of progressing “step by step” toward the consolidation of an agency with highly qualified personnel. A solid institution capable of “defending Africa’s interests” in the international arena and of negotiating with other countries who, when exploring space, “set the rules that were best suited to them,” he says. Ouattara understands that this was the case simply because “they were first,” although he adds: “The world must understand that now Africa is also on board” and has a lot to say on controversial issues such as space debris and space traffic.
For Taiwo Tejumola, a professor at the International Space University in Strasbourg, the only one of its kind in the world and devoted entirely to space, AfSA’s collaborative approach will go a long way toward avoiding duplication. “If another country on the continent already has a satellite covering my territory, why should I send one myself?” he notes. “In the space sector, duplicating efforts is extremely expensive,” Aikohi adds.
The idea is for the vanguard of African space technology (South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, and Algeria) to take up most of the slack. In the meantime, other countries will be able to take advantage of a sidereal innovation dynamic and contribute as much as they can. “Something similar is happening with the European Space Agency, where Germany, France and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Spain, are leading the way,” says Tejumola.
Terrorism and climate change
The strength and operability of AfSA will depend on its level of funding. And the amount of funding it receives will, in turn, depend on the political will to invest in space. According to Aikohi, raising awareness will be a major task: “The average African leader does not see it as a necessity; they think it is a kind of exotic expense that will not help to solve urgent problems such as poverty.” As such, Aikohi says in order to succeed, the African space strategy has to place its focus on socio-economic benefits.
Tejumola and Aikohi both agree that agriculture is a major asset in convincing governments of the advantages of space technology, which makes it possible to anticipate the scourges of climate change (droughts, floods, etc.) and to optimize risk management in the event of natural disasters. Another promising and highly marketable area is security. Satellites already accurately detect the movements of suspected terrorists, for example in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. They could also, in Outtara’s view, stem the drain on lives and resources caused by piracy off the African coast, or illegal mining across the continent.
In his discussions at the highest levels of government, Outtara often emphasizes the attractive cost-benefit calculations. “Africa is huge, the second-largest continent in the world. When exploring and managing territory, you can go the traditional route: send people. Or you can use space as a wonderful tool that provides detailed information,” he explains. Far from being a “luxury product,” space technology “saves money, which is not something Africa has plenty of.”
Tejumola, meanwhile, cites another major continental ambition where satellite imagery could speed up processes and minimize costs: “There is a plan to complete an east-west, north-south communications network. Space will be of enormous help in monitoring these infrastructures.”
Africa is huge, the second-largest continent in the world. When exploring and managing territory, you can go the traditional route: send people. Or you can use space as a wonderful tool that provides detailed information”Tidiane Ouattara, expert in space sciences at the African Union
Outtara is enthusiastic as he breaks down the successes achieved through Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), an Earth observation program funded by the European Union. He himself manages its African component. The expert says that GMES has made it possible to locate oil spills in the Red Sea, to disseminate online weather warnings that have saved “the lives of many Ghanaian fishermen” and to drastically reduce the number of ships running aground in the Congo river basin, “where 80% of commercial transactions are carried out by river.”
Outtara goes even further: he dreams of what he calls an “African revolution of new resources” centered on telecommunications. This would require a heavy dose of R&D and innovation and an emphasis on training to generate pools of specialists ready to galvanize African development. It is a huge undertaking that, in Outtara’s opinion, would completely overturn the dynamics of dependency. “Africa is the main consumer of services produced with space technology. It is high time we Africans benefited by promoting an all-African telecommunications market.”
Nobody is under any illusions that the African space race will run into external obstacles, especially in its eagerness to create home-designed technology that will launch from African territory, something that has not yet been achieved. “Launching a satellite is not just about technical capability. You have to be able to move in the global geopolitical arena, especially when it comes to launching rockets: if you can launch a rocket, you can also launch nuclear warheads,” Tejumola points out.
Oscar Garrido, an analyst at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, published an analysis last year highlighting the need for the continent to strengthen the pillars of its own space industry. “Africa cannot continue to be a net importer of space technologies,” the report stated, something that, “in the long term would weigh down its socioeconomic development, its security, and its independence.”
Earlier this year it was announced that Djibouti was to host Africa’s first spaceport, a $1.1 billion investment with an educational end in mind. The official announcement spoke of providing African universities with a testing ground in order to improve knowledge in space sciences. However, skepticism arose when it was revealed who would be putting up the money: China (specifically, a Hong Kong-based company). Coincidentally or not, in 2017 the Asian superpower inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
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