Nothing to show for Africa’s space ventures as AUC turns to Europe

Sunday June 09 2024

Nasa astronaut Reid Wiseman works outside the space station's Quest airlock aboard the International Space Station in this image released October 8, 2014. PHOTO | REUTERS


Investments in Africa’s space industry are yet to bear fruit, as the continent is still struggling to rely on its own satellites to collect Africa-specific data from space for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

At least 13 African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, have now launched satellites bearing their national flags and financed by their taxpayers’ money, yet, years on, none has been able to rise up to the task of collecting Africa-specific data from space.

Recently, the African Union Commission (AUC) announced a new partnership with the European Meteorological Satellite Agency (Eumetsat) to use their earth observation satellites to collect Africa-specific data, underlining the insufficiency of African-made space equipment.

The agreement “opens the way for access by African environmental and meteorological services to Eumetsat’s data from its next-generation satellite systems,” according to a dispatch by the European agency published last week.

Read: Tanzania opens talks in race to own satellite in space

“It provides the framework for Eumetsat and AUC to cooperate on deploying new infrastructure to receive data and build educational materials to ensure the biggest possible impact from the satellite data.”


The importance of satellite data has increasingly been pronounced, especially in Africa where natural calamities linked to climate change have recently caused significant loss of life and property.

“There needs to be a bit more awareness around the benefits of using space technology, because space technology can solve about 60 per cent of the problems that Africa is facing,” notes Samuel Nyangi, an astronomer and the team lead at the Amateur Astronomical Society of Kenya.

“Satellites have multiple uses, in navigation, scientific research, earth observation, communication, weather forecasting among others, and there’s no doubt Africa needs them,” said Wanjiku Chebet Kanjumba, a US-based Kenyan aerospace engineer and co-founder and CEO of space infrastructure firm Vicillion.

It is the need to leverage satellite technology for better data collection for climate change mitigation, among other uses, that has driven the rush to space, with Kenya being the latest nation to launch a satellite to space, in April last year.

But one year on, the only earth observation data availed by the Kenya Space Agency (KSA) are provided by the United Nations Satellite Centre (Unosat), US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and other third-party sources, an indication that the Taifa-1 satellite launched last year is yet to send any meaningful data back home.

Uganda’s earth observation satellite PearlAfricaSat-1, launched in November 2022, failed to accomplish anything after delays in constructing the earth station for command. Last year, the Science and Technology ministry said it had expired and sought funds to develop a new one.

Read: EA’s race to space heats up as Kenya launches Taifa-1

The narrative is almost similar across Africa. Rwanda’s Icyerekezo and RwaSat-1, both launched in 2019, have achieved little of significance, adding them to the bulk of African satellites with no success tales.

Other African countries that have sent satellites to space are South Africa Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritius, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe, according to data by consultancy firm Space Hubs Africa.

While some of these satellites may have yielded meaningful results, the recent deal between Eumetsat and AUC is an indication that they are not enough to serve the entire continent.

Currently, the value added by earth observation satellite data is estimated at $266 billion every year, and this is poised to grow to over $700 billion by 2030, with the cumulative contribution to the globe’s gross domestic product between 2023 and 2030 expected to hit $3.8 trillion, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

Ms Kanjumba argues that to take advantage of this growing industry, Africa needs to prioritise investments in space infrastructure, since, being close to the equator, the continent is better positioned for satellite launchpads than most regions across the globe.

“Trying to catch up with the United States, for instance, when it comes to space exploration will take centuries. But instead of trying to chase them for data or even launch services, let’s use what we’ve been blessed and given in our land,” she said.

She explains that most satellite launches in the United States happen in Florida due to its proximity to the equator, which most African countries are much closer to, making them more suitable for such launches. Yet, they continue to rely on the West for data.

“We have provided African nations with data and capacity building support for more than two decades, within the framework of the European Union-Africa Partnership,” said Eumetsat’s director-general Phil Evans.

AUC’s commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation Mohamed Belhocine termed the partnership “timely,” saying it complements “the agenda 2063 and the African Space Policy and Strategy in deploying satellite data to address environmental and climate challenges”.

But on the same day that AUC struck a deal to deepen their reliance on European satellites, the European Council adopted conclusions to crowd in investments into the region’s space industry and boost its competitiveness.

Read: Uganda launches first satellite into space

“The space sector will play an increasingly important role in the strategic autonomy of Europe,” said Thomas Dermine, Belgian State Secretary for Strategic Recovery and Investments.

“An ambitious space policy will create business opportunities and quality jobs in this fast-growing sector, and will also help our economy, both industry and services, to accelerate the green and digital transitions and be better prepared to compete at global level.”

The new efforts to boost private sector investments in the European space industry is despite the fact that the region has some of the most advanced space industries in the world, with a significant budget allocation to the sector each year.

According to data by Statista, the European Union last year spent an estimated $2.8 billion on space programmes, as individual member countries like France, Germany, and Italy also spent between $2 billion and $3.5 billion, highlighting the enormous public spending the region channels into space programmes already. But in Africa, public spending on space programmes was just over $500 million last year, the lowest amount of spending in space sector across the globe, with only 20 countries having an active space programme.

Both Nyangi and Kanjumba say that while the first steps that Africa is taking to advance its space industry are commendable, more needs to be done to accelerate its growth. “The most important thing is capacity building, because when you have African satellites in space, and there’s no expert to analyse that data to give to the relevant stakeholders, that data is not helpful,” said Mr Nyangi.

“The best way is to take advantage of the amazing location we have as a country and try to start off with a space port so we can force foreigners to come to our country and we can gain knowledge and technology from them so that we can develop our own people,” argued Ms Kanjumba.

Kenya has already kicked off the race to constructing a State-owned space port, which the KSA hopes to have completed at least 80 per cent of by 2027, according to their recently published 2023-2027 Strategic Plan.