Why Africa needs to be in space

From agriculture and navigation to banking and tele-education, satellite technology can have a huge impact on rapidly developing societies, says Val Munsami.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Val Munsami

Chancellor, International Space University, and former CEO of the South African National Space Agency

Africa’s socio-economic and environmental development is widely acknowledged as being crucial to its growth and long-term sustainability – and the prosperity of its more than one billion residents. 

Increasingly, though, attention is also turning to the contribution that the space industry can make to progress on the continent. Space-based products and services have a critical role to play in meeting national and continental priorities, as underpinned by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 – the bloc’s strategic framework for development, democracy and peace. 

With this in the mind of policymakers, the African Union’s space policy and strategy is embedded in Agenda 2063 as one of its 15 key programmes. It guides the sector’s development and the nascent African Space Agency, to become operational later this year from its headquarters in Egypt.

The continental agency is expected to leverage the benefits of space science and technology for socio-economic and environmental development. It will lead on bridging the space divide, especially for those countries that do not have a focus on, or activities in, space science and technology – and simultaneously inject some momentum into improving capabilities of existing national space programmes.

The African Union’s commitment to space has accelerated the growth of the African space industry. More than 20 national space agencies or space-related institutions have been established on the continent over the past five or so years. 

Our modern lifestyles are intimately dependent on space products and services. Meteorological and communication satellites are placed in geostationary orbits at an altitude of 36,000km above the equator. At this point above the Earth, they complete one orbit every 24 hours in the direction of the planet’s rotation, appearing, essentially, motionless – and providing a constant gaze on the same geographic location.

They provide a wealth of information that fuels the everyday services we take for granted, but that are essential for our everyday lives, from health to education to the economy.

From their vantage point, geostationary orbit satellites provide our daily weather reports, monitor climate-related cycles and offer a platform for near-instantaneous communications across the globe to relay multimedia, live sporting events and up-to-the-minute global news. 

This lightning-fast communication is also indispensable for tele-education and tele-medicine, by which professionals in urban areas can deliver educational content and health services to rural schools and clinics, respectively. Banking transactions also rely on telecommunication satellites to communicate between an automated teller machine and the data servers located at the bank. 

How satellites can detect disease

Other satellites are placed in low Earth orbits. These complete on average one polar orbit around the Earth every 100 minutes. Because the planet rotates across the plane of the orbit, such a satellite eventually covers the whole Earth, which is immensely useful for remote sensing and navigation and positioning applications. 

Remote sensing applications provide a myriad of products and services, including monitoring the state of our natural resources, observing ship traffic in our coastal economic zones and providing information for precision farming that can help a farmer decide, for example, when to irrigate and how much fertilizer to use.

They can also detect changes that might indicate encroaching water-borne diseases, aid peacekeeping missions and help ensure public safety and security. Navigation applications are vital for aviation and marine navigation, whereas positioning applications are important for safety-of-life services. 

The rich source of information derived from satellites is vital for evidence-based decision and policymaking

Another way that positioning applications in developing countries are put to good use is the assignment of geolocation addresses to dwellings in informal settlements where postbox addresses do not exist. This then allows the overlaying of key vector data about populations on to geophysical base maps. This type of data is vital for town planning in terms of how many schools and clinics are needed to serve the population, and the extent of the road, water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure needed.

The rich source of information derived from satellites, overlaid with in-situ data, is vital for evidence-based decision and policymaking. Datasets accessed from historical archives can be used to observe the time evolution of environmental and statistical data. 

When policy decisions are taken, we can utilize the same satellite and in-situ platforms to monitor progress after their implementation. The utility of data to inform decision-making is being enhanced through the adoption of AI and big-data analytics, which is placing key information at our disposal in near real time. 

It is therefore not surprising to notice the increasing focus on space science and technology activities on the continent. However, to ensure the effective uptake and utilization of space products and services, certain building blocks are needed to establish robust national and regional space ecosystems. 

Africa’s route into space

These ecosystems must include four primary elements to function: the human capital required to establish and operate the space initiatives; a significant industry base to capitalize on the commercial aspects of the space sector; the requisite infrastructure needed to support the space value chain; and international cooperation to ensure knowledge transfer and diffusion – so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

To take advantage of the space ecosystem, Africa needs strong governance and institutional architectures

The applications and problem-solving innovations provided by space products and services are endless. To take advantage of this, Africa needs strong governance and institutional architectures. 

The evolution of the space ecosystem on the continent must be premised on key instruments such as a space policy – which areas to focus on and why – and a space strategy that outlines which programmes and performance indicators to pursue. 

The conceptualization of a space ecosystem is by no means a simple endeavour and there is certainly a dearth of skills and experience on the African continent to establish effective and relevant space ecosystems. 

There are many institutions leading efforts to build space capacity and skills on the continent, such as the International Space University in France, which offers programmes that provide a holistic overview of the complex global space sector, and the African Space Leadership Institute, which has been recently created to develop capacity in space policy, law and strategy. 

With the right approach, commitment and investment, Africa can rapidly change the fate of its citizens by effectively using space science and technology to support and drive its developmental agenda.