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Africa joins the new space race

In the scramble to put ever-more small satellites into orbit, Africa is positioning itself to be in the big picture.

The MIR-Sat1 launched by Mauritius in June 2021 became Africa’s 44th satellite in orbit around Earth. Two months earlier, Tunisia successfully placed its Challenge 1 among the rapidly growing constellation of African satellites accumulating and transmitting digital material that can improve the lives of the continent’s people.

It is estimated that 110 African-owned satellites will be operational by 2024.

With more than 2o African nations having functioning space programmes, spending by countries and companies is rocketing. Space In Africa, a consultancy based in Nigeria, reckons African governments budgeted about $500 million for their space agencies in 2020. Private enterprise probably spent more than that.

That might not add up to much when compared to the $23 billion spent by NASA in the US last year, but it is a giant leap for Africa – in fact, a 50% leap in just three years.

Sceptics believe Africa’s space programmes are “vanity projects at best or opportunities for corruption at worst”, Judd Devermont, Africa director for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told an April webinar on the subject.

However, Devermont pointed out that space projects had valid developmental goals, such as boosting agriculture through earth imaging and climate studies, providing internet connectivity in unserved areas, aiding disaster management, remote sensing, assisting with defence and security and speeding up banking and finance systems.

Deforestation is being significantly curtailed, and even reversed, through a satellite observation network called Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD), according to a recent article in the magazine Nature Climate Change. The 22 African countries using GLAD information – and acting on it – saw an 18% drop in deforestation levels in just two years.

In another example of satellite potential, African Business magazine reports that South African internet service provider Twoobii rents out satellite-connected terminals for between $25 and $136 a month, mainly to small businesses and ICT integrators. The SA Institute of Electrical Engineers commented that Twoobii plays a vital role in connecting off-grid locations to internet networks throughout southern Africa – with terminals able to be deployed almost anywhere.

American disaster experts urgently needing satellite pictures of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not find them coming from any of the highly sophisticated, expensive systems operated by rich countries, but from a small Nigerian cube launched two years earlier – only the second satellite from Africa. (The first was deployed by scientists at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.)

Kenya’s defence secretary Monica Juma told the CSIS webinar: “It is clear space has become the next frontier of human development … [no longer] a preserve of defence and intelligence sectors.”

It is small wonder satellite technology manufacture is booming, fuelled by venture capital and technology leaps that have reduced the size and boosted the capabilities of satellites.

The Stellenbosch scientific community set up Dragonfly Aerospace aiming to build 48 small satellites a year to feed the growing global appetite, In April, Ukranian-born, Texas-based billionaire investor Max Polyakov bought a controlling share in Dragonfly and aims to use his Firefly rockets to launch the South African-made equipment.

Firefly, US-New Zealand start-up Rocket Lab and billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit are front-runners in a long list of small-launch providers seeking to cash in on the small satellite trend, news agency Reuters reported in its account of the sale.

Astrofica is a black-owned company that is part of a growing space hub in Cape Town. It has completed seven projects, ranging from a basic $1.4 million Cube satellite to a $20 million “micro set” of them launched, reports African Business.

This pales alongside the size and cost of, for example, Elon Musk’s Space-X Starlink constellation of 1,300 gizmos currently in orbit, providing lightning-fast digital speeds, but Africa has to start somewhere. Governments have been urged to help companies and academia with funding, alongside their own national space projects. An obvious argument for collaboration is that self-reliance, built up steadily, will bring down the costs of buying services from richer countries.

African Business reports that big data analytics via satellite imagery “will generate nearly $18 billion globally in cumulative revenues and $3.1 billion in revenue opportunities by 2028, according to a report by Northern Sky Research.

The Economist magazine commented in June 2021 that Africa missed out on the big shift in the world’s economy in the 1990s, when manufacturing moved from rich countries to poorer one in Asia. “Now they are entering the space industry just as it is being disrupted by new entrants … That offers a rare opportunity to countries and companies quick-witted enough to grasp it.”




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