The space race has existed since the days of the Cold War, spearheaded by the United States and Russia, in their pursuit of conquering the final frontier. Africa also now sees the value of having a space program. Presently, there are about 20 countries on the continent with space research institutions and programs working towards furthering the goal of space exploration. Since the 1950s, African countries have been working towards space research and science, with remote sensing centres established in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most prominent institutions was the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS), established in 1971, as part of a joint project between the United States and Egypt. The Egyptian institution focused on introducing space technology, such as satellites, to develop high-tech capabilities for the nation. Egypt was also the first country in Africa to launch a communications satellite into orbit, known as Nilesat 101. The project cost approximately $158 million in 1998. It was decommissioned in 2013 after providing over a decade’s worth of digital services related to broadcasting, media, and data transmission.
Consequent to the successful launch of the first satellite, other countries such as South Africa followed suit by launching the SunSat-1 in 1999. As of 2021, Africa had 43 satellites in space, with the most being launched by space programs in Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, and Morocco. Whilst previous satellites were mainly manufactured with the aid of foreign space programs, there has been a growing trend of locally manufactured satellites. Tunisia was the latest country to launch its first satellite, known as Challenge ONE, on 22nd March 2021, in a mission to improve internet connectivity across the continent.
Despite the economic setbacks resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the African space industry sustained positive growth. In 2021, Africa was allotted $548.6 million for the space scheme, a 9% increment from the 2020 financial plan. What is more, eighty-one space industrial programmes are presently underway, sprawled throughout Africa, and financed by domestic and international institutions.
Such endeavours follow a time when Africa’s space budget was once under $100 million (i.e., below 0.2% of the international space budget), and, of its many national space programs, only South Africa ranked amongst the top 30 countries investing in space and satellite technology. The African Union now distinguishes space innovations as a noteworthy stimulus, one that can facilitate the economic advancement and transformation of the continent.
The demand for satellite driven technology will grow as the population in Africa is expected to increase to 1.7 billion by 2030 with 80% of these people living in urban areas.
A Space Awakening
The African space market is currently estimated at around $7.3 billion and is expected to surpass $10 billion by 2024. There are currently 282 companies engaged in the African space industry, employing nearly 10,000 people working towards developing satellite technology.
Whilst other countries’ objectives for going to space include planetary exploration, Africa is increasingly using satellite data to accelerate its development. It views investing in space projects as a means to expand on the opportunity to generate jobs, alleviate impoverishment, and contribute to sustainable development and agrarian management. Even during the pandemic, Africa leveraged its space technologies for online education in remote areas through satellite internet connectivity.
It is clear that space is the future terrain of unmet needs, and one that affords enormous opportunities for expansion. This is apparent by the increasing proportion of African nations initiating space projects and satellite interchanges to tackle different socioeconomic issues. This proposes the need for African countries to join hands, as a unified continent, and avoid being absorbed in a rancorous space contest amongst leading global players.