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by Imraan Salojee, Director, RIIS

The global narrative of space exploration often paints a picture dominated by Western powerhouses, overlooking the significant contributions, advancements and potential of African nations in the realm of space science. Africa in fact has a rich history in the sector and has been steadily gaining momentum, positioning itself as a potential leader in the modern space race.

The African space industry, valued at $19.49 billion in 2021, is projected to grow by 16.16% to $22.64 billion by 2026. This year marked a significant milestone with the formal launch of the African Space Agency (AfSA), designed to serve as a global hub for space activities.

Long before the creation of the AfSA, African countries were already making impressive strides in this field. As early as 1841 there was a Magnetic Observatory in operation at the University of Cape Town, which eventually became part of an international network of observatories in 1932. In the early 1960s, Africa was working to establish centres for the use of Earth Observation (EO) data.

Africa’s involvement in the global space sector continued to evolve and became largely focused in areas of astronomy, space science, and ground stations strategically located across Africa that assisted with foreign space missions. In 2010 this changed, with Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt emerging as the frontrunners in investing in space-related research and development.

Today, the African space sector is burgeoning. Twenty African countries have national space programmes, and fifteen of these have launched satellites into orbit. Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Morrocco have five or more satellites in orbit, while Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya have one each. Sophisticated telescopes, for astronomical observations, conducted across the electromagnetic spectrum, can be found on all four corners of the African continent. South Africa is home to the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, anticipated to be fully operational by the close of 2024.

This time last year (December 2022), Nigeria and Rwanda became the first African countries to sign the Artemis Accords. This is a NASA-led initiative aimed at outlining best practices for sustainable space exploration. In addition, American companies have pledged to deepen their collaborations on space exploration with African nations.

Collaboration with established space entities has helped African space agencies access existing knowledge and technology, bypassing the need to start from scratch. For instance, Djibouti and Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group Ltd. have agreed to construct a new spaceport in northern Djibouti within the next five years. Its location near the equator makes it an ideal place for launching satellites.

Many African nations are committed to harnessing space technology as a powerful tool to address their unique socio-economic challenges, with countries like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Ethiopia focused on developing space innovation ecosystems. In these jurisdictions, the private sector, including start-ups and entrepreneurs have – and are – leveraging space-based technologies in their solutions, making the sector more inclusive than it was in the past.

Despite the progress, African space agencies and the private sector alike are still grappling with issues such as resource allocation, investment, and other societal concerns. To establish a competitive presence in the space sector, there is a pressing need for quality education that equips students with the necessary skills. Sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of the population is under 30, is making inroads in space-focused STEM education. Africa’s youth are not only founding space technology start-ups but also influencing space policy. The youth population could offer a significant advantage to Africa if effectively trained.

With Africa’s space economy showing promising growth, it is clear that increased public and private investments have the potential to usher in a new era for space development in Africa. Developing strong space innovation ecosystems is a critical step in this process. Beyond creating economic opportunities through job creation and education, this will also stimulate innovation and research in Africa’s space sector. As Africa’s space innovation ecosystem further expands, opportunities are wide open for new African entrants.

The Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS), a specialist Open Innovation firm, has been working to create space innovation ecosystems in Africa. RIIS’ space innovation ecosystem development work is supported by The RISA Fund, which supports the creation of research and innovation systems in countries across the continent.  The programme is funded by UKAid.

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