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The African space sector finds itself at a very exciting phase of its growth. Several space agencies have been established across the continent, indicating growing recognition of the opportunities that space-based technologies can provide and the potential of these technologies to solve a wide range of developmental challenges.  While space has traditionally been an expensive game – often beyond the remit of African countries – the nature of the sector is changing globally, and at a rapid rate. No longer just the domain of governments and advanced economies, it has become critical to fully engage the private sector and create vibrant space ecosystems to leverage developmental benefits.  

Developing ways to harness, interpret and use space data, particularly commercially, requires a high degree of innovation and an enabling environment, or space ecosystem, within a country.  Projects to develop vibrant space ecosystems aim to encourage and nurture an environment that allows, amongst others, the private sector to innovate with downstream data, and provide much-needed insights and services.  

Developed markets have well-established enabling systems that have allowed for the organic emergence of space-focused private sectors to fill market gaps – and even compete with large space-based entities. These ecosystems have supporting policies and regulations; accessible markets and infrastructure; adequate human capital; and clear routes to finance for space players. In the African context we have found that such enabling environments are not fully realized, with some of these critical factors lagging behind. To create growth opportunities and market buoyancy in African space economies requires a more deliberate and considered approach.  

In the work that RIIS undertakes to transform African space ecosystems from nascent to developed, we work with stakeholders that include funding and development agencies, governments and the private sector.  

Space innovation ecosystem development demands a highly structured approach, starting with the identification of interventions and discovering their best use cases, which allows  an understanding of the scope and potential impact of subsequent actions. This is followed by prioritising these interventions, during which comprehensive frameworks must be developed to guide their roll-out. The third step involves a key project design, which includes the identification of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) and Value for Money indicators, ensuring that space innovation ecosystem development priorities are inclusive and economically efficient.  

In any project to develop a thriving ecosystem, engaging a broader value chain of stakeholders is critical; from the private sector, to academia and scientists, to policymakers, sector specialists and end-users. Entrepreneurs can leverage space-based data and technologies to catalyse new business ventures, coming up with innovative solutions that solve societal challenges but also open up new avenues for growth. Sectors, for example agriculture, need to engage on the issues they face and know how data may provide solutions. Innovators need to understand the opportunities to develop applications that translate the data into usable information. Opportunities abound for funders who see linkages with their work.  

Funding, and access to finance, are critical when developing interventions to further strengthen the ecosystem. Ensuring the availability of finance for the space-technology innovation process, experimentation, and the exploration of innovative finance mechanisms is crucial. This includes de-risking of innovation and encouraging finance towards advanced research to support innovation and invention. Financial institutions and investors can step up to support the burgeoning space sector. They can develop novel financial products designed to de-risk investments, encouraging more players to venture into this industry. Funders can provide much-needed capital for early-stage ideas to evolve into full-fledged start-ups, driving user-driven solutions. They can also back established businesses to scale up and expand their operations.  

Space technology is no longer the exclusive domain of advanced economies. It’s a global asset that can deliver significant benefits to all nations. By creating a thriving ecosystem and an environment that encourages the development and application of these technologies, countries in Africa can drive economic growth, trigger new businesses, ensure sustainable development, and create a better future for the continent’s citizens.