The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Cape Town is not one of South Africas strongest research universities. Nor has it a strong, long reputation for engineering excellence.
Yet, last year CPUT became the first African university to launch a microsatellite into orbit. ZACUBE-1, which blasted into space on the back of a Russian rocket on 21 November, will monitor space weather in the upper atmosphere.
That a modestly equipped university such as CPUT was able to build and launch the 10 cubic centimetre microsatellite shows how space technology has become cheaper and more accessible. In the week that ZACUBE-1 was launched, more than 50 other satellites from countries outside Africa also left the Earth.
This proliferation is opening up opportunities for African countries to use satellite technology such as Global Positioning System and remote sensing for projects such as disease modelling, disaster management or weather prediction. But it has also created an urgent demand for coordination and regulation of space activities at country and continental levels.
These demands have not bypassed Africa. Last month, officials from across the continent met in Pretoria, South Africa, to discuss the draft of a long-awaited African space policy.
The draft policy identifies two high-level policy goals for the continent: Firstly, to use space science and technology to boost quality of life for Africans, and to create wealth. Secondly, it wants to build Africas own space technology capacity in order to establish a local space industry that can service the needs of the African market.
The draft policy emphasises the need to leverage existing projects and infrastructure to achieve these goals. That means that those countries that already have some space capacity, such as Nigeria and South Africa, will play a big role in the policys implementation.
The draft policy also wants to coordinate the fragmented activities on the continent. This will involve not only assessing the needs of the nascent space industry, but also adopting good governance and management structures.
But it is not clear in the draft policy who should carry out these activities.
The draft speaks of the establishment of a continent-wide organisational framework to integrate Africas existing space capabilities and assets. This would monitor African space activities for compliance with international rules, as well as coordinate the continental space plan.
It is unclear whether this proposed framework would be a simple intra-agency programme to coordinate national space activities, or whether it will take the shape of a new African Space Agency.
The second option would imitate developments in Europe, where a European Space Agency (ESA) was established to promote investment in, and sustainability of, countries individual space activities. The ESA has also created a bigger space market in Europe, which has encouraged larger public investments.
An African agency would have more clout and presence than a programme. But it might throw up a host of resource issues (who will pay for its staff and premises?) as well as stoke political arguments (where should it be located?), which could lead to delays setting it up and getting its activities off the ground.
In the short term, perhaps solid investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching and training for African youth, combined with a slow but steady growth in space funding may yield better results than focusing too much on a joint structure.
Share and share alike
Another tricky question comes down to data sharing. The policy calls on countries that have considerable space technology capacity, such as Nigeria and South Africa, to adopt data-sharing protocols to ensure countries lacking this capacity can use the data.
In return, there would be some sort of support financial or otherwise flowing from the beneficiaries of such data democracy to the providers of the data, although it is not clear whether this would be a voluntary contribution, or, if it is compulsory, who would determine the level of support.
But while governments around the world pay lip service to the ideals of data sharing as a moral obligation, the realpolitik of space technology often comes down to issues of prestige or national security considerations.
Many countries speak about collaboration on different levels but behind the scenes nobody wants to share space, says Khalid Manjoo, a functional area specialist for satellite assembly integration and testing at the Space Advisory Company in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The common ground
Discussions will continue on the draft policy to finalise its content before the next African Ministerial Conference of Science and Technology, due to take place in October or November this year in Namibia.
Once science ministers have given it their nod of approval, the policy will be presented to the African Union presidential summit for adoption.
Given that space science can be a fickle political area, African policymakers are doing the right thing in emphasising common ground priorities that benefit all participating countries.
But they should take care not to draw up unworkable programmes, especially given Africas relatively low level of space activity and scientific and technological capacity.
The discussions about Africas space policy and strategy need to ensure that any programmes designed to coordinate African space activities do not end up delaying their implementation.
Policymakers should look at successful space projects, such as CPUTs satellite launch, and see how such activities can be encouraged, while adding value by bringing together continental activities and growing the African space market.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Nets Sub-Saharan Africa desk.