Africa Analysis: The continent’s bold space policy

Satellite in Niamey

Speed read

  • African science and education ministers have adopted a space policy
  • The policy and a related document set out big ambitions, but questions remain
  • The two documents are to be considered by the AU Heads of States in January 2016

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Linda Nordling asks: Africa has come up with a space policy that is bold but is it workable?
Last month, African science and education ministers adopted a continental space policy and strategy at a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
It’s been a long time coming. Work on an African space policy dates back to 2010, and it has taken it five years to reach this point.
The 14-page policy will act as a ‘guiding framework’ for African activities in space, while the 20-page strategy provides a ‘strategic framework’ for operationalising continental projects.

The African Union (AU) Space Working Group, made up of AU and national officials and experts, prepared the two documents.
These are ambitious documents that aim to harness the power of technologies such as earth observation and satellite communications for the benefit of Africa’s health and wealth.

“Several questions remain vis-à-vis Africa’s space ambitions.”

Linda Nordling

But while the scope of the policy and strategy is impressive, some information — such as who will oversee their implementation — remains hazy.

The space policy

The African Space Policy was adopted at the First Ordinary Session of the Specialised Technical Committee on Education, Science and Technology (STC-EST) of the African Union (AU), which took place last month (27-30 October).
The STC-EST is an amalgamation of two continental ministerial gatherings — the African Ministerial Conference of Science and Technology (AMCOST) and the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDA) — that previously met every two years.
The space policy has two overarching goals: to use space science and technology to improve the quality of life and generate wealth in Africa, and to develop and maintain African infrastructure and capacity to service both African and foreign markets in a responsible way. [1]
It centres around the creation of an African Space Programme, which will bring all African space activities under a common umbrella. Such activities will include the training of space-related experts, making use of continental and regional training networks and partnerships to ensure resources are used optimally.
The policy emphasises the importance of nurturing a strong space industry in Africa. This will include making sure that investments are directed at space technologies that make sense in the African market and can stimulate growth. One example is to develop better warning systems for events such as droughts, floods, tsunamis and cyclones that threaten lives and property on the continent. [1]
However, it adds that the continent also urgently needs to draw up regulatory frameworks for space technologies. African exploitation of space should be framed around peaceful applications that respect international treaties and agreements, it says.

The space strategy

The African Space Strategy, meanwhile, takes the overarching policy goals of the space policy and suggests more concrete ways in which they can be achieved. It identifies the strengths of the continent (including pockets of expertise and strong political will) as well as weaknesses (such as disparities in space expertise across the continent) and threats (over-reliance on technology from abroad and ‘brain drain’). [2]
Some of the opportunities can be used to address the weaknesses, it says. For instance, the extensive ongoing rollout across the continent of optical fibre broadband will help offset operational constraints on scientific equipment, data management and sharing.

“Africa has reached for the stars. Now much activity on earth will be required to get there.”

Linda Nordling

The strategy sets out projected outcomes. After one year, governance elements for the space programme should be in place, including regional centres of excellence. After five years, the continental space programme should be fully established. After ten years, Africa’s space programme should be ranked among the top ten globally.
The strategy also identifies indicators that can be used to measure whether continental ambitions in space are achieved. These include the number of space-related indigenous patents and academic articles, number of graduates in space-related fields, number of ‘orbital slots’ obtained for Africa-built or Africa-designed satellite, and the level of long-term funding secured for space applications.

Questions remain

Several questions remain vis-à-vis Africa’s space ambitions. Firstly, there is no mention of who, or what, will coordinate the implementation of these activities. Although an African Space Programme is mentioned, where it will be housed is not stated.
A few options can be surmised, based on how the AU and the continent have handled prior pan-African initiatives. A small headquarter could be housed in Addis Ababa, attached to the African Union Commission secretariat. Or AU member states could bid to host a coordinating headquarter, provided they contribute financially to its running costs.

It is also possible that implementation be devolved completely to national governments and regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community. Any business that would need continental attention — such as agreeing on Africa-wide regulation — could then be discussed at AU ministerial meetings.
The space policy and strategy will now be forwarded to the annual AU Heads of States Summit that will take place in January 2016 for approval. It is rare for policies to fall at this final hurdle although this has happened in the past.
There are aspects of the documents that at least, seem a bit far-fetched such as, ten years after their adoption, the continent should have a constellation of Africa-designed and Africa-manufactured satellites in orbit providing independent earth observation satellite data to all African countries.
However, although the policy might change in detail or the presidents’ approval may take longer than expected, the central tenets of the policy and strategy documents are unlikely to change. Africa has reached for the stars. Now much activity on earth will be required to get there.
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 piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.