The African Space Race


During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union dominated space research. Now, we have entered a space age dominated by commercial interests rather than military calculations. In this new era, technologies are becoming cheaper – most notably via an ongoing cubesat revolution. As such, other less developed countries are establishing their presence. Much attention is given to the rise of China and India, but African countries are also beginning to play a role in space exploration.

South Africa and Nigeria have the most advanced space programs on the continent, with the former set to host the world’s largest radio telescope. But cheaper technologies mean other countries are catching up. Recently, Kenya launched its first cubesat into orbit. Ethiopia, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Egypt have plans to boost their capabilities. Despite attempts by the African Union, no concrete framework yet exists regarding cooperation between African countries on space research.

Entering the space race may not just yield prestige, but also material benefits. A recent policy paper from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government urges policymakers in African countries to create agencies specialized in managing small satellites. The paper argues geospatial data gathered from such satellites can help countries reach development goals.

Filling Space asked three African space experts about the industry’s current status and about its future outlook: Keith Gottschalk from the University of Western Cape, space systems engineer Peter Waswa, and Samuel Oyewole from Federal University Oye-Ekiti.


Where do you see the future outlook of the African space programs: commercial or military?

KG: The only indication of a 21st century military African space program occurred when South Africa reportedly bought a Russian Kondor reconnaissance satellite. But it is unsuitable for South Africa’s African Union and United Nations peacekeeping operations in other African states. Internet reports also indicate that it may no longer be working. I have also read Egypt may have bought a Kondor satellite.

All other African space programs are commercial or non-profit. They have meteorological satellites or earth observation satellites, and they rent or buy imagery. South Africa cooperates with Russia in operating a radio astronomy satellite. South Africa and other African customers are big consumers of satellite television. The Regional African Satellite Communication Organization (RASCOM), of course, is one famous example of this. African airlines also use navigational satellites and GPS. Google navigation is also widely used.

PW: The future of space programs in Africa will be determined by the pace at which African governments appreciate the importance of space technology in expediting national development agendas. Governments’ appreciation of this importance will eventually make it inevitable for them to formally integrate space technology into their national development agendas. Civilian government missions will complement the current dominance of commercial communication projects.

SO: There are growing prospects for civil and military space programs in Africa. About 28 satellites sponsored or cosponsored from Africa have been launched into orbit since 1998. Amidst these, four African satellites were launched in 2017 compared to three in 2016. Furthermore, the number of African countries with at least one satellite in orbit has expanded from four (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa) in 2016 to eight now, with the addition of Angola, Ghana, Morocco, and Kenya. Moreover, there are about seven African satellites at various stages of production.

With the growing capacity of African states’ civilian space programs, there is a corresponding growth in commercial prospects. Yet, existing African satellite inventories are not fully adequate, even though there is also a concern that they are underutilized. For instance, lack of a backup satellite for Nigeria’s NigComSat-1R has undermined the commercial prospects of the communication satellite since 2011. This explains why Nigeria is currently investing about $600 million in NigComSat 2 and NigComSat 3. Another issue is more space popularization is required in order to increase space commercialization on the continent.

Africa also has a bright future with regards to military space programs. South Africa was the first country on the continent to launch a military satellite, the Kondor-E2, in 2014. Beyond their record of utilizing Earth observation and communication satellites for military purposes, Egypt and Nigeria have initiated military space programs. In 2016, Egypt signed a deal with Airbus Defence and Space to construct a military communication satellite. Nigeria also established Defence Space Agency in 2016 and gave it a budget of about $8.3 million in 2017. More African countries will likely follow these footsteps in coming years.

What are African countries’ launch pad capacities?

KG: South Africa’s Overberg Test Range has three unused launch pads that have been begging for customers since the 1990s. It can launch anywhere from eastwards to polar and sun synchronous orbits, and it has superb tracking and acquisition facilities. It also has reserved air space rights. Kenya has the off-shore San Marco platform. While now a bit of a rust bucket, it has launched many Scout rockets to orbit in the past, and it can be renovated. Satellite imagery indicates that abandoned French launchpads in Algeria are still intact. Algeria launched four satellites during the last century. It should be noted that since all these launchpads were built for solid propellant rockets, they would need to be updated by installing cryogenic propellant storage and handling facilities, which could be easily done.

PW: Presently, no African country has launch capability nor a significant ongoing effort to develop launch capability. There have been launches on the African continent in the past, especially in Kenya, but these were mostly external initiatives and not a result of any consolidated domestic effort. Moreover, I do believe South Africa was at some point working on developing a domestic launch capability, though that program is currently defunct.

SO: Even though existing realities show little or no indication for a continental launch pad, nothing is impossible. No African country has a space launch pad and vehicle capable of orbiting a satellite, and existing policy efforts are on the national level. Kenya’s attempts to take over an Italian-owned launch pad (Luigi Broglio Space Centre) failed. This is unlike Algeria, which inherited a French rocket launch facility in Hammaguir with the 1967 Evian Agreement, and Libya, which seized the facilities of the German company Orbital Transport und Raketn Aktiengesellschaft in 1983. South Africa developed a launch pad located in Overberg Test Range, while Egypt and Nigeria have considered launch pad development. Yet, no country has produced launch capabilities for Africa to place a satellite in orbit.

Limited capacity of African countries is an important factor, but so, too, is international pressure discouraging the spread of dual-use technologies. Space launch vehicles, for instance, can be converted to missile applications, as is evident in the case of India. Such discouragement of dual-use technologies is significant in derailing some countries’ interests and commitments.

However, while national endeavors have attracted regional and Western skepticism and hostility, regional cooperation to develop a space launch pad and vehicle is more likely to receive explicit or implicit international support. There are moreover indications that the prospects of this option should not be underestimated. First, RASCOM with about 44 member states has managed to sponsor two satellites (RASCOM-QAF1 RQ1 in 2007 and RASCOM-QAF1 RQ 1R in 2013). Second, leading space players in the region like Algeria, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa established the African Resource Management satellite constellation for data sharing in 2003 and have displayed appreciable commitments to this initiative ever since then. These two factors and others, such as the emerging African space strategy and agency, means the pan-Africanist spirit cannot be underestimated in space.

How would the development of space programs in Africa affect other sectors?

KG: South Africa hopes that the Square Kilometre Array will give a huge boost to our computer, processing chip, and information technology sectors. Satellites are typically built by electronic engineering departments of universities or private companies.

PW: As we discussed in our study, Kenya’s space sector will stimulate hi-tech scientific research and innovation within the local scientific community, thereby expanding knowledge capacity and sophistication of the national innovation system. Moreover, employment opportunities will be created in the industries that fabricate hi-tech space products and the more general manufacturing base.

SO: The development of space programs in Africa has started to affect or revolutionize other sectors, even though the pace leaves more to be desired by many space advocates. A growing number of Earth observatory satellite systems in Africa are supporting remote sensing for weather forecasting, precision agriculture, land surveying, urban planning, resource mapping, and early warning and disaster management. The communication satellite systems are contributing to a boom in telecommunication, e-commerce, e-governance, tele-education, and telemedicine across the continent. Growing innovation, industry, and employment opportunities are emerging across Africa, most significantly in South Africa. Space programs’ impacts are also felt in the defense industries in South Africa and recently in Nigeria.

What can be done to further strengthen local space expertise in Africa?

KG: Bursaries for more students in satellite engineering and space studies programs at the University of Cape Town, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and their counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and elsewhere would be most welcome!

SO: Generally, there is a need to encourage science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in Africa. There is specifically a need to improve space popularization in the region. More efforts are required to bridge the gap between pure and applied sciences and engineering on the one hand, and social sciences and humanities on the other hand. Bridging this gap will demystify space and breed a spacefaring generation in Africa. African space players should employ both bilateral and multilateral platforms to build African capacities in space science and technologies. While the support of Western countries and Japan remains critical, the prospects of South-South cooperation should not be underestimated. Regional collaboration to benefit the least advanced African countries in space should also be prioritized. In this case, the conceived African space agency has the brightest prospects.

PW: I think we have elucidated this exhaustively in our article. Further discussion can be found here.