Maia Moore is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Science, Technology and International Affairs program and a fellow with the U.S. State Department.
African nations have the potential to become leading competitors in the space industry due to the continent’s rapidly expanding space industry, the amount of institutional knowledge already available, and its large youth population poised to become the next generation of space innovators.
A booming space industry
Africa’s emerging space industry is booming. Currently, more than 20 African countries have space programs. In 2017, the African Union passed the African Space Agency Act. The act established the African Space Agency (AfSA) and created a governance structure and strategy for continental-wide space activities. On Jan. 25, 2023, the African Union Commission and the Egyptian Government formally inaugurated and declared the African Space Agency operational. The AfSA will serve as the headquarters for intercontinental and international collaboration on space activities.
However, prior to the establishment of the AfSA, African nations were already involved in space. South Africa will host the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, by the end of 2024. Nigeria’s space agency, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), has launched five satellites into space since 2003.
Additionally, African nations are eager to use space capabilities to address socioeconomic challenges the continent faces. The Rwanda Space Agency (RSA) recently announced SpaceX’s Starlink has been licensed and approved to provide Rwanda with internet and connectivity services through satellites. RSA’s goal is to leverage space enterprises to bring connectivity to remote and underserved areas in Rwanda. Starlink operates in Nigeria as of January to help the nation achieve its goal of offering broadband services to all residents by 2025.
Knowledge transfer from space superpowers
Collaborating with established public and private space technology giants institute a network of experience and knowledge to African space agencies. There is no need to start from scratch because the foundational knowledge and technology already exist. The continent’s space agencies do not have to spend time “reinventing the wheel,” but can immediately implement and build upon already established groundworks.
Further collaboration with space superpowers will ensure Africa is primed to become a competitor in the global space race. In January, Djibouti and Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group Ltd. announced an agreement to build a new spaceport in northern Djibouti within the next five years. Djibouti (along with the rest of East Africa) is in close proximity to the equator, where the Earth rotates faster and gives spacecraft a boost when launching. This makes Djibouti an ideal location to launch satellites and other spacecraft.
During the first-ever U.S.-Africa Space Forum in December 2022, Nigeria and Rwanda became the first African countries to sign the Artemis Accords, a NASA-led framework outlining best practices for sustainable space exploration. Additionally, U.S. companies have committed to additional collaboration on space exploration and activities with African countries including using satellite imagery data to measure drought risk in the Horn of Africa and delivering a teleport and satellite antenna to the space community.
A youthful population
With 70% of Sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30, the continent has the youngest population in the world. Various STEM programs have popped up across the continent to introduce space-focus STEM education to African youth. Intelsat, a multinational satellite service provider, launched workshops that teach students how to design, build, and launch satellites into space. In 2021, a student attending Fourah Bay College in Freetown organized Sierra Leone’s first-ever space science and astronomy symposium with other partner universities. Young Africans are founding their own space technology start-ups and shaping space policy. Compared to China’s rapidly shrinking labor force and the United States’ expected population decline in the coming years, Africa’s large youth population will have an advantage against the massive shifts in the world’s labor force, including in the space sector.
A look into the future
Africa’s space sector is not without its challenges. Resources, investment, and other pressing societal concerns are still obstacles for many African space agencies. Adequate education is also needed to provide students with competitive skills to enter the space sector workforce. However, Africa’s space economy is estimated to be worth nearly $20 billion and growing. Further public and private investment can catalyze a golden era of space activities for African space agencies, as well as create economic opportunity through jobs and education. With such demand and interest will come innovation and further research to push Africa’s space industry past the limits of what was previously thought impossible. Africa has the potential to be at the forefront of the next stage in space exploration.