Op-ed | Space initiatives in Africa offer a canvas of opportunity
More than ever before, the promise and potential in space is available to those with the ambition to reach for it. Nowhere is this story more exciting and compelling than in Africa.
Considering the goals and priorities detailed in the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063, the socio-economic and professional development many African nations seek can be facilitated and accelerated by space activities. The AU’s 2019 African Space Strategy for Social, Political and Economic Integration lays out a path for developing indigenous workforces, technologies, supply chains and programs that present a canvas of crosscutting benefits, civilly and commercially.
As the AU’s new continent-wide space program sets up headquarters in Egypt, and new and established space enterprises launch innovative initiatives and services, African nations and their citizens will see benefits across the continent. They can chart a path to space that precisely answers local and regional challenges, such as environmental stewardship, communications and more.
With this, African nations are on the cusp of enormous opportunity, and as stated in the AU’s African Space Strategy, “It is inconceivable that so many of Africa’s space-derived services and products are outsourced,” given the high standard of living and effective provision of food and energy resources that space technologies enable.
African nations can and should be fully in the pilot’s seat of their individual and collective space ambitions, setting their own trajectory to capture the benefits they define and desire. This includes expanded communications capabilities owned and operated by African nations and enterprises. It also includes Earth observation satellites that enhance resource management. It supports innovation, investment and vibrant economies. And critically, it moves directly toward preserving the economic autonomy and uncontested national security to which every nation is entitled.
Realizing this vast potential will require investment, education and workforce development.
Investment: The African space industry is estimated to grow at a 7.3% compound annual growth rate and exceed $10 billion by 2024, according to the 2019 African Space Industry Annual Report. Already, 11 African countries have launched 38 satellites. The trend is clear. One example of an African space enterprise is NileSat, an Egyptian satellite communications company. While facing economic headwinds, NileSat still sees tens of millions of U.S. dollars in revenue, and when its new NileSat-301 geostationary satellite is launched in 2022 on a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, the company will be poised to deliver more digital broadcasting and communications services throughout the continent.
Such endeavors can begin to address the dearth of communications and Internet access. Mobile broadband coverage continues to hover at 70%, and 4G networks in North Africa cover just 60% of the population. The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development found that achieving universal and affordable broadband connectivity across Africa by 2030 will require an investment of $100 billion.
The nations and investors who deliver on this need will not just supply essential services for citizens and businesses. As noted in Space Foundation’s analysis in The Space Report, Africa overall is a largely data-scarce region, owing in part to limited connectivity. Data is arguably the most valuable resource in the modern economy, one that African enterprises can collect and apply across the full spectrum of commerce, society and governance.
The growing imperative is to elevate awareness of opportunities that entrepreneurs, startups, small businesses and investors can access in the space supply chain. Beyond communications, Earth observation satellites can be used to study populations, manage natural resources and track disease outbreaks. Navigation satellites support transportation industries and a variety of other critical logistical functions. These areas and more are ripe for investment, and the more space assets that are employed, the more data is collected and applied, and the benefits cascade across economic sectors and communities.
Education: Investment must come in tandem with a pipeline of skilled workers. In sub-Saharan African nations, there has been a substantial increase in students enrolled in primary school over the last 20 years, which bodes well for a thriving space workforce. Yet, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that in the same region, one-third of children ages 12 to 14 are not in school, and almost 60% of children 15 to 17 years old are out of school. The challenge is even more pronounced in girls’ education. Nine million girls aged 6 to 11 will not attend school at all.
Africa boasts the world’s youngest population. As investments are made and space assets and capabilities are expanded, it enhances student access to internet connectivity, permits remote learning, and inspires young people to think creatively about higher education and the career pathways available to them, thanks in part to space.
To be sure, fostering and expanding education is a global priority and much work remains. It is why Space Foundation launched the Center for Innovation and Education. Our goal is to create and deliver inclusive, innovative, and sustainable workforce development and economic programs enabling all people to participate in the space economy. And that work begins with education.
Workforce: There is an urgent need to grow and enrich the existing workforce, arming professionals with the right experiences and skills to take part in the space value chain. According to Space in Africa, around 8,500 people are employed in the African space industry, 2,000 of which are with commercial enterprises. Going forward, African nations face the national, regional and continental imperative to cultivate the skilled workforce that supports private enterprise and public sector initiatives.
Africa overall needs a workforce whose skills match existing jobs, as well as those that will be created in the years to come. The African Development Bank Group reports that to keep the current level of unemployment from rising, the continent requires 12 million new jobs every year. This comes at a time when automation and advanced robotics are increasingly used to expand productivity, which will steadily replace human labor for repetitive, low-skilled tasks.
Yet, there too is opportunity, as an automated workforce requires a skilled human workforce to manage and maintain technical infrastructure and assets. And all of that demands data, reliable communications, access to space-based navigation systems and much more. There are millions of jobs to be created, and the space supply chain can deliver them.
Addressing the needs in investment, education and workforce development will require collaboration, which is one reason the upcoming 1st Africa Space Week forum is important. To be held in Nairobi, Kenya in March, the event will bring together African stakeholders and international space leaders and organizations to explore the future of space for the continent. As Space Foundation knows from experience with our annual Space Symposium, when the global space community gathers, new relationships, strategies and business emerge.
There has arguably never been a more exciting time in space. We can see the potential, and the canvas of opportunities are as evident as they are abundant. Working together, the promise of space can be opened to all people and all nations. In this way, countries across the African continent are setting an example for the world.
Shelli Brunswick is the Chief Operating Officer of Space Foundation.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.