In 1964, five years before Apollo 11 made the United States the first country to land a man on the Moon, Zambian science teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso believed his country would get there first. Naming himself the director of a new national space program, he gathered a group of teenagers and prepared them for the weightlessness they would encounter on the way to the Moon, calling them the “Afronauts.” Unfortunately for Nkoloso, he was unable to secure the multimillion-dollar grants he sought from the United States and the Soviet Union, and the dream of an African nation winning the space race was never realized.
Nearly 60 years later, the United States is still the only country to have sent humans to the Moon, but Africa has leaped into space. Egypt’s Nilesat 101 launched in 1998, providing multimedia services to over five million homes in the region. Since then, over 40 satellites have taken to the stars, with more than 20 in the last five years. In addition, the first satellites to be entirely developed in Africa were launched by South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology from Cape Canaveral in January 2022. The African space industry’s immense growth in recent years is a product of innovation in its applications, a need for stronger control of natural resources, and a desire to join the ranks of the preeminent space powers of the 21st century.
A New Perspective
As with any newer industry, there is skepticism surrounding African space projects. Critics point out the possibility for corruption as well as the more pressing need to address long-standing issues of poverty and illiteracy. However, over the past several years, African nations have been using satellites to get a better view of continental problems, ranging from climate change to terrorism, and to tackle the root causes of social and economic strife. For example, in 2014, two Nigerian satellites helped the government track the movements of Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. Meanwhile, in Ghana, which launched its first satellite in 2017 to monitor its coastal environments, the SAT4Farming program is used to help thousands of small-scale cocoa farmers navigate climate conditions using satellite imagery. Space startups such as South Africa’s Astrofica are also working to expand satellite data collection, expediting the process of gathering vital agricultural data by ending reliance on international providers. In the era of big data, satellite technology, both private and public, serves as a new tool for African nations to improve agricultural productivity and resource management. The hope is that pressing national concerns—poverty, education, and infrastructure among them—will be addressed in turn. After all, African economies are heavily dependent on agriculture and, as a result, seek to combat the effects of climate change.
Satellites could also connect more Africans to the global network, as just two-fifths of the continent currently have Internet access. While SpaceX aims to expand its Starlink network to African countries in the near future, African providers such as MzansiSat are also attempting to compete for the market, hoping to provide Internet connectivity to millions in southern Africa by 2025. With the critical need for reliable telecommunications following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, African governments are increasingly recognizing the importance of widespread Internet access across the continent. As such, expansion of the satellite sector could have major transformative effects on African societies, bolstering access to education, employment, basic services, and more.
The growth of the African satellite industry demonstrates African governments’ desire to become less dependent on outside technology and take matters of national and environmental security into their own hands. Still, collaboration remains the norm: the South African MDASat satellite launch from this year was conducted by SpaceX, using their Falcon 9 rocket. The African Union (AU), which encompasses nearly the entire continent, has discussed the establishment of an African space agency. According to an AU statute, an international space agency would enable members to “harness space resources in a more coordinated and systematic manner” and “develop an African space market and industry.” However, since Egypt was chosen as its headquarters in 2019, the project has faced delays due to the lack of immediate direct benefits foreseen by member states. Nevertheless, other collaborative satellite-based programs such as Digital Earth Africa promise potential returns of US$2.3 billion annually through increases in agricultural productivity, localization of pesticide intervention, and prevention of illegal gold mining. The space industry offers a platform for African governments to discuss solutions to shared issues, which could lead to lucrative trade and diplomatic relations.
Between now and 2025, African nations are set to launch over 100 new satellites, with several new players entering the fray. In 2021, Tunisia launched its Challenge-1 satellite in the hope that it would inspire young engineers to remain in the country. Mauritius, an island nation of just around 1.3 million, launched MIRSAT-1 to help manage fish stocks in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Countries from Djibouti to Namibia are beginning to develop their own national space programs, hoping to join in on what could be a US$10 billion industry in the next two years. In addition, Kenyan industry leaders have analyzed the feasibility of constructing Africa’s first spaceport, taking advantage of the country’s position on the Equator, where the Earth’s rotation is fastest.
There are many optimistic signs for Africa’s rapidly growing space industry as more and more countries seek greater ownership of their assets and development opportunities. Even Nkoloso’s dream may not be too far away now, as Zambia is planning to launch its first satellite in 2023.
Cover image: Satellite image of the Mount Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania, taken by the United States Geological Survey.