'Afronauts' & satellites: What about Africa's space program?

Why African countries are investing in space technology programs to solve their local socioeconomic needs

While Africa is lagging behind others in space science, the very first attempts at any technology were, in fact, made by Africans. A few centuries ago, Egyptians were the first to enter the Agricultural age, they were also the first in stone building. Then somewhere along the way, the Africans slept on the job and lost their technological focus.

Yet according to Nigerian computer scientist and engineer Philip Emeagwali Africa has the potential. African medical innovations will raise African life expectancy from the current 50 years to 150. Those Africans currently aged 17 are likely to see life across three centuries.

“A child born today could live long enough to see the middle of the twenty-second century. In a sense, African children of today will be time travellers that will live in and connect the twentieth, twenty-first and twenty-second centuries,” he observed in an interview.

The wealth of the future, Africa has realised, will be created largely by knowledge and technology and not by the export of natural resources and having a large population. The World Bank’s latest report [PDF] shows that net African exports are expected to make a negative contribution to real GDP growth in the near term.

Furthermore, investment in family planning technologies to check overpopulation and laying foundational infrastructures for scientific and entrepreneurial innovation is already starting to take shape in Africa. In the Information Age, millions of well-paying jobs require computer literacy and Africa is already preparing by focusing on education and technology.

So where does space technology fit into this?

“Americans won the lunar space race by landing the first man on the Moon. [But] when it was discovered that the Moon is the most expensive and most useless piece of real estate in our solar system, all trips to the Moon were cancelled,” Emeagwali observed on why Africa should trend carefully on the space journey and focus more on other pressing priorities such as HIV and poverty.

However, he believes it is conceivable that the US cannot afford to journey to Mars alone; so “the first astronaut crew to land on the planet Mars will include an African, an Asian and a female.”


Does Africa need a space program?

Scientists and other think tanks have credible reasons why the continent needs a space program to tackle various issues of development. As Kathryn Cave observed in a piece for IDG Connect titled Why Africa needs a space program, unlike what we see in TV dramas, space is about very prosaic applications that make life easier. And of the 40 current core African Union objectives 35 of them require space technology in some form or other. Africa is therefore making its much needed first toddler steps towards space exploration.

African tech giants like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya always feature in everything technological. However, there are also other countries that are making important technological contributions.

In 2015, Ethiopia built the first East African astronomical observatory. Privately funded to the tune of $3 million, the investment is one of the first great steps for the country towards a fully-fledged space agency. Ethiopia is the second most densely populated countries on the continent. Its citizens grapple with malnutrition, poverty and other socioeconomic woes. The project is therefore considered from some quarters as a mis-priority. However, no government or donor funds have been included in the project.

Mohammed Alamoudi, an Ethiopian-Saudi magnate funded the observatory through Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS). While Abinet Ezra, ESSS communications director, told AFP: “Our main priority is to inspire the young generation to be involved in science and technology.”

Strategically positioned on the equator, Kenya stood a chance of enjoying space science privilege courtesy of NASA, Italian and other international space programs from the onset. Yet it is news to many people including many Kenyans, that the country has had a space centre since 1964 and launched a satellite named “Uhuru”, (Kiswahili for Independence), on the Day’s anniversary in 1970.

What is not news is that Kenya is currently at advanced stages in the establishment of NASA prototype that will cost $100 million and provide Kenya with a ticket to the space observatory owners’ elite clubs. 

“Kenya's strategic outer space includes the geographic location along the equator and bordering the Indian Ocean to its East that facilitates ease of landing of space crafts, tracking of space craft’s in space, and ease of access to equatorial orbits, and in particular the geostationary orbit," reads the project’s policy order.


What about the afronauts?

The US has astronauts, Russia has cosmonauts, India has vyomanauts, and China has taikonauts.  Africa is working hard to produce an afronaut. South Africa and Nigeria are the two countries that can be considered to have advanced space programs. This makes the African prospect of sending afronauts into space is becoming more and more promising. Although no afronaut has been produced with indigenous African technologies so far, serious attempts are being made across the continent, especially in Nigeria – which plans to send afronauts in 2030.

National Space Research and Development Agency in Nigeria operates a number of multimillion-dollar satellites, which claims to have trained 300 staff to PhD or BSc level. These technologies have been used to monitor the oil-rich Niger Delta, track general elections and deal with extremist groups such as Boko Haram. The country’s satellites played an important role in looking for the 273 school girls that this terrorist group had kidnapped. 

“The country has a long and well-defined road map of its space program and embodies the vision to use space technology for the benefit of the Nigerian people both by providing information to help manage the country and by providing a focus for the training of engineers and scientists,” Luis Gomes, head of earth observation and science at the UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology told the BBC.

South Africa launched its maiden satellite in 1999. The country’s National Space Agency was formed in 2010 with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology launching a nano-satellite CubeSat in 2013. These continued efforts culminated in the launching of Kondor-E satellite in 2015 to provide the South African military with all-weather, day-and-night radar imagery.

Other countries such as Ghana, Algeria, Angola and Egypt have programs in space technology and have made attempts at solving their particular needs. However, almost all African countries have an element of space science in one way or another, mostly in their policy books.

What is uncertain is whether the two African tech giants Nigeria and South Africa (together with all other aspiring space contenders) will join efforts for a pan-African Space program and possible association with NASA.



Also read:

Why Africa needs a space program