African countries are trying to coordinate efforts to make the continent a major player in space.

The story is published in partnership with Ulyces.co.

Icyerekezo

On the southern end of Lake Kivu, between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the green banks of Nkombo Island are just a few minutes from the mainland by boat. Home of 20,000 inhabitants, this haven for bird and fish is easily reachable but is nonetheless partially cut off from the world. High schoolers on the island have no internet access. And yet, “without access to the internet, economies stagnate, education lags behind, and development is considerably slower than in connected regions,” Rwandan Minister of Technologies Paula Ingabire says. So the young people of Nkombo Island have put their faith in the skies. And for good reason.

On Wednesday 27 February 2019, tens of thousands of kilometers away, a Soyuz rocket took off from the Kourou base in French Guiana, with six satellites on board. One of those, christened Icyerekezo by the Nkombo Island high schoolers, will “close the digital gap” in the country of 12 million inhabitants. “Students, both good and bad, are ready to succeed,” says one student, Joselyne Abahirwa. “Before, it was impossible to get answers to questions we didn’t understand, but now we’ll be able to do research quickly.”

Orbiting the first African satellite

Rocked by genocide just 25 years ago, Rwanda is now prospering thanks to the new technologies of a dynamic economy, to the point where the country has been nicknamed the “African Singapore.” Its government, Ingabire says, “has taken remarkable efforts to invest in high-speed internet and considers this satellite an excellent chance to continue connecting the poorest served communities.” According to the minister, 40% of Rwandan secondary schools and 14% of primary schools have internet access. Offered by the group OneWeb, this satellite system “will allow Nkombo students to realize their dreams of making Rwanda a technological innovation hub,” CEO Greg Wyler says.

Along with the Land of a Thousand Hills, a whole continent is turning toward space. With China’s help, Ethiopia plans to launch a satellite in September 2019, which would make it the sixth sub-Saharan African country to do so. Of the 31 projects launched since South Africa went into orbit in 1999, 40% of those have come about in the past three years. In 2016, Nigeria even announced that it would send a person to space by 2023. There are so many space projects going on that in January, the African Union (AU) founded an African Space Agency, modeled off the European Space Agency. Its seat will be in Egypt.

The continent wants to catch up to other world regions that have made more progress in space. It “represents 20% of the Earth’s surface, more than the United States, India, China and Europe combined, yet those countries spent more than $50 billion in space activities in 2013, while Africa spent less than $100 million (less than 0.2% of the world’s space budget) in the same period,” reads an AU document called “African Space Strategy.”

Credits: MeerLICHT

According to its data, South Africa, at $41 million, has the 23rd largest space budget in the world, and its scientific production in the field of satellite technologies is 30th. Importantly, the southern nation hosts MeerLICHT, one of two telescopes in Square Kilometre Array, the biggest project probing the confines of the universe. “Studying exploding stars will take us to a new dimension,” says Patrick Woudt, one of the researchers involved. And the African continent along with them.

Innovation in the desert

In the South African semidesert known as the Karoo, about 20 cupolas surround the MeerLICHT. It’s been years since South Africa has aimed its telescopes at the skies. The first of these devices is found in Hartebeesthoek, at the foot of the Magaliesberg Mountains rising up east of Pretoria. The observatory, however, is more American than South African. It was commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1961 in order to monitor its space missions in the southern hemisphere. The first images of the surface of Mars taken by the spaceship Mariner 4 landed here.

But when the marches and the campaigns against apartheid began to multiply, the American space agency ceded the complex to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a South African research center, in 1974. Increasingly isolated, the segregationist state focused its aerial research on ballistics until the very end. Even before the end of the 1993 transition, the African National Congress appointed a coordinator of science and technology policy, Roger Jardine. Once democracy was installed the following year, he took over the department in charge of these questions.

Conceived in 1991 at the Stellenbosch University, the miniature satellite project Sunsat was launched in 1999 with the help of NASA and Danish scientists. It was a simple university project that had proved worthy of testing. The same year, Nigeria established its space agency. With British support, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASDRA) sent an apparatus into orbit two years later. In 2002, while the South African Elon Musk was creating SpaceX in the United States, his compatriot Mark Shuttleworth spent 23 million euros to become the world’s second space tourist. Thus the South African flag floated for the first time in the International Space Station.

The Mohammed VI-A satellite

But when the marches and the campaigns against apartheid began to multiply, the American space agency ceded the complex to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a South African research center, in 1974. Increasingly isolated, the segregationist state focused its aerial research on ballistics until the very end. Even before the end of the 1993 transition, the African National Congress appointed a coordinator of science and technology policy, Roger Jardine. Once democracy was installed the following year, he took over the department in charge of these questions.

Conceived in 1991 at the Stellenbosch University, the miniature satellite project Sunsat was launched in 1999 with the help of NASA and Danish scientists. It was a simple university project that had proved worthy of testing. The same year, Nigeria established its space agency. With British support, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASDRA) sent an apparatus into orbit two years later. In 2002, while the South African Elon Musk was creating SpaceX in the United States, his compatriot Mark Shuttleworth spent 23 million euros to become the world’s second space tourist. Thus the South African flag floated for the first time in the International Space Station.

After deploying the Southern African Large Telescope in 2005 in the Karoo semidesert and launching a second satellite in 2009, Pretoria finally decided to create the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). Its space policy aims to foster industrial innovation, research & development, and national prestige, researcher Keith Gottschalk said in a 2010 article. “National prestige and the pride of the African continent benefit from the halo effect of these major advanced astronomy projects,” he says. Nigeria in 2016, for example, became the first African state to manage a European satellite, the Belorussian Belintersat 1.

A year later, Ghana entered the fray by creating a machine designed entirely by All Nations University in the city of Kofuridua. “It’s equipped with cameras that allow it to ensure surveillance of Ghana’s coasts and has an educational function,” scientist Richard Damoah explains. Supported by Accra, Japan’s space agency is also helping Kenya launch its first satellite. Technology can also play a role in surveillance, as Morocco’s neighbors feared when the country launched the Mohammed-VI-A in November. Angola followed suit in December.

The former Portuguese colony intends to use theirs to bring doctors into remote areas of the vast country, while Kenya is putting meteorological images to use in combatting drought and South Africa is hoping to predict floods. As for Nigeria, it’s closely following the movements of Boko Haram from the sky and refining its electoral map. “From space,” the African Union notes, “you can easily see tropical forest fires burning when trees are cleared for farms and roads. Remote sensing satellites have become a formidable tool for preventing environmental destruction because they can systematically monitor huge areas to evaluate the spread of pollution and other wastes.”

Since “higher quality of life in developed countries comes from instant access to information and space applications,” Ethiopia, Senegal and Mauritius want to get involved as well. The African Space Agency might coordinate all these initiatives to help the continent fully assert itself.