Is An African Space Agency Viable?

The African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government during their Twenty-Sixth Ordinary Session on 31 January 2016 in Addis Ababa adopted the African Space Policy (ASP) and Strategy as the first of the concrete steps to realize an African Outer Space Programme, as one of the flagship programmes of the AU Agenda 2063. Could this mean that an African Space Agency could become viable?

The African Space Policy As A precursor To An African Space Agency

In August 2010, the African Union (AU) Ministers of Communication and Information Technology called for the African Union Commission to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of an African space agency called AfriSpace.

Through funding from the European Union, a European consortium undertook the feasibility study, highlighting the current situation of the use of space applications in Africa and made recommendations and created a road-map for the establishment of the Agency.

However, the case for an AfriSpace had been made as early as 1979 by Martin Rothblatt who proposed that AfriSpace should be formed to

“coordinate and direct the continent’s quest for pre-eminence in space technology”.

The driver was to leapfrog development in communications and solar power development. In recent times, the need to establish a regionally coordinated program has been articulated by some African academics, and space related organizations. The apparent reasoning behind recent calls for an African Space Agency is in part the fact that the continent already has the following space related regional activities institutions:

Following earlier discussions within the African Union (AU) on a proposed African Space Agency, the AU’s 2009-2012 strategy affirmed Gottschalk’s view that

“through the launch of [an] African Union Space Agency, Africa will be able to negotiate better offers for satellite construction, space launches and technology transfer; and share data, scarce facilities and infrastructure much more than individual small countries can do on their own.”

The initial AU’s draft third strategic plan for 2014-2017 builds on this by further proposing the development of an African Space Policy and development of a constitutive convention by 2015 to establish an African Space Agency. However further drafts stated that the 2015 goal was to develop “space ...policy, programmes and strategic pan-African institutions and networks.

Alongside the AU Ministers of Communication and Information Technologies, AU interest in African regional space endeavours has been expressed through two other ministerial conferences in 2012; namely, by the Ministers of Science and Technology, and Ministers of Meteorology.
All sought to investigate the feasibility of an African regional space programme.

While the Ministers of Meteorology established a task force to

"explore the feasibility of developing and establishing an African Meteorology Space Programme leading to the launch and operation of an African Meteorological Satellite"

its findings are not yet known. On the other hand, at a meeting in Khartoum, Sudan in September 2012, the Ministers of Science and Technology recommended, in the Khartoum Declaration, that the AU Commission

“develop a space policy for the Continent in collaboration with relevant stakeholders; taking into account remote sensing applications and satellite imagery processing.”

Following the Declaration, the AU Commission endorsed the establishment of a Working Group on Space Science tasked to develop a draft African Space Policy and Strategy. Comprised of members of the African Leadership Conference and national space agencies, a draft policy was completed in October 2013 and was presented for adoption at several AU summits following several meetings of the working group, most recently at the AU Summit in 2016.

The policy principles are focused the following factors:

  1. Addressing user needs – harnessing the potential of space science and technology in addressing Africa's socio-economic opportunities and challenges.

  2. Accessing space services – strengthening space mission technology on the continent in order to ensure optimal access to space-derived data, information services and products.

  3. Developing the regional and international market – developing a sustainable and vibrant indigenous space industry that promotes and responds to the needs of the African continent.

  4. Adopting good governance and management – adopting good corporate governance and best practices for the coordinated management of continental space activities.

  5. Coordinating the African space arena – maximising the benefit of current and planned space activities, and avoiding or minimising duplication of resources and efforts.

  6. Promoting international cooperation – promoting an African-led space agenda through mutually beneficial partnerships.

The Proposed Indicators to Track effectiveness of the policy are stated in the supporting African Space Strategy and include:

  • Number of communities of practice
  • Returns on investment
  • Number of services and products using African capacities • Number of publications
  • Number of patents
  • Number of industrial designs • Number of space related-research centers
  • Number of graduates in space related fields • Number of space related experts employed in space related professions
  • A formal corporate governance structure established.
  • Achievement of strategic goals
  • A regulatory framework that is supportive of space activities
  • Number of contributions in multilateral fora critical for the peaceful uses of outer space
  • Coordination mechanism instituted by AU member states
  • Number of orbital slots obtained for Africa
  • Number of early warning systems on the continent
  • Number of space missions
  • Number of space receiving/transmitting/processing facilities
  • Number of networks created and percentage of coverage Number of collaborative programs,
  • Number of public-private partnerships • Number of intra-Africa institutional partnerships • Number of international partnerships
  • Level of long-term funding secured from the continent • Financial mechanism developed.

Next Steps

The adoption of the ASP and development of a strategy although well received by those who understand the benefits of an African Space Programme has no significance in itself unless steps are taken to implement it.

The AU therefore request the development of an implementation architecture for the ASP and Strategy, taking into account requirements of different sectors and end-user groups; as well as a Governance Framework that covers the relevant legal requirements and protocols for an operational African Outer-Space Programme.

A policy can be implemented without a new international structure being developed but as both Sudanese and Egyptian officials have indicated interest in hosting an African Space Agency to coordinate the regional response to the space policy, here are some broadly based considerations for a future international space organization in Africa.

  • The Policy and the Agency need to address real needs otherwise there will be no buy in from the public. When the needs have been identified the focus of the organization must be on creating programs to meet the needs, e.g. could the agency serve as a central procurement entity for African countries needing earth observation data? General strategies to be employed in the formation of the organization including focus on facilitative activities, focus on enabling activities, and full engagement in operational activities.

  • Structural activities: In determining the nature of the organization constitutional conditions arise, including consideration of powers and duties of the body, decision making powers, the need for the organization to maintain stable relationship with the States which compose it and the myriad of other international organisations that will influence and be influenced by the presence of the new entity.

  • Important political questions: How well and effectively will the organization be able to use the power conferred on it, will the organization be able to engage and retain the support and cooperation of members, and consider the competitive demands and challenges as members seek to determine what their equitable share of benefits are.

While the ASP is ready, it may not necessarily be time to set up a structure such as a regional organization till the issue of funding and sustainability is addressed. For the necessary precursors to an African Space Agency, see my article in Space Policy Journal and my Radio France International Interview.

Cover Image, Artist's impression of the 5km diameter central core of SKA antennas | Wikimedia