space plans hold the key to success
Agenda 2063 is the African Union’s long-term framework for socio-economic development, regional integration and the preservation of history and culture.
The agenda has 15 flagship projects. These were identified as necessary to meet the aspirations of the continent. They are far-reaching and include the construction of a network of high-speed trains; end the violence and create continental financial institutions.
But, in my view, the heart of Agenda 2063 is the African space program. It has direct or indirect impacts on the other flagship programs. The space program aims to enable Africa to derive maximum benefits from space science, technology and applications. It focuses on Earth observation, meteorology, satellite communication, satellite navigation and astronomy.
Outer space therefore needs the attention of the African Union (AU). However, during the 40th session of the executive council in February 2022, no reference was made to outer space. The AU Assembly then referred to it once, when it adopted the organization chart and salaries of the African Space Agency.
I believe that the African space program is a means to achieve the objectives of other flagship programs of Agenda 2063. It needs more attention from the AU.
Impacts of space on flagship projects
Several examples illustrate this.
For example, the objective of the Single African Air Transport Market is to link major cities in Africa and create a unified African air transport market. It is based on the safety and security of space and the continent’s airports. This requires satellites for all stages of flight, weather information, communications and in-flight services.
Similarly, the integrated high-speed train network aims to connect all African capitals and commercial centers by rail. This would facilitate the movement of goods and people across Africa. Satellites would provide the information the rail network needs – location, navigation, weather and communication.
The envisioned Pan African Virtual and Electronic University, a project conducted out of Yaoundé, Cameroon, serves as the open, distance and online learning arm of the Pan African University. This requires communication satellites for Internet access by students and their program facilitators.
Pan-African electronic network and cybersecurity projects also require communication satellites.
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Other projects like the Great Museum of Africa and the Encyclopaedia Africana could also use the power of the Internet to increase global visibility and accessibility.
Another of the flagship projects, the African Commodities Strategy, also requires communication satellites. These are necessary for the real-time transfer of price information for raw materials and processed products from around the world.
The African Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat in Accra, Ghana needs communications satellites to maintain the African Trade Observatory, share trade and tariff information, and for its payment and regulation.
The African Passport was launched to remove restrictions on the free movement of Africans to any part of Africa. It too needs communication satellites to transmit information about travellers.
The Grand Inga Dam project is expected to generate over 40,000 megawatts of electrical power to increase power supply across the continent. The operation of dams is based on meteorological information provided by meteorological satellites. Earth observation satellites are also needed to monitor rivers and plains.
Agenda 2063 also contains plans to create financial institutions that will harmonize financial and monetary policies, mobilize resources and promote trade. The financial institutions are the African Central Bank, headquartered in Nigeria; the African Investment Bank, based in Libya; the African Monetary Fund, based in Cameroon; and the Pan-African Stock Exchange.
Financial institutions rely on satellite navigation for their exact timing applications. They also need satellites for communications and online services.
Read more: Launch of a nanosatellite is a big step forward for African space science
A less obvious application area for outer space is the “Silencing the Guns” project. This aims to end all violent conflicts and wars in Africa. Peace is an essential condition of industry and prosperity. The space program can contribute via communication satellites for early warning systems and Earth observation satellites to monitor areas at risk of crime. They can also be used to track the movement of illicit weapons.
Satellites can also be used to monitor land borders and seaports, in line with the AU border programme. And, like other military organizations, the African Standby Force needs satellites for its operations.
What the AU can do
All of these applications mean that Africa needs its own space infrastructure – and policies to protect it.
It also calls for investments. Most of the satellite systems and subsystems developed in Africa are exported to countries in Europe and the Middle East because African governments do not sponsor the developers. The African Development Bank should invest in the development of the African space industry. It is expected to be worth over US$10 billion by 2024.
The AU Assembly should act urgently on important concerns. First, the African Space Agency should be transformed from an organ into a specialized agency of the AU. This would create space for independence, quick and informed decision-making, focus, innovation and international cooperation.
The AU is also expected to decide on the future of two space applications programs currently funded by the EU. The first of these is the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and Africa. This aims to develop infrastructure so that Earth observation data, among other things, can be better used.
The second, Satnav Africa, defends the development of satellite navigation in Africa. Both programs are expected to end soon. Program management offices can be integrated into the African Space Agency as specialized technical offices. This would ensure that Africa continues to benefit from these programs.
Another problem is the start-up of the Pan-African University Institute for Space Sciences, which is supposed to provide the necessary manpower for the African Space Agency. Given the deadlock in negotiations with South Africa, which was granted hosting rights, the AU should consider reallocating the hosting to a willing and capable country in the region.