Africa’s ambitious space initiative is not a crazy idea to begin with

From the perspective of an African Union diplomat, the satellite project set up at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is nothing out of the ordinary. But from an African point of view,…

Africa’s ambitious space initiative is not a crazy idea to begin with

From the perspective of an African Union diplomat, the satellite project set up at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is nothing out of the ordinary. But from an African point of view, the two technology-based projects launching this week are no less ambitious.

Officials and experts told the Washington Post that the Ethiopian-led African Satellite Communication Agency, announced this week, is designed to vastly improve African intelligence gathering on its western borders, while the African Space Research and Applications Centre, to be inaugurated on Tuesday, could help the continent make inroads in space technology.

“It’s not the flashy type of technology that gets many people excited,” Cyril Bezuidenhout, the AU’s chief technology officer, told the Post. “But that’s the best way of us building a workforce we will have.”

The AU also hopes the two projects will appeal to domestic markets in Africa, especially among companies. Under the first project, the AU has signed a cooperation deal with AU-member Nigeria to place two satellites in orbit. The two satellites – a small Beidou of 450 kilograms and a larger 1760 kilograms – will allow Africa to boost communications, including a possible system for reducing the Ebola outbreak, from the continent, according to the Post.

Bezuidenhout emphasized that the AU project is designed to benefit everyone, not just African governments.

“It’s for the people of Africa,” he said. “That’s the driving force for me.”

The launch comes during a time of international attention for African-led innovation. In late 2018, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa helped launch the African Innovation Foundation’s next generation innovation.

Among the partnership’s collaborators was NASA, which created an experiment to explore how to take data from the Great Dismal Swamp in southwest Maryland and derive useful information about global warming on a 3,000-square-mile area of the swamp. The scientists, with NASA’s Space Operations Center, monitored air temperatures, humidity and other moisture conditions from a mobile NASA-provided test station through the night in a setting more conducive to results than a typical lab setting.

With its latest innovation, the African Innovation Foundation aims to do something similar on a continental scale. In an effort that analysts say is not without risks, the new organization plans to work with multinational businesses to create startup companies that use the platform to capture, parse and distribute data. But what the foundation does, and how it does it, remain unclear, despite the foundation’s anticipation that its experiments will be funded by the UN Development Programme’s Digital Exchange Program, a multi-million dollar commitment to African startups, according to the Post.

The purpose, according to Vavinkrishnan’s announcement, is to identify opportunities for “innovative information management and monetization services that could be deployed in Africa,” with the assistance of the UNDP’s Connecting to Do More initiative and private partners.

But isn’t the continent having way too much trouble with its initial partners? Vavinkrishnan recently told a journalism workshop in Nairobi that other African organizations that had expressed interest in creating their own spin-off businesses, were ruled out for one reason or another.

The AU hopes to entice some of those ventures with the satellite launch and the focus the satellites have on improving the African consumer experience.

“The space challenge will bring us to a place where all elements of our people who are now excluded can benefit from it,” noted Africa expert Mariam Kabilan told the Post. “We have to be able to break that. We need to develop technology … which can help the African market.”

Contact Konrad Krasuski at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @konradkruz

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