An African journey: sustainable decision-making with space

30 May 2023

Martin Jarrold, vice president international programme development, GVF

Martin Jarrold, vice president international programme development, GVF

In my previous column looking at the space ambitions of the nations of Africa I noted that even though most Africa-owned satellites – used for applications across meteorology, natural resource management, navigation, surveillance, as well as telecommunications – are currently being designed and built beyond the continent, there has been incremental change underway for a while.

Change began with Ghana, and the indigenous development of GhanaSat-1 by three students at All Nations University, Ghana. Designed and built over a two-year period – in conjunction with the Kyushu Institute of Technology Birds-1 programme and subsequently assessed and found fit for orbiting by both Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – GhanaSat-1’s mission was to take images to monitor environmental activities along Ghana's coastline, collect atmospheric data, measure space radiation, and transmit uploaded audio. Launched from the International Space Station in July 2017, the satellite had a programmed life of two months. It was deorbited in May 2019.

This was an early demonstration that across Africa the (new) ‘space race’ is not being experienced only at second hand but is achieving its own traction. This is not because space assets are primarily symbols – exercises in national vanity and cross-border rivalry – but because of widespread realisation that economic and social development can be tangibly accelerated by a range of applications coming under the umbrella of telecommunications, and tangibly facilitated by the processing and transformation of Earth observation-derived remotely sensed data streams into knowledge ‘dashboards’ providing ‘actionable intelligence.’

Of course, GhanaSat-1 was (primarily) an example of a remote sensing, or Earth observation, satellite, not a telecommunications satellite. As I noted last time, of the currently 15 African nations with a total of about 40 satellites in orbit, only eight are for telecoms, but 24 are for Earth observation, with the remaining eight devoted to technology demonstration.

At a global level, the boundary between satellite communications and satellite remote sensing is becoming increasingly blurred, and with the application of AI and machine learning (ML) techniques the gathering of data and its dissemination as actionable intelligence – concerning natural resources, water and food security, population demographics, health, etc – is central to economic and social development, and it points to the fact that having, or not having access to the data resources from which to develop actionable intelligence is another facet of the digital divide.

In September 2020, as part of the webinar series produced as a response to the travel and meetings restrictions necessiated by the COVID-19 pandemic, GVF held an event entitled Global Transitions: Digital Economy, Digital Infrastructure, Connected Communities, Digital Planet, which include a contribution from David Jensen, Coordinator of the Digital Transformation Task Force of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The webinar provided significant insights and perspectives into the progressive emergence of an advanced digital infrastructure, the fuel for which is – data.

Data – gathered via all available technologies (particularly, though not only, by satellite, which of course has the characteristic of global ubiquity), and then manipulated by all available tools – can (when refined beyond its raw state into information, and knowledge, and beyond to dashboard supported sustainable decision-making) support many processes. These include maintaining financial liquidity in markets, improving creativity in maintaining and evolving supply chains, making production of ‘things’ more efficient using latest technologies, and contributing to mitigation of the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and flora and fauna ecosystem collapse – most vitally important for nations that are showing the signs of being the most affected by, for example, rising sea levels, drought, flooding, wildfires, etc.

The global transition to a ‘digital planet’ extends and leads to the emerging concept of a ‘global digital ecosystem,’ the enabling platform for more than only formulating ‘actionable intelligence,’ but the fostering of a culture of strategic and sustainable decision-making. Achieving greater digitised connectivity will enable gathering of data for the World Economic Forum Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics which are designed to show how companies are doing on climate change action, biodiversity, etc., and track contributions towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Meeting the SDGs, and trying to stem climate change, will be the indispensable currency of the future ‘Digital Planet.’

The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) – comprising 51 member states and 56 associate members, together with other stakeholders – is a specialised agency of the African Union responsible for promoting the development of telecommunications and ICT in Africa. The ATU mission is to provide the necessary platform for cooperation and collaboration – developing policies, regulations and standards – among African countries in the development and use of telecommunications and ICTs, and in this it recognises that achieving digital transformation is crucial for Africa’s development, that there is a need for Africa to enhance its investment in cutting-edge ICT infrastructure, and that investment to support human capacity-building and elevate the level of digital skill levels among the population is equally imperative.

Satellite is among several technologies for accelerating digital transformation in Africa. These technologies include 5G, cloud computing, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). These technologies have the potential to transform industries, improve service delivery and enhance the quality of life for the people of Africa. By enabling faster data transfer rates and reduced latency, 5G networks – particularly supported by satellite – can help facilitate the growth of other emerging technologies. Cloud computing can help organisations in Africa manage data and applications more efficiently. AI can help organisations across Africa improve their efficiency, productivity and decision-making capabilities because, with the use of machine learning algorithms, AI can analyse vast quantities of data and identify patterns that can lead to improved business processes and new revenue streams. IoT enables automation of many processes and services across a variety of sectors.