Capacity-building for Africa’s space

25 November 2022

I write this column at the close of World Space Week (4-10 October 2022), “an international celebration of science and technology, and contribution to the betterment of the human condition.” With events held around the world, sub-Saharan Africa featured events in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, and GVF had a supporting relationship with Space Week Zambia in Lusaka, comprising exhibitions, presentations, and keynote speeches aimed at cultivating the mind of African youth towards interest in space education and the space industry.

Africa’s aggregate space economy is small, and it is still relatively young. In 2021 African governments did increase aggregate space sector expenditures by some 9% to just over US$548m, with the continent’s most advanced space market, South Africa, heading the budget list at US$154 million, followed by Nigeria at US$68 million, and Angola at US$24 million. More or less in line with these relative sums, South Africa has six satellites in orbit, Nigeria also has six; Angola just one. Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya also have sizeable budgets for space technology.

South Africa’s first satellite, the Stellenbosch University-built SUNSAT, was launched in February 1999. Prior to SUNSAT, the continent had seen expansion in space activity with the establishment by the United Nations of Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education in developing countries, and with Nigeria chosen for anglophone Africa. More African nations started developing an interest in space and those already aware of the benefits of space technology in development started seeking means to procure satellites and acquire space-related knowledge. Since 1998 this Regional Centre has trained several hundred personnel from across Africa in such areas as the application of space technology in agriculture, transport, urban planning, environmental management, disaster management and natural resource management.

The next sub-Saharan African country into space was Nigeria, with NigeriaSat-1, built in the UK by SSTL; the third sub-Saharan country into orbit was Ghana, with the Japanese-built GhanaSat-1; AngoSat-1, manufactured by Russia’s RSC Energia, was Angola’s entrance into operating a satellite; Kenya followed with the University of Nairobi-built 1KUNS-PF; Rwanda’s RWASAT-1, built by local engineers supported by the University of Tokyo, was lost to a decaying orbit.

One of the more recent of sub-Saharan countries to reach orbit was Ethiopia with the national Space Science and Technology Institute-built ETRSS-1. More recently still was the beginning of the space ambitions of the African island nation of Mauritius in the form of the nanosatellite MIR-SAT1, built to collect climate change data, and for weather forecasting, road traffic management, and maritime surveillance of Mauritius’ Exclusive Economic Zone. The nanosatellite was built by researchers at the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC), part of the country’s Ministry of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation, with technical support from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Most of the above listed satellites – SUNSAT (South Africa), 1KUNS-PF (Kenya), RWASAT-1 (Rwanda), ETRSS-1 (Ethiopia), and MIR-SAT1 (Mauritius) – were in whole, or in part, the spin-off products of the development of national domestic academic space programmes, some of which covered such varied subjects as remote sensing, space weather, satellite communication, satellite geodesy, satellite meteorology and space law.

Where, as in the other example cases cited above, African countries have procured satellites with the help of foreign academic or commercial institutions there has been little or no technology transfer, and the technology and knowledge from externally funded programmes tend not to be domestically internalised with the impact that Africa loses human capacity and talent to non-African countries.

The 2022 EU Global Action on Space Market Report Africa noted that the continent’s capability gaps benefit non-African space powers, such as China and Europe, with the more advanced space fairing countries increasingly projecting a mix of soft power and space-sector capacity across the continent. China is the largest beneficiary of space partnerships with African nations, enjoying huge commercial deals in building several satellites, and Europe has unveiled two investment initiatives worth US$29 million to develop the use of satellite technologies in Africa over the next few years.

Africa needs to develop a larger pool of local space experts in Earth observation, satellite communication, navigation and exploration. Earth observation in particular was identified in the WEF Digital Earth Africa Report, calling on African countries to leverage new-found satellite capacity to improve data collection and spur development.

Of course, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the underpinnings of technical careers in satellite but advancing human resource capacity to build space and satellite businesses encompasses skills beyond only technical expertise, and GVF – in partnership with SatProf Inc and the SSPI – has developed a resource to address these non-technical needs: the SBQ.

When writing previously in this column about the ‘Space Business Qualified’ certification, the Fundamentals Series of SBQ courses was still in development. Now the Fundamentals Series is complete and will be followed by a specialist series of courses covering satellite communications and broadcast, spacecraft and launch, and earth observation, navigation, and science, planned for release beginning later this year. Details of the five SBQ Fundamentals courses – which provide a broad introduction to all business aspects of key space industry sectors, including launch, spacecraft, communications, broadcast, earth observation, navigation, and exploration – can be found at You can also follow SBQ at #SpaceBQ.