Earth observation’s unique role in Africa...

07 May 2024

Daniel Batty, space & policy analyst, Access Partnership

Daniel Batty, space & policy analyst, Access Partnership

It is trite to state that we live in the age of data. Advancements in computing have augmented every sector of society and the economy, with these effects set to increase drastically with the introduction and adoption of artificial intelligence in different sectors. However, this is dependent on access to high-quality data, which is the lifeblood of computing and decision-making. An increase in the quantity and quality of data is directly proportional to an increase in service offerings and insights.

One of the most influential and important data streams impacting development initiatives in Africa is geospatial data generated by Earth observation satellites. These satellites may be fitted with a number of different camera lenses and sensors, enabling the satellite to capture a wide range of different data. This may include standard optical images, thermal imagery to monitor heat levels and outputs, and synthetic aperture radar to monitor changes in soil, urbanisation, and deforestation. The data captured by these lenses and sensors form the basis for important government and private sector decision-making on town planning, agriculture investment, mining and mineral extraction, ocean conservation, and fisheries, etc.

Earth observation in Africa
Africa undergoing a rapid industrial and digital transformation. While it has many unique development challenges, the continent is compelled to simultaneously address global challenges such as climate change.

The rate of development in the continent is increasing, propelled by access to new technologies and investment opportunities that catalyse further development. Crucially, heightened access to data enables sustainable, well-informed informed development pathways for Africa’s advancement. Earth observation has firmly claimed its place as one such catalysing technology. The African Space Policy and Strategy acknowledges Earth observation as a strategic thematic focus and highlights the need to study the private sector and academia’s involvement in the Earth observation sector.

At the national level, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has invested heavily in Earth observation, with a division dedicated to the practice. SANSA provides data services that promote socioeconomic benefit, including resource management and disaster response. In 2022, SANSA launched the ‘Digital Earth South Africa Earth observation data cubes platform,’ which houses over 30 years of archived geospatial data covering 1.2 million square kilometres of South Africa and its neighbours. The platform facilitates in-depth analysis of this data and allows actionable insights. One such example of actionable insight was the use of Earth observation data to map infrastructure damage following severe flooding in the Eastern Cape province in 2023. This enabled the disaster recovery operations to be coordinated and prioritised addressing the most urgent needs first.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan Space Agency is working to establish a Geospatial Data Hub in partnership with the French Development Agency. The Hub will serve as a centralised infrastructure project where data can be processed to improve evidence-based development, planning, monitoring, and evaluation.

Challenges for increased adoption
Earth observation is a highly specialised sector in all aspects, from satellite design and manufacturing to operations and data collection to data processing and analysis. To achieve the benefits of increased geospatial data, governments must commit resources towards upskilling citizens and developing the skills required to advance and effectively leverage this data. Investment into human capital and local startups is needed to develop local African Earth observation products and services which can be used by governments for enhanced policy decision-making but can also generate revenue when sold to the private sector to enhance mineral extraction, commercial agriculture, and resource management.

Alongside the need for investing in and increasing human capital in Earth observation, there is also need for increasing digital infrastructure. Access to stable electricity, internet, and telecommunications infrastructure is vital for the development and use of domestic Earth observation products and services. Geospatial datasets can be very large, requiring advanced digital infrastructure to transfer and process the information into usable analysis.

Lastly, raising awareness of the impact and importance of Earth observation and geospatial data is necessary. Policy initiatives should be developed and earmark how Earth observation can contribute to the local needs of a country and outline targeted investment and development initiatives. A lack of dedicated national strategies or policy initiatives will leave Earth observation development directionless and slow progress towards development and adoption.

As a region undergoing industrialisation whilst still having to be cognisant of modern global policy concerns, Africa faces unique development challenges. As such, the region is forced to be specific and targeted in its development initiatives. Maximising the possible gain while ensuring growth remains sustainable and reducing wasted cost and effort is of great importance. Geospatial data and the broader Earth observation sector directly contribute to ensuring administrations make informed policy decisions. From mapping oceans and fish stock, water and soil quality, deforestation, mineral wealth, city and town development, and temperature increases, geospatial data ensures that development is informed and sustainable.