Africa reaches for the stars | Africa | DW | 02.04.2019
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Africa reaches for the stars

Africa's space race is accelerating as more countries on the continent launch satellites. This is bringing faster internet, better weather forecasting and improved disaster management to the continent.

St Peter's Secondary School sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Kivu in Rwanda. The school does have limited internet access but it's not only costly, it's also extremely unreliable.

With the launch of Rwanda's first satellite, named Icyerekezo, in February, the government wants to change that.

The low altitude satellite will beam a fast and reliable broadband signal into St Peter's classrooms.

"Whether it's students in A or O level, ... we are now ready to pass highly," said Joselyne Abahirwa, a student at St Peter's.

Diagram of OneWeb satellite launched in partnership with Rwanda

Rwanda's OneWeb satellite is built by Airbus and will operate in a low Earth orbit

"It was impossible [before] to get answers to questions we didn't understand because we couldn't access search engines," she said. "But now, we will be able to do research faster."

Helping connect Africa to the internet

Icyerekezo, which loosely means 'Vision', was launched by the UK company OneWeb in partnership with the Rwandan government. It was one of six satellites launched by OneWeb on the day - the other satellites will distribute internet to other countries.

Read more about OneWeb's plans to bring high-speed Internet to remote regions

"The main aim of all this is to develop skills and capacity," explained Patrick Nyirishema, the head of the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority.

"Why should we always look for services from others, why can't we provide them, too? Even if we can't provide all the services now, we can do so in future," he told DW.

About 40 percent of Rwanda's secondary schools and 14 percent of primary schools have internet connection, according to the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications.

With the possibility of connecting to the internet via satellite, other rural and remote schools in Rwanda will also have a chance to get online.

Satellite-ownership club growing

A number of African countries are now joining the space race. With the help of China, Ethiopia plans to launch its first satellite in September 2019.

China will foot the majority of the $8 million (€7.14 million) bill for the earth observatory satellite, according to The East African newspaper. The satellite will be used to gather data on water, climate and other weather related phenomena.

The launch will make Ethiopia the sixth country in sub-Saharan Africa to have its own satellite orbiting the earth.

South Africa was the first, launching a miniaturized satellite called SUNSAT, which was designed and manufactured in the country, in a NASA-sponsored launch in 1999.

Since then, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and now Rwanda, have joined the African satellite owners' club, along with Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. Angola launched a satellite in 2017, partially funded by Russia, but communication with the device was lost shortly after launch.

More than two dozen African satellites are already orbiting the earth, with almost half of them launched since 2017.

Several school students and a teach look at a computer

What good is a computer if it isn't connected to the internet?

"Africa has recognized the importance of being in space," said Islam Abou El-Magd from Egypt's National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences.

"The reasons behind it are simple," he told DW. "Today, areas such as communications, mobile phones, navigation and weather forecasting are directly related to space technology."

Innovations around satellite technology have also dropped the cost of the devices, making it increasingly viable for low-income nations in Africa to design or manufacture their own small devices.

Plans for a pan-African space agency

The African Union has just approved Egypt as the new headquarters of an African Space Agency, after adopting a space strategy in 2017.

"[The African Space Agency] will then start working with those countries whose space programs are most advanced, South Africa and Nigeria," said Islam Abou El-Magd.

"The ultimate goal is: How can we use this technology to solve our challenges, for example in infrastructure, agriculture, environment and disaster management?"

Some view Africa's investment in space technology critically, given the other challenges facing the continent, like the lack of basic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals or roads.

Information gleaned from satellites has enormous potential for Africa

"On the other hand, it can be said that this technology is making a fortune for Africa and empowering the continent to solve its problems," says Islam Abou El-Magd.

"Critics do not see the potential that these programs bring us," says Joseph Ibeh, Senior Editor at the Nigerian-based Space in Africa, a space-related news site.

Giant plumes of smoke and red flames roar through a patch of forest

Satellite pictures could help control forest fires, like this one in South Africa, by keeping track of where fires are burning

For example, Nigeria uses the technology in its fight against the terrorist group Boko Haram because satellites accurately record the region, Ibeh explained, while South Africa benefits from a satellite it developed to monitor the weather and evaluate images of forest fires.

Currently, only South Africa has the technology to manufacture its own nanosatellites, something other African countries still need to develop.

Nigeria, however, has even bigger plans. As part of its drive to develop a competitive space industry, it wants to send an astronaut into space by 2030.

Nasra Bishumba contributed to this article.

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