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Space industry: Africa is ready for liftoff

April 20, 2023

The space industry is one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide. Africa has long been considered a latecomer, but now a new space agency and a space port on the continent are on the horizon.

Illustration of a weather satellite next to planet Earth seen from space
Image: Eumetsat/dpa/picture alliance

"The chances are great that Africa will soon be able to build its own powerful space industry — a space industry that really helps people in Africa," stresses South African market analyst Rorisang Moyo.

The space industry is Moyo's specialty. And it's "an industry with enormous growth potential, especially in Africa," she told DW.

Portrait of Rorisang Moyo, industry analyst and speaker at the NewSpace Conference 2023
Rorisang Moyo, space industry analyst and speaker at the NewSpace Conference 2023 Image: Giftmeda Photography 2016

Until now, African satellites have had to be launched into space from rocket launch sites outside Africa — mainly from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, French Guiana in South America, or from California in the United States — because Africa lacks the necessary spaceports and technical capacities. African companies would have to purchase a large portion of the necessary services, which doesn't come cheap.

However, this will soon change, according to Moyo, as more and more African governments start investing in space projects. And public and private investors from around the world are following suit.

Africa prepares for space industry boom

The African space industry was valued at approximately $20 billion (€27 billion) in 2021. By 2026, this value is expected to rise to $23 billion.

The continent is currently home to more than 270 NewSpace companies that are developing space technologies and offering space-based services, including in the fields of telecommunications, defense, security, shipping, aviation, mining, agriculture, environment, development, education and health. That's according to the website of the NewSpace Africa Conference 2023 . Organized by the African Union (AU), the conference will take place from April 25 to April 28 in the Ivorian metropolis of Abidjan.

A man works at a technical center of a telecommunications company in Abidjan.
A man works at a technical center of a telecommunications company in Abidjan. More companies are offering space-based services in Africa. Image: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Moyo, who will lead one of the panels on "Promoting Public-Private Partnerships and International Cooperation," emphasizes above all the importance of the African Space Agency, an African authority that will be based in Cairo.

The transnational project of the AU is intended to give the continent a say on the international stage. Due to its geographical features — particularly its location on the equator — Africa is particularly suited for the construction of spaceports, from which not only African satellites could be launched into space in the future, explains Moyo.

However, the necessary investments would require a unified legal framework in Africa. It is important to regulate relations with investors and partners from other continents in a binding manner. That is precisely what the African Space Agency will do, according to the analyst.

A map showing the foreign military bases in Djibouti

Djibouti: Billion-dollar project with Chinese partner

Africa is the only continent that has not built a launch site for space rockets. Numerous attempts to establish spaceports on the continent in recent decades have all failed.

But this time, they seem to be serious: Construction is about to start in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. A corresponding letter of intent was signed earlier this year between Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh and the Chinese company Hong Kong Aerospace Technology.

For this $1 billion spaceport — which will be built over a period of five years — Djibouti is relying on its ideal geographic location: Namely its proximity to the equator and its strategic location at the entrance to the Red Sea, which is one of the world's busiest trade routes. The agreement states that the infrastructure will be jointly managed by China and Djibouti over a 30-year period.

A group of people in the distance at a desert landscape in Djibouti
Desert state Djibouti: Africa's first spaceport is already being planned hereImage: NDR

"The Djibouti project is an example of the power that can come from a collaboration between a major space-faring nation — China — and a nation whose space industry is still in its infancy," says Moyo.

"Without a doubt, Djibouti will soon become an important international player in the space industry."

Kenya: US rocket transports research satellites into space

Kenya is also making waves with an ambitious space project and its own reconnaissance satellite: Taifa-1, Swahili for "Nation-1."

Kenya's first operational Earth observation satellite was designed and developed by a team of Kenyan researchers. On April 15, 2023, Taifa-1 was launched into orbit by a SpaceX rocket from California.

Taifa-1 is expected to provide valuable data in the areas of agriculture and environmental monitoring in Kenya. Both are considered extremely important for the future of the East African country, which is currently suffering one of its worst droughts in recent history.

Through the multispectral camera images of the satellite, it will be possible to "obtain high-quality Earth observation data that will help predict climate change and crop yields," said the Kenyan space agency on the day of the rocket launch.

An ESA Ariane-5 rocket at the launch pad at Europe's space port in Kourou, French Guiana.
An ESA Ariane-5 rocket at the launch pad at Europe's space port in Kourou, French Guiana. Up until now, Africa's satellites had to be carried by foreign space organizations at a high cost.Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls/REUTERS

"With such projects — and there are more and more of them in Africa — the people in Africa benefit. We can improve our food security," says Moyo.

Kenya sent its first nanosatellites into orbit in 2018. According to Space in Africa — a Nigerian company that monitors African space programs — more than 50 African satellites were launched into orbit by 2022, the first one by Egypt in 1998.

Angola: Russia helps to expand network coverage

"Another country with steady growth in the space industry is Angola, a country that has long aimed to be self-sufficient in telecommunications," says Moyo.

In October 2022, the second Angolan satellite, Angosat-2, a two-ton colossus with extremely high information transmission capacity, was placed into orbit.

The satellite, which cost $320 million, was built in Russia and launched into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Its signal covers most of the African continent and a large part of Southern Europe.

A Proton-M rocket booster carrying the Angosat-2 communications satellite rolls out to a launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome
The Angolan Angosat-2 was launched in October 2022 on the back of this Russian Proton-2 rocketImage: Sergei Savostyanov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The Angolan government promised to bring the country to the forefront of telecommunications in Africa with the satellite.

"With this, Angola has entered a new era. We have taken another step towards establishing a telecommunications infrastructure that deserves this name," said Angolan Telecommunications Minister Mario Oliveira on the occasion of the satellite's inauguration.

"The Angolan team has worked hard together with our Russian colleagues. We congratulate Angola and all Angolans on this success."

This dynamic isn't just being felt in Angola, Kenya, or Djibouti, but everywhere in Africa. In South Africa and Nigeria, for example, there are many young researchers and startups entering the field, says Moyo. African players are increasingly internationally connected and work with American, European, Russian, or Chinese organizations without ideological ties.

For decades, Africa has hoped to make its own strides in the space industry. These hopes have not always been fulfilled. But now, Moyo confidently predicts that success is within reach: "The future of space technology belongs to the African continent."

A rocket carrying the Angosat-2 satellite about to launch in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, October 12, 2022: The rocket carrying the Angosat-2 satellite about to launchImage: Marina Lystseva/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

This article was originally published in German.