It is no secret that Africa’s journey to space has been slow and, until recently, unremarkable. However, new projects on the continent focused on space technology look promising. Several African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Algeria have shown a renewed interest in their space programs, including launching initiatives to use satellite technology.

Leading the way is South Africa, which has the largest space program on the continent with an active space sector that is both government and privately funded. The country established its own space agency, the South African National Space Agency or SANSA, in December 2010.

South Africa is also the only country in the continent to have an astronaut – Mark Shuttleworth, who flew on the Soyuz Flight TM-34 to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2002. And now, it is set to host the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which should enable astronomers to look further into space.

The other African nation leading space development in the continent is Nigeria. It established its own space agency, the National Space Research and Development Agency, in 2001. According to CNN, the country is, in fact, aiming to create a “world-class space industry”. Nigeria has launched five home-made satellites since 2003 and now plans to send an astronaut to space by 2030.

Kenya is the latest African country to join in on the continent’s space ambitions, after launching its first home-made cube satellite from the ISS on May 11, 2018. Other countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Egypt – are also all developing their own satellites.

And these developments are not just for show. For instance, SANSA uses data collected by both domestic and international satellites for disaster control as well as environmental studies and scientific research. In fact, South Africa utilizes several satellites for remote sensing purposes such as monitoring droughts.

Nigeria’s satellites are also mainly used for agricultural and environmental issues: for observing the Niger Delta region and helping farmers find out where to plant certain crops, or for disaster control, for instance during flooding of the delta. Aside of that, the country‘s space agency has used its satellites for locating Boko Haram insurgents.

Investing into the space sector = waste of money?

The main drive for African countries to invest in space technologies is socio-economic development. The belief is that space-related technological capabilities can provide effective solutions to the various socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges that the continent faces.

According to the African Space Strategy, adopted by the African Union in 2016, “Active participation in the development of space related applications and services will enable the continent to address these challenges,” as well as, “make a significant contribution to the implementation of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA).”

Certainly, the adoption of the policy, although significant, has little meaning unless real steps are taken to implement it. Which is why, an African Space Agency, first suggested by the African Union in 2010, could be the way forward, says Carla Sharpe, Business Manager at SKA, South Africa. But, according to her, such agency would only be beneficial in the long term, “countries need to develop and grow their own capabilities first,” she was quoted as saying by CNN.

Perhaps African countries are taking their cue from China and India, which have made huge strides in the space sector in the past years, or at least looking at Australia, which has recently raised its space ambitions too. It is safe to say that Moonwalks are a long way off for most of these African nations, but the continent may just enter the global space race.