Since the launch of the first satellite of the African continent, more than 20 years ago, 44 ​​were placed in orbit by 13 countries, according to Space in Africa. The agency says that another 125 are being developed by 23 countries, all scheduled for launch before 2025.

According to a 2021 World Economic Forum report, it is estimated that data collected from space could unlock $2 billion a year in benefits for Africa.

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South Africa's Dragonfly Aerospace provides satellite imaging systems and is now working on launching its own constellation. Image: Dragonfly Aerospace

Also according to the document, satellites launched by Africa could address agricultural challenges, measuring the health of crops, improving water management, monitoring drought and tracking tree cover for more sustainable forest management. 

Another benefit is that, on a continent where less than a third of the population has broadband access, more communication satellites could help people connect to the Internet.

African space industry wants to face the continent's challenges

According to CNN, the South African startup Astrofica, founded four years ago and providing space consulting services, supported the Cape Peninsula University of Technology's CubeSat program, which launched a constellation of maritime satellites to track ships along. of the South African coast.

According to Astrofica's co-founder and CTO, Khalid Manjoo, the startup's goal is to use the space industry to tackle Africa's challenges – from food security to national security.

Jessie Ndaba and Khalid Manjoo of Astrofica testing SumbandilaSat, a South African Earth observation microsatellite, in 2009. Image: Astrofica

Manjoo plans to launch its first satellite constellation by the end of 2022, “which will provide decision makers with critical datasets in near real time,” according to Manjoo. 

He hopes the data will be used to monitor crop yields or track fertilizer use, as well as help governments with water management. “The satellites we put in space are cool, but not necessarily the ultimate goal; Astrofica's ultimate goal is to deal with the challenges and problems we would like to solve”.

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The entrepreneur believes the problems cannot be solved "using purely terrestrial systems, they need these critical space-based insights."

According to Manjoo, African countries are spending a lot of money on acquiring agricultural data from international suppliers, which is not timely enough – although the company appreciates collaboration with foreign partners.

African satellites to board SpaceX rockets

He says the hitchhiking actions – in which satellite makers can buy a seat on another company's rocket – have made access to space cheaper and more accessible. Thus, Astrofica intends to launch its first satellite aboard an American rocket SpaceX, a Russian Soyuz rocket or a polar satellite launch vehicle in India.

Space in Africa estimates that more than 283 companies currently operate in the continent's space and satellite industry, which it says has generated more than $7,3 billion in revenue in 2019 and forecasts to generate more than $10 billion in 2024.

Another South African company, Dragonfly Aerospace, supplies satellite imaging systems and is working on launching its own constellation.

New Dragonfly Aerospace installations. Image: Dragonfly Aerospace

“The new space industry has many opportunities because there is so much growth,” said Bryan Dean, CEO of Dragonfly Aerospace. "Now you can launch more satellites for the same amount of money than before, and an orbiting satellite system is much more powerful than a single satellite because they work together and combine the data."

As part of expansion plans, Dean says Dragonfly Aerospace is close to completing a 3 square meter satellite manufacturing facility in Stellenbosch, South Africa, with the capacity to build up to 48 satellites a year.

Dean says a bottleneck to satellite production is being able to test how they will behave in the extreme temperatures of space. “In the past, this was dominated by government facilities that could be rented,” he says. "But with the advent of more commercial operations, many companies are investing in having these facilities in-house."

The company expects to launch its first satellite in June next year in the US.

Lack of resources is the biggest challenge

Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a South African-born space research engineer, says the continent's space industry still has challenges to overcome, particularly lack of resources. “In the US, we see a lot of private industry and a lot of private financing and we're seeing the NASA and ESA, the European Space Agency, will be able to take advantage of this funding. Meanwhile, in Africa, we are not there yet, which is perfectly understandable given the other priorities of the countries”.

For Manjoo, another hurdle is changing the mindset. “There is still a view across the continent, a very short-sighted view, that the investments you need to justify in space are very high risk and also that money can be better positioned in terms of alleviating tangible issues like education, poverty , elevation infrastructure, which decision makers can see,” he says.

The businessman adds that the government bureaucracy is holding back the African space industry and that it is necessary to invest to support local businesses.” “These are huge investments,” he says. "But countries are slowly beginning to understand that investing in space today is actually for the sustainability and prosperity of your country and your region in the coming years."

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