African space firms poised for lift-off in satellite scramble

Once seen as an unaffordable folly, data-harvesting and internet-boosting satellites are now a focus of African governments and businesses.


Image : Vladimir Mulder/AFP

Africa’s space and satellite industry has lift-off, and sector startups are capitalising on bolstered national space budgets as governments increasingly see the practical benefits of space technology.

African governments spent $490m on space programmes in 2020, up from $250m in 2019, according to the latest report on the continent’s space industry by consultants Space in Africa. Satellite manufacturing, and the trade in satellite-harvested big data analytics, are seen as particularly well positioned for growth.

In March, Tunisia became the sixth African country to manufacture a satellite, launching Africa’s 43rd into orbit. Challenge 1, built by Tunisian company Telnet Holding, was launched from Kazakhstan on board a Russian Soyuz 2 rocket.

Space in Africa predicts 110 African-owned satellites will launch by 2024, and the African Union Commission is enacting its African Space Policy signed in 2017, with Egypt poised to host its headquarters.

“Space is part of the plumbing of the modern information society, and all countries nowadays rely on space,” says Peter Martinez, executive director at the Secure World Foundation. 

“If you have a cell phone, or you’re using a debit card at an ATM, or checking the weather, you’re relying on a space system. For national prosperity, national security, and human and environmental security, Africans need those kinds of services just as much as anybody else. That’s why we continue to see growing investment in space even during Covid.”

Building for the future

The manufacturing sector is gathering steam, with a cluster of African firms involved in building small satellite systems and components.

Astrofica, a black-owned satellite technology company, is part of a growing space and satellite hub based in Cape Town. The firm specialises in satellite consultancy and manufacturing, including assembling and testing systems for African and international clients. Astrofica says the data its clients collect narrows communication gaps on the continent, guides government security and maritime policies, and helps farmers react to weather patterns.

“We see the challenges people are facing, and we can have the solution,” space engineer Jessie Ndaba, who co-founded Astrofica with Khalid Manjoo in 2018, tells African Business.

Astrofica has completed seven projects to date, and their satellites range from around $1.4m for their Cube satellite, to a $20m micro set, which covers both the satellite and its launch.

Twenty percent of the components are made locally, and Ndaba says the business is in the process of building a constellation of 50 satellites that, once in orbit, will allow Astrofica to sell their own data sets to African governments.

“I remember saying to my kids one day, if we don’t see space providing tele-education and tele-health in Africa to reach out to the most remote areas during my time, I would have failed. Space is my calling, and we’re working towards improving peoples lives.”

The practical purpose of space

Unlike in the early Cold War days of the space race, where superpower prestige and military dominance were the main drivers of space activity, societal benefit is the main driver for most African countries in the market today. 

After the launch of Rwanda’s first low altitude satellite, Icyerekezo, in 2019, schools outside the reach of terrestrial broadband gained access to satellite internet. More remote schools and communities in other parts of the continent could follow as more satellites go up. 

Remote sensing from space can provide data for flood prevention and mitigation, from pre-flood assessment to response and recovery, helping to stem catastrophic human and economic losses. In economies reliant on bountiful harvests, satellites help planners manage scarce resources and predict disasters such as insect swarms. 

Remote sensing data can also provide data to investors and governments on the likely locations of oil and water resources. 

A report by the World Economic Forum and Digital Earth Africa, a project launched in 2019 to make global satellite imagery more accessible, estimates that better use of satellites to track changes in water, land, construction and vegetation could unlock more than $2bn a year of benefits for Africa, including nearly $900m in annual gains in agricultural productivity.

Yet despite the opportunities, the huge costs of building and launching satellites necessitate extensive government financial support.

Radio telescopes in South Africa's Northern Cape province.
Radio telescopes in South Africa’s Northern Cape province. (Photo: Alexander Joe / AFP)

“I think the countries that are serious about becoming space actors on the African continent have to support their private sector, through direct investment, tax breaks [and] encouraging partnerships between industry and academia,” says Martinez. “Governments should also become anchor clients for certain products and services.”

South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation has committed to investing $1.37m in the development of two nano satellites at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, to provide communication services to the maritime industry via satellite-based radio navigation. 

The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has begun constructing a $4.94m 24-hour state-of-art regional space weather facility in Cape Town, which will monitor solar events, and how they interact with the Earth’s magnetic systems, GPS signals, and energy grids.

“The reduction in the technological and financial barriers means that you can start seeing African space startups and hubs like we’re seeing in Cape Town, with a whole cluster of space companies,” says  Martinez.

Although parts of Africa have accessed satellite data for decades, it has often come from non-African actors and can be costly. Self-reliance in space is now the target for governments, enabled by a fall in satellite production costs.

For Jessie Ndaba, African satellite-tech companies are ideally positioned to step up.

 “We know the African markets better than the international suppliers, and what we need more of is African-built constellations based on the research and the requirements of Africans.”

Big opportunity in big data

Satellite data is a subset of big data – a term used to define vast volumes of data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends and associations – and its services are an increasing driver of the African space sector.

It is estimated that big data analytics via satellite imagery will generate nearly $18bn globally in cumulative revenues, and $3.1bn in revenue opportunities by 2028, according to a report by Northern Sky Research. The African data centre market size is expected to reach $3bn by 2025.

Africa’s satellite industry is also targeting the expansion of satellite internet services that can help address the grossly inadequate infrastructure in African hinterlands. Providers beam a fibre internet signal from earth to a satellite in space, before the internet signal is transmitted back to earth and captured by individual satellites connected to an individual Wifi router.

Major international firms are already establishing themselves in the market. Elon Musk’s SpaceX-built Starlink constellation will expand from 1,300 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched last year, to 42,000 satellites over the next few decades, bringing rapid speeds of up to 300 megabits per second to underserved areas of the planet.

SpaceX is targeting coverage in Nigeria in late 2021, and other African markets in 2022. The commercial service will target the well-off – customers can pre-order Starlink with a deposit of $99, which will be deducted from a proposed monthly subscription of $99, and consumers will need a Starlink hardware kit containing a Wifi router and satellite connector terminal for $499.

“SpaceX mega constellations mean one company alone will soon have more satellites in space than all the other national satellites from all countries put together,” says Martinez.

A game-changer for Africa

But African firms can enter the market in other ways. South Africa-based satellite internet service provider Twoobii rents out individual satellite terminals for $25 per month, with subscriptions for a business account with 30 employees beginning at $136. The firm targets businesses, resellers and ICT integrators as its core market. 

A report from the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers says that Twoobii plays a vital role in connecting off-grid locations to internet networks across Southern Africa, with units capable of being installed virtually anywhere.

CEO Dawie De Wet says that Covid has driven up the market for “off-grid” connectivity, with satellites set to play a key role. 

“Even in highly developed markets and regions, generally 10% of users are not within good network coverage or are outside of fibre network areas, and satellite would be their next best option,” De Wet tells African Business.

“Twoobii is very much focused on the business and enterprise market, in particular the fintech sectors, and it will also become increasingly feasible for the average off-grid household, as people working from home now have a choice where they want to stay, and do not have to live close to work.”

De Wet believes Starlink’s arrival could change the game, and drive up public awareness of satellite internet technology.

Once seen as an unaffordable folly, the benefits of space technology are now increasingly grounded in Africa’s everyday reality.

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