Africa is lagging behind when it comes to space activities and the root cause is a lack of space higher education in many countries on the continent, according to an Africa space industry expert.
Ruvimbo Samanga, a Zimbabwean space lawyer and policy analyst, said African nations have not embraced space education, despite the sector’s significant developmental power. In fact, only a handful of countries, South Africa included, offer higher education space studies in a broader context, she said.
“The first African astronaut was from South Africa but, since then, there has not been much movement. The African space industry is really just satellite-based, which is the most primary and basic node of the space industry. There are many nodes of the space industry that can be tapped into,” she said.
Samanga’s interest in space law began when she participated as a semi-finalist in the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition in Adelaide, Australia, where she was named Best African Speaker in 2017.
Later on, she studied at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and now serves on a number of space industry bodies.
She is the national point of contact for the United Nations’ Space Generation Advisory Council for Zimbabwe and the national representative for Women in Aerospace Africa Zimbabwe chapter as well as a Ban Ki-moon Global Citizen Scholar for 2020.
She was recently selected to be part of the international Space Traffic Management Diverse Dozen, chosen by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics to participate in talks on space traffic.
Samanga, who is currently working as a researcher and freelance writer and policy analyst, has contributed to a number of reports for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), a Pan African programme that uses earth observation data for the management of natural resources. It is a project of the African Union and the European Union. She has also been a contributor to the annual African Space Industry report.
Only a handful of countries, South Africa included, offer higher education space studies in a broader developmental context, said Samanga.
She said the few countries in Africa that have thriving space programmes have also made it a core mandate of theirs to boost space education.
Several countries, through their higher education institutions, are active in the field of space science. In March Tunisia launched its first satellite, Challenge ONE.
And, as of June 2020, 11 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan) had successfully launched 41 satellites (38 unilateral and three multilateral satellites) into orbit, of which 29 were manufactured by foreign companies, while the remaining 12 satellites were developed locally by African engineers, according to the website Space in Africa.
Nigeria is hoping to launch its first astronaut, a goal that Morocco and Egypt have also set themselves.
Samanga said the biggest market segment in the African space industry is satellite telecommunications, which is used for everything from environmental management to broadcasting and telecommunications – even for the provisioning of high-speed internet.
“[But] Africa is severely lagging. I think that the rest of the world has already moved towards deep space exploration which is looking towards lunar exploration and extra-planetary exploration settlement, expeditions going to Mars and beyond.
“We have countries like America [United States] which have, to date, launched thousands of satellites that are all being used and embedded in areas such as agriculture and environmental management and telecommunications, and the focus now is already on rocket science and other more niche areas of space,” she said.
Opportunities for students
Samanga said that, in addition to the lack of thriving space programmes, few countries in Africa are trying to boost space education, which is necessary to create opportunities for students.
“There are very limited options for African students. Of the 54 African countries, only about 19 are actively involved in the space industry and, of those 19, only a handful have dedicated space education programmes at higher education level,” she said.
“I think there needs to be more awareness of how impactful this field is, especially because it is the magic bullet to Africa’s development challenges.
“I think it is also the future of sustainable development for the globe and, if Africa is going to be integrated into this new global economy, we will need to have individuals who are skilled, especially the youth as the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, very, very few African countries have a space education curriculum.”
According to her, a number of South African universities have space programmes at masters level as well as aerospace engineering programmes.
She said Ethiopia is “big” in astronomy with astronomy programmes within its educational curriculum and, in Nigeria, civil society engagement also plays a major role with a number of foundations actively involved in educating young people about space.
“In Zimbabwe and some African countries, space education at secondary and tertiary [level] is very limited to the extent that it focuses only on a few niche subjects’ areas, for instance geography and GIS (Geographic Information System).
“There are individuals who can specialise in key subjects and delve into environmental management using satellite data and all of these related fields, but pure space education is not provided for.
“So, there is a gap in terms of, for instance, astronomy, space law, aerospace engineering and all of those core space and aerospace subjects,” she added.
“When I say space is the magic bullet, I say so because I believe technological innovation is the future, especially for Africa, seeing we have a host of developmental challenges relating to food security, water security, environmental management, and all these are intrinsically linked to space technology.
“The misconception in Africa about the space industry is that people usually equate it to launching rockets and going to the moon and Mars but forget that, if you are using the internet or you are watching TV or you are withdrawing money from an ATM, you are using some form of satellite infrastructure.”
So, while the space industry affects everyday life, several of the initiatives in Africa are affected by lack of funding and Samanga recommended that African governments should provide the required resources as the space industry is a capital-intensive industry requiring large capital investment.
Higher education institution should also attempt to acquire the resources students need, she suggested.
“A number of students who are engaged in subjects such as GIS at universities are disadvantaged because of the software they use. When you are working as a GIS analyst, you are expected to use bespoke software which, unfortunately, can cost an arm and a leg.
“What frequently happens in practice is that they use open source software at universities but, when [students] go into the workplace, they are then asked to use more complex software which they would not have been exposed to. They end up lagging behind their peers because they can’t manipulate the licensed software,” she added.
She said policy reform and reforming the ICT sector will also be a big step in the right direction for Africa.
Samanga said there is also a need to promote gender parity in enrolments and within the industry to ensure that more women get involved in the sector.
“From my research, in Zimbabwe gender distribution would be about 70 male, 30 female who are studying or who are working in the space industry. For the most part, in my industry I generally work with more males than females.
“I am not only the only space lawyer in the country, in the industry. I am one of the few women. I am yet to meet an aerospace engineer from Zimbabwe. In Africa, the [ratio] is … around 60:40 and the weight is still male against female,” she said.
Samanga said space outreach and awareness are important to make space knowledge accessible to ordinary citizens in a language that they understand. She said there is a need to translate vital information into official languages.
“I have an example from the International Space Station, which is a large satellite that orbits around the earth. It frequently passes over Zimbabwe … and, to the ordinary person who does not know what it is, it must just look like a plane. But when people understand what this thing is, they can also begin to understand that this is a thriving industry. There is a lot of potential.
“Over the years, space junk or debris from outer space has fallen on Zimbabwe territory in communal land and there was no understanding as to what it was, how detrimental it is, or even the legal recourse that can be taken if that junk were to cause harm after landing on someone’s house.
“People assume it’s UFOs or missiles or other things when it’s just a space phenomenon that has not really been explained to the ordinary person. So, space education and outreach go hand in hand,” she said.
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