A surprise announcement, but not so surprising. The President of Djibouti, Ismaël Omar Guelleh, revealed, in early January, on Twitter, a project to build a space launch base, in partnership with the Chinese company Hong Kong Aerospace Technology.
A major project for this country in the Horn of Africa, which has long relied on its strategic location at the entrance to the Red Sea, one of the busiest trade routes in the world, to develop its economy. With this space base at 1 billion dollars (933 million euros) over five years, this desert state is betting, this time, on its close proximity to the equator.
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The project is still in its infancy – only a memorandum of understanding has been signed – but a source at the Djiboutian presidency says that a final agreement is expected for “April or May”after one “visit of Djiboutian experts to China”. If it comes out of the ground, this base would then become the only one in operation in Africa, the only continent that does not currently have a launch site.
A few satellites were put into orbit until the 1980s from Kenya, where a base run by Italians in Malindi, on the Indian Ocean, then fell into disuse. In 2021, press reports had revealed Turkey’s desire to set up a space base in Somalia, where Ankara already has a military site. But nothing has materialized since in this country plagued by multiple crises, including the insurrection of the Shabab Islamists.
“It is the best placed continent”
Without launch pads, Africa is nevertheless geographically obvious when it comes to accessing space: about fifteen countries are located on or in the immediate vicinity of the equator, the ideal location for launching rockets. “Beyond even the launch, Africa is in the middle of the world. In terms of tracking satellites and even receiving their signals and monitoring them, it is the best-placed continent, pleads Tidiane Ouattara, space expert with the African Union, in Ethiopia. It’s full economic potential for us, full potential for job creation, and better still, it’s full potential for strategic cooperation for all African countries. »
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Whether it concerns bases, equipment such as satellites or telescopes or the creation of specific agencies, Africa has shown, in recent years, a growing interest in space. According to Lagos-based consultancy Space in Africa, the industry is now worth $19 billion on the continent and is expected to grow to $22 billion by 2025.
If some countries, like Nigeria, dream of sending men into space, “ space programs in Africa focus primarily on the use of space technologies to meet development challenges”, observes Temidayo Oniosun, director of Space in Africa. Satellites are the ideal tool. In terms of connectivity, of course, but also meteorology, to manage agricultural seedlings, predict droughts and natural disasters. In terms of security, as a surveillance system against terrorism. And even town planning, to control coastal erosion, which threatens many African cities.
In 2021 and 2022 alone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Angola and Uganda acquired new satellites. While Africa now has 55 in orbit – an anecdotal figure compared to a total numbering in the tens of thousands – the vast majority of them were launched these “last five to seven years”, and a hundred more are in development, says Oniosun.
This enthusiasm was driven by the advent of new space, or the irruption, thanks to the drastic fall in costs, of the private sector in an area historically dominated by the States. African governments can now afford a nanosatellite from 50,000 dollars (and up to more than 150 million), possibly manufactured in less than two years by a start-up or by students, underlines Mr. Ouattara: “Space has become very affordable for Africa, it has changed the whole dynamic. »
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To coordinate this push, the African Union is setting up an African space agency, to be headquartered in Egypt – one of the continent’s heavyweights, along with South Africa and Nigeria. Beyond collaboration and training, its mission will be to represent the continent in international debates, such as that of space debris, from which it is currently excluded, argues the Ivorian expert.
Alongside development, for Africa it is also an obvious issue of sovereignty. For the time being, the States of the continent thus depend on partnerships with the major space powers, such as the United States or Russia, to launch their satellites, but also to benefit from numerous data. A situation all the more precarious at the time of the war in Ukraine, which shook the space sector and polarized alliances, underlines Mr. Oniosun.
Despite the emergence of the private sector, the space sector remains deeply imbued with geopolitical issues. And, as in other areas, such as infrastructure, Africa seems to be the subject of great power rivalry. In December 2022, during the United States-Africa Summit in Washington, Rwanda and Nigeria joined NASA’s Artemis program, while a Kenyan delegation discussed with possible partners.
On his side, “China is actively studying the possibility of having a launch base in Africa” for years, says Victor Mwongera, a professor at Kenyatta University, Nairobi.
This expert explains that, when it comes to space, the Asian giant “is very likely to follow the same model as for other infrastructure projects: offering to manage the technical aspects and the financing, and that African countries take control of the asset after a while”.
In Djibouti, of which Beijing is a key partner, the agreement on the space base provides “the final concession of the infrastructure (…) after thirty years of co-management”.
Source – Globe Echo