development media technology

The truth about Africa’s space programmes

Nigeriasat-X, built in Surrey

Of all the stupid things written about Africa in the British press, the recent fussing about space programmes is among the stupidest. If you’re lucky enough not to have come across the story, it concerns countries that receive development aid from Britain and also have space programmes of one kind of another. Outrageous, say UKIP, the tabloids and the anti-aid brigade.

“If a foreign government has enough cash to invest in an ambitious space programme,” says Matthew Sinclair of the ubiquitous Taxpayers Alliance, “it should not expect to be receiving cash from the UK which is earmarked for helping the world’s poorest.” Tory MP Philip Davies joins in: “We have got to say to these countries ‘you have got to spend that money on your people where it’s most needed not on some grandiose space programme’.”

There are a couple of assumptions here. One is that these schemes are ‘grandiose’ or ambitious. The second is that they won’t do any good for the poor. Neither of those things is necessarily true.

First, despite the tabloid talk of ‘joining the space race‘, these are generally not vanity projects. Most often we’re talking about astronomy programmes at African universities, taking advantage of the continent’s clear skies. If sending anything into space is involved at all, it’s satellites, not space missions. Usually the satellites are carried on other countries’ rockets, such as China’s or Russia’s. The main focus of space initiatives is often academic, aimed at developing local engineering expertise and encouraging science and innovation.

“Space programs in Africa are not focused on getting men in space,” says Professor Nithaya Chetty of South Africa’s space agency. “African governments are finally coming around to understand the critical importance of science as an instrument for development. Training in astronomy, and training in computing and engineering leads to skills that are very wide ranging and are transferable to other disciplines.”

Some of the countries being talked about have space programmes, but we shouldn’t read too much into the idea. Kenya is a leader in astronomy, but in terms of actual spacefaring ambitions, it has a disused Italian launchpad off Malindi that it would like to renovate as a commercial venture. Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre did launch its first ‘satellite’ this year, but it was the size of a coke can, built by students and was launched by weather balloon as a demonstration project.

The Daily Mail was being particularly disingenuous in its tutting about Uganda this week. The very same paper ran a story poking fun at Uganda’s ‘space programme’ two years ago, under the headline ‘Not exactly NASA!’. The Ugandan space project is run by volunteer enthusiasts, and suggesting Uganda doesn’t deserve our aid because of it is self-serving nonsense.

Secondly, satellite programmes can help the poor. Many parts of Africa, especially deeper rural areas, are badly connected and in desperate need of infrastructure. Satellite technology can open up communications to those regions far more cheaply than attempting to cable them all. This improves governance too, with governments able to keep in contact with the further reaches of the country.

Satellites can play a role in monitoring droughts, pollution, desertification and natural disasters. One of Nigeria’s satellites relays images of natural disaster zones to relief agencies, and was used to study malaria vectors. They can keep an eye on conflict zones and border disputes and track the movements of rebel forces, as the Satellite Sentinel Project does in Sudan. Now, that particular satellite project was set up by George Clooney and friends, so that’s obviously okay. If an African country had launched it, would it be a luxury vanity project that could have been better spend on the poor? Of course not.

Then there are agricultural and weather forecasting applications, global positioning and mapping technologies, data gathering and climate monitoring. Africa will benefit from all of these things, including the poor. Investing in these technologies is not an either/or decision between satellites and sanitation, any more than Britain has to choose between doing something about youth unemployment and supporting our own Space Agency.

British taxpayers’ money isn’t going towards space programmes in Africa, though plenty of our aid money does go astray, I’m sure. And I’m sure that some developing world space projects are nationalist ego projects with budgets that could be better spent elsewhere. But satellite technology is important and everyone has a right to it. We should celebrate African universities contributing to our knowledge of astronomy, providing Southern hemisphere platforms for space observation, and playing an active role in the advance of science.

Nigeria is even training the first bona fide African astronaut. Great. What could be a better symbol of a rising Africa?


  1. Thanks for these comments, Jeremy. The comments on the alleged vanity of African Space Science give me a big “roll eyes” feeling. If we look back, we Europeans have a history of 3000 years pondering the Skies and the origins of it all, and the scientific revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries happened with a backdrop of poverty, hunger, wars and mass migrations. I can attest to the fact that studies an the earth- and space sciences (both often are closely intertwined) equip the students with an understanding of complexities in general, allowing them to enter in and contribute to many different fields. Astronomy, Physics and the Geo and Environmental Sciences all include essential tools for coping with complex and large scale development and environmental issues. A “space project” already is using, for example, Remote sensing GIS data from existing platforms for land use and regional planning and training students in geo information sciences. This is called development. Capacity building. Fishing rods instead of donations of canned fish, so to say. The opponents appear to have an interest in keeping Africa low, keep Africa from developing too much and thus from eventually becoming an emancipated competition for European companies. And it is ridiculous and immoral anyway to complain about Africa receiving too much aid after European countries exploited the continent for centuries. A beautiful aspect is that all space programs in developing countries operate on shoestring budgets and thus are forced to become immensely creative to find low cost solutions. Maybe that feels like a threat to some folks who are used to the comfort of monstrous state budgets…

    1. Yes, it’s the underlying attitude that troubles me most – the idea that Africa can only ever define itself through poverty, and that a sense of ambition is somehow people getting ideas above their station. There’s a ‘white man knows best’ undertone in MP Davies’ statement that’s actually pretty outrageous – “we have got to say to these countries…”

      It’s a strange double standard. We complain that Africa is backward, and then get all upset when Africans show an interest in technology. Perhaps, as you say, we feel threatened somehow.

  2. No wahala Africa, no wahala: sometimes what’s seen as incorridgible stupidity is the unrelenting persuit of self actualisation. We’re getting there Africa, we’re getting close.

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