Thunderbird Organizes Webinar on Africa Integration through Space Policy

The Thunderbird School of Global Management and Arizona State University on Jun 5, 2020, organised a webinar on “Accelerating Regional Integration through Space Policy”. The webinar featured cross-sectoral professionals in the space industry like Dr Vern Singhroy, PhD, Zolana Jao, Jose Ocasio-Christian, William Cromarty, Creel O’Neil, Joseph Abakunda, Liz Cox, Namrata Goswani, Wendy Bernard, Alex Fietcher, and Iniobong Abiola-Awe, with moderation done by Prof Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty, PhD Landry Signe, PhD. The webinar’s focal point was on recommending pathways for regional integration for the African continent in the space sector.

Following the ratification of the African Free-Trade Continental Agreement, the role that space policy can play in advancing regional integration has become a prominent topic in continental development discourse. The impact of the free trade area cannot be understated, as it will become the largest trade zone in the world with unprecedented adoption by African member states. Equally important while embracing this idea of collaboration, is the 4th industrial revolution and the near prospects of a global digital economy, and the consideration of how space policy will enable Africa to integrate with the rest of the world. How viable, then, is using space policy as a partnership tool towards greater economic cooperation and integration in Africa?

During the panel, the speakers cited many examples of how collaboration will drive measurable success within the African continent relating it to regional integration initiatives aimed towards sharing space capabilities for a better African future. This includes the GMES & Africa project and the recently tabled African Space Agency.  At the dawn of the new trade relations horizon, this is a critical moment to consider the role and inclusion of space policy as a fundamental pillar for regional integration, and having a central governance structure embedded within policymaking, such as the African Space Agency. The discussants also highlighted that policymaking is also an essential tool for coordinating the joint efforts within the region. As the main legislative body, the African Space Agency presents an exciting opportunity to develop a uniform and concerted effort toward the advancement of space science and technology in Africa. The African Space Agency will spearhead regional integration. The discussion tilted towards discussions on the far-reaching implications of an integrated space ecosystem for Africa, particularly in the realm of Earth Observation data services.

Zolana Joao commented on progress that has been made in regional partnerships thus far and added that “14 SADC countries had been integrated into a model for a SADC satellite and data sharing framework, which will aim towards open data access for sustainable development through space products in the region. This is one way in which entrenching data sharing policies within national space frameworks can help in advancing regional cooperation in the use of big satellite data, such as earth observation data, to build resilient and sustainable African communities”.

In his presentation, Creel O’Neil from Spire Global in the USA noted that satellite data services hold great potential in advancing the case for investment in space. He added that there generally lies a mistrust in what space offers and what practical uses it presents for African societies, and that there was an urgent need to change the perception of outer space activities from the narrow up-in-the-sky conception to the real-life benefits available to citizens below.

Indeed satellite technology has multi-sectoral benefits in earth observation, as was summarised by Vern Singhroy, the chief scientist on the RADARSAT Constellation. There are two kinds of satellites for Earth Observation (EO) data collection, namely: Optical satellites and Radar satellites, to which Vern Singhroy found radar satellites to be the most critical for Africa’s development. He suggested that “fusing both optical and radar imagery would have massive growth potential for African economies, and space policies should aim at merging these developmental aspects to maximise growth potential in Earth data. These satellites can then be used effectively for monitoring gold mining and mineral exploration, oil spills, land motion, coastal changes and flood responses”. He concluded that the technology was readily available, and there exists a growth mechanism in Africa, i.e. EO data, that needs to be embedded through policy. The discussion quickly shifted as well to how space policy will help us cope during times of crisis. 

Lessons, especially for post-COVID Africa, include the need for better connectivity services to ensure Africa integrates globally, a point which was echoed by Alex Fletcher, Vice President for Research and Development at Local Motors USA. He commented that “the pandemic had laid a very interesting foundation for the growth of new technologies and disruptive innovations in the digital sphere. In keeping a large number of regional collaborators in sync with continental developments would now require reliable and high-speed internet broadband, which is heavily dependent on satellite mega-constellations in lower earth orbit. This presents ample opportunity for Africa to strategically position their policies to promote the new digital/knowledge economy, and draft policy proposals that encourage research and development in satellite manufacturing and launch capabilities, especially for widespread internet access”. 

“The provision of high-speed internet broadband is more pertinent for connectivity during this current crisis period, which has forcibly normalised collaboration, especially across a distance, and will promote the smooth flow of commerce until lockdowns and travel restrictions begin to ease”. A prevailing theme in this section of discussion was the overwhelming need to take advantage of this time and forge meaningful and strategic partnerships for space development.

Liz Cox, the head of international partnerships at the UK Space Agency highlighted that “Space is indeed a unique realm concerning public-private partnerships, and while it can be quite an expensive endeavour requiring vast resource inputs, regional integration could assist African governments in equally distributing the costs and sharing satellite capabilities. These agreements would necessarily have to be legitimised through sound policy”. She further noted that “the fundamental premise towards using space policy as a tool towards regional integration must also be accompanied by a commitment by African economies to invest in space programmes, which have tangible, sustainable development benefits”. She rounded off her discussion by mentioning that “deriving value in space requires policies that tap into research & development, satellite manufacturing capabilities, creating a policy environment for private companies to operate and widespread space education and awareness within member states. Creating these structures gives (an) avenue for space-derived benefits to create value for ordinary citizens”.

A closing remark was given by Wendy Barnard, from Evaluation Services at the Arizona State University. She opined that the realisation of regional integration through space policy would “require Africa to embed evaluation metrics into every step of the regional integration process, gathering information for data-driven decision-making. Outcomes must necessarily be aligned with the effects, therefore benchmarking the steps towards the final impact of space products for sustainable development will be the final hallmark for the successful use of space policy to advance greater regional integration in Africa”.