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04 May 2017

"Africa has experienced somewhat of a boom in space activity over the last few years with several countries establishing national space agencies," said Peter Martinez, a professor of space studies at the University of Cape Town.


Several countries have declared their growing space ambitions. In January, Ethiopia announced plans to launch a satellite in three to five years to predict weather conditions.

In 2013, Kenya reported that it had found, using a satellite, two aquifers that could supply it with water for 70 years. Nigeria aims to put an astronaut in space by 2030 and has used satellites to locate Boko Haram insurgents.

But this boom is not the space race of yesteryear, when the US and the Soviet Union competed for prestige. Instead, Martinez said, this space rush is largely fuelled by much lower barriers to entry than ever before.

"In the Cold War days, the main actors were superpowers; they were the gatekeepers," he said.

Now, as more countries recognise the importance of satellite technology, the prevalence of space technology makes it much easier.

Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor who specialises in such programmes in developing countries, cautioned against lofty projects in Africa.

"The space programmes are largely about satellite technology and not sending humans into orbit," he said. "It is important to clarify this because . it makes it look like Africans are wasting money on lofty projects that should be left to rich countries. This image is as wrong as it is misleading."

Countries use satellites to mine data to benefit citizens.

"Satellites are used to support sustainable development in a number of ways," Martinez said.

"In the immediate response to a disaster, the infrastructure is probably wiped out so satellites provide the only means of communication and navigation," he said.

Said Juma, "The changing climate, telecommunications and security are reasons for the growing interest."

Story by David Gernon. Published first on TimesLIVE.