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Policy and funding

Plans for African Space Agency jeopardized by lack of progress

24 Feb 2020
Collective effort: Africa is already home to continent-wide physics and astronomy societies (Courtesy: Canadian Space Agency).

Progress on establishing a space agency for the African Union (AU) has come to a standstill over a lack of funding and questions about how it will operate. That’s the message in a new  progress report on Agenda 2063 – the AU’s blueprint for development and transformation in the region. It has revealed that progress on the agency is being restrained by delays in “financial and structural” planning by member states.

Legislation to establish the African Space Agency was passed by the AU in 2017 and two years later Egypt was chosen to host its headquarters, with the agency supposed to be up and running in 2023. Plans for an ASU were included as a flagship programme for Agenda 2063, but the new Agenda 2063 progress report, released on 8 February ahead of the AU’s 33rd heads of state summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says that little progress has been made since then.

It might be instructive to take a step back and ask what exactly is it that the African space agency will do once it is established

Peter Martinez

The AU’s space programme has managed to set priority areas for a prospective space programme, while two of the four “baseline studies” – gaps on navigation and positioning in Africa and studying the African private sector – have been completed. But it is still not clear what implications the agency will have on the budgets of African countries.

Costs and benefits

Peter Martinez, a space-policy analyst and executive director of Secure World Foundation, says that the lack of progress could result in delays beyond 2023. with the agency perhaps even being scaled down in scope. “The pace at which the AU can make progress is determined by how fast member states are willing to move on an issue, and this is particularly the case when there may be budgetary implications for them,” Martinez told Physics World. “If countries can see direct benefits flowing back to them, they are much more likely to support the agency financially. On the other hand, if the agency becomes an aggregator of the space technology requirements for African countries, which are then met by entities from outside the continent, the agency will have failed, in my view.”

Martinez adds that countries may just come together to collaborate on specific projects without the need to set up a new continental entity. “It might be instructive to take a step back and ask what exactly is it that the African Space Agency will do once it is established. What is its value proposition for African countries, ranging from those with established space capabilities, to those that still have to take their first steps.”

The AU says that it will now work to tackle the issues raised in the report. It says it will also commit resources to help African countries train scientists in earth observation, satellite communication, navigation and positioning as well as astronomy.

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