SA’s space economy to become Africa’s satellite powerhouse
South Africa’s multibillion-rand space economy has the potential to help rescue the country’s ailing economy by promoting sustained socio-economic growth, while addressing government’s many priorities.
This was the key message echoed by experts in a recent panel discussion, titled: “Maximising innovation and growth of the space economy for South Africa”, organised by Brand South Africa, in collaboration with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and Department of Science and Innovation.
As SA finds itself in a precarious economic situation, exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, the country’s space economy is seen as a hot spot to strengthen the economic reconstruction and recovery pathways.
The panellists noted that promoting the use of space-related initiatives as an enabler of development will assist government, the private sector and society, not only from an innovation perspective, but also in helping to unlock economic opportunities.
Dr Valanathan Munsami, CEO of SANSA, highlighted that SA is well ahead of its African counterparts in advancements in the space sector.
He noted it is the only country on the continent that has the engineering capability for full design and manufacturing of satellite communication technologies, while most countries on the continent rely on procuring these products and services from foreign partners.
SA has the biggest and most advanced ground segment of a spacecraft system on the African continent, with about 70 different antennas on the ground station, and houses the only space weather centre in Africa.
Founded in 2020, SANSA was created to promote the use of space, and strengthen co-operation in space-related activities, while fostering research and development in science and technology, aeronautics and across the country’s aerospace sectors.
SA is becoming increasingly reliant on satellite infrastructure, using it for navigation, communications, data analytics and weather prediction, among other functions.
Munsami said SANSA and its ecosystem of partners have been delivering on an array of government’s national priorities relating to development in three key areas: environment and resource management; health, safety and security; and innovation and economic growth.
“There is a lot of positive momentum created around re-shaping SA’s space economy. We are seeing a significant growth trajectory in terms of the project pipelines that are coming through from the space economy – two years ago, we were looking at about R150 million of revenue coming into the system, currently we are sitting on a revenue stream of about R350 million.
“We are trying to drive the growth as strongly as possible, and if we push forward over the next two years, that revenue stream will be approximately R18 billion.
“Our mission as an agency is to provide leadership; it’s not about implementing all the projects in-house, but rather re-confirming our commitment towards stimulating the space ecosystem and unlocking that potential.”
According to Munsami, the space economy consists of thematic programmes segmented into four compartments: earth observation, navigation, communication products and services, and space science and exploration.
He provided an outline of some of the projects SANSA and its partners are working on:
- SANSA is acquiring new space infrastructure worth about R 4.5 billion, to generate growth and stimulate the ecosystem.
- Building a telecommunication satellite that forms part of the National Telecommunications Strategy, which will be approved by government this year.
- Building a computer lab in partnership with the European Space Agency, to allow SA to design satellites within a month or two, as opposed to the traditional way that takes up to 12 months.
- SANSA is exploring various ways of hosting teleports – using thousands of satellites to provide internet connectivity to citizens from space.
- SANSA is working on a deep space network that will allow the agency to track all the Luna and Mars missions, and also support global missions from foreign agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
“In April 2020, SANSA introduced a new strategy, outlining a vision which is about integrating SA’s national space capability, looking at it more from an ecosystem point of view and moving into providing services for Africa,” Munsami continued.
“SANSA’s strategy priority areas intersect with government’s nine policy instruments; therefore, in order to address government’s priorities, we actually need space, science and technology to deliver on its mandate.”
Also speaking during the webinar, Fikiswa Majola, deputy director of space systems at the Department of Science and Innovation, pointed out the local space ecosystem is poised to help SA unlock its economic growth potential and will cement its footprint in the global space landscape.
As the department responsible for creating a conducive environment for research and development in the science, technology and innovation field, the space sector remains a high priority, as part of its goal to achieve a transformed, responsive and coherent national system, she noted.
“We are looking at competitive sectors that will contribute to higher GDP growth in SA, and the space sector is definitely one of them. A space economy report conducted by a global organisation shows there are high returns on space economy investments across the globe. Considering the funding opportunities available in SA, you can imagine how much growth that could bring into the economy.
“We foresee even more growth and return on investment. But we must acknowledge the returns are not always in monetary form, but take several forms, including efficiency gains, cost savings, cost avoidance – and many of these are within government service delivery domains such as defence, transport, climate change monitoring, etc,” asserted Majola.
In addition to funding and supporting space-related infrastructure programmes, the DSI is looking at various policies and directives to boost the sector, taking into account the capital-intensive nature of the space industry, but also being aware of the high returns, she added.