26 November 2018
by ABDI LATIF DAHIR
With Beijing’s assistance, Ethiopia is heading to space in just under a year.
The Horn of Africa nation announced it would launch its first earth observatory satellite in Sept. 2019, with China footing much of the bill. Officials from both governments’ space agencies met both in August and November (in Amharic) to advance talks on technological transfer and sign cooperative agreements on space activities.
Designed and built at a cost of $8 million, China will pay for $6 million of the capsule’s price, the head of the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI) at Addis Ababa University Solomon Belay Tessema told The EastAfrican newspaper. The satellite will be launched from China, but its command and control center will be based in Ethiopia. Once launched, Addis Ababa says it will utilize it to collect data on changes in climate and weather-related phenomena.
The latest announcement marks a noteworthy development to Ethiopia’s space ambitions, which started accelerating in the last few years. In 2016, the government established ESSTI as a way to fully exploit space technologies for development purposes. In Jan. 2017, the ministry of science and technology announced it would launch a satellite into orbit in three to five years to improve its weather-monitoring capabilities. This followed the launch of a privately-funded, multi-million-dollar astronomical observatory in the Entoto hills overlooking Addis Ababa—a one-of-its-kind station that would allow Ethiopia to observe both the northern and southern hemisphere skies. Just this month, ESSTI announced plans to build (in Amharic) a satellite assembly and test center.
As satellites get smaller and cheaper, an increasing number of African nations are declaring their plans to look skyward. Countries including Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco have partnered to launch or launched their own programs to power their own scientific, technological and military ambitions. The African Union has also introduced an African space policy, which calls for the development of a continental outer-space program and the adoption of a framework to use satellite communication for economic progress. And as criticisms abound over the anomalous use of resources in the face of more pressing day-to-day concerns, the demand for satellite capacity is expected to double in the next five years in sub-Saharan Africa.
China, which has deepened its place in Africa in all spheres economic and political, wants to wade into this sector. Conquering the space business and providing space mapping services is part of Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, with both state-run and private Chinese space companies selling made-in-China satellites abroad. In January, China gave $550 million to Nigeria for the purchase of two satellites from Chinese manufacturers both of which are slated for launch in the next two years.
Yet China’s technological transfers to Africa have increasingly come under scrutiny, with experts warning that these digital systems could be used for Beijing’s intelligence operations and electronic surveillance. While Addis Ababa says it would use the satellite to monitor crops and the weather, it could also use it for spying purposes. And even though Ethiopia is opening up and reforming under its new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t use the satellite to boost its military and surveillance might.