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Ethio-China strategic partnership extended to space: the sky is not the limit

Ethiopia has launched its first-ever remote sensing satellite into space on 20 December 2019. The 72kg satellite of Ethiopia was developed in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Space Technology. Twenty one Ethiopian engineers got training in China and were involved in the design and development of the satellite. This Multi-Spectral Remote Sensing Satellite is named Ethiopia Remote Sensing Satellite-1 (ETRSS-1).

ETRSS-1 has been launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in north China’s Shanxi Province. The satellite totally costs about eight million dollars, and of which six million dollars was covered by the government of China. The satellite has a life span of a minimum of two years. With this successful satellite launch Ethiopia could join the 70 countries in the world that operate satellites from space.

ETRSS-1 is operating from 700kms above the surface of the Earth. As part of ceremony, the Ministry of Defense of Ethiopia fired 21 gun salutes as the nation launched the first satellite in its history. Together with the Chinese, the event was attended by senior officials of Ethiopia from Entoto Space Observatory and also televised to the general people.

Development of space technology and challenges in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Space Science Society was established by the initiative of private individuals in 2004. Subsequently, they established the Entoto Space Observatory. The Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute was established by the government in 2016. ETRSS-1 is a breakthrough to Ethiopia’s footsteps in space technology and comprehensive development. In addition to this remote sensing satellite Ethiopia has also a plan to launch communication satellite for telecommunication and broadcasting services.

Space technology development in Ethiopia faces a lot of challenges including shortage of qualified manpower, shortage of finance to such big project, limited or weak collaborations among various stakeholders (research institutes, universities and industries), lack of adequate research facilities, lack of knowledge about the benefit of satellites by the general people and the like.

Designing, constructing and launching a satellite need technical knowledge and ample finances. Thanks to the government and scientists of China, Ethiopia could launch its first satellite by getting both the skill and finance from China. This is a clear indication of the highest level of bilateral relations between the two governments.

The other challenge is the perception towards Ethiopia as a poor and weak country and undermines its initiatives of launching a satellite. For instance, the British Express media has posted its comment saying Ethiopia is developing a space program “while receiving support from UK tax payers”.

Advantages of the satellite

Space technology is not a luxury to Ethiopia and Africa at large. For Ethiopia, having one’s own satellite means saving multi million dollars that she is spending to purchase satellite data from other countries. More than 80 percent of Ethiopians are living in rural areas and getting their livelihood from the agriculture sector. Climate change can have negative impact on the agriculture that can cause drought, flood and other natural calamities. Such remote sensing satellite helps Ethiopia to mitigate unexpected natural disasters. This technology also assists various sectors with pertinent information in conserving natural resources of the country including forestry management, crop monitoring and mining.

The construction and launching of the satellite has also given a chance to transfer technology from China to Ethiopia. Such knowledge and skill will make Ethiopian engineers to design and develop their own satellites and launch by themselves.

The successful launch of the satellite of Ethiopia can also encourage some other neighboring countries to work on space technology. East Africa is known for its volatile situations in economic, social and security concerns. Terrorism, piracy, intra conflicts are rampant in the region. Remote sensing satellites which have high resolutions can also help governments in controlling such violent extremisms in specific areas. Such satellites can easily identify locations of violent rebel groups who are against the life of the general people.

In a nut shell, development of space technology in Ethiopia provides a lot of advantages including job creations to university graduates, technology transfer from developed nations, environmental policy developments, encourage research, studies and innovations in higher institutions and universities, mitigate the impact of climate changes, boost national pride, improve management and conservation of natural resources, enhance economic and social developments.

Africa and satellite technology

About a dozen of African countries have their own satellites on space including Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Angola, Ghana, Morocco and Sudan. However, all African countries do not have their own satellite launching stations. Thus none of the satellites was launched from the African soil.

The space program of Ethiopia is in line with the African Union’s statute on ‘Observatory in Science, Technology and Innovation’. The statute was adopted by the Assembly of the African Union on 30 January 2016 that made the Republic of Equatorial Guinea to be its Headquarters. Its objectives include serving as “the continental repository for STI [Science, Technology and Innovation] data and statistics and a source of policy analysis in support of evidence based policy-making in Africa”. Based on this Statute of the African Union “Statute of the African Space Agency” was adopted on 29January 2018 by the Assembly of the African Union.

Even if some developed countries argue that African countries should use their limited finance for other priorities than space technology, the African Union has adopted a policy on African Space Development and underlined that “Space Science and technology could advance economic progress and natural resource management on the continent”.

Opportunities

Commitment of the leadership of the Ethiopian government is a great opportunity to strengthen space technology in the country. The construction of the satellite had been given great considerations and follow-ups by the government of Ethiopia. When the national parliament started its yearly functions in October 2019, in her opening speech President Sahlework Zewde had disclosed the plan of the government to launch satellite in December of the same year.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) who aspires to technological development in Ethiopia also visited the satellite construction while he had been in China to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum for the International Cooperation that was held from April 25-27, 2019. The National Space Council is chaired by the Prime Minister.

Support from China is another great opportunity to Ethiopia’s space technology development. China is supporting African countries through various multilateral and bilateral frameworks including the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, South-South Cooperation, Belt and Road Initiative, Shared Future and the like.

Bilaterally, Ethiopia and China have reached to the level of Comprehensive Strategic and Cooperation Partnership. Ethiopia is also benefiting from investment and financial support of China, which is also the highest trading partner of Ethiopia and Africa at large. China has provided fund and technical support for the construction of the first satellite.

Ethiopia has some legal frameworks for the development of space technology.The Ethiopian Space Council and Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute was established by the Council of Ministers Regulations number 393/2016. The presence of such laws and institutions are step stones for the development of space technology. In Ethiopia there are many universities which are teaching engineering and computer sciences. The presences of many graduates in these fields are good opportunity to the expansion of satellite technology in the country.

Satellite technology is new development to Ethiopia and many African countries at large. Technical and financial support of China is making countries owner of satellites. This shows the commitment of the government of China to make African countries develop in science and technology.

Ed.’s Note: Melaku Mulualem K. is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Strategic Affairs (ISA). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Melaku Mulualem K.