The status of Earth observation & Geo-Information Sciences in Africa – trends and challenges

Author: Prof Tsehaie Woldai
Summary by Anthony Penderis, African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment.

The African continent is bound to become more dependent on the space industry for job creation, poverty alleviation and sustainable resource management. These were some of the findings in a paper recently published by an expert in the field of Earth observation and Geo-information sciences.

Prof Tsehaie Woldai’s paper, titled “The status of Earth Observation (EO) & Geo-Information Sciences in Africa – trends and challenges”, appeared in the Journal of Geo-spatial Information Science. Woldai is a visiting professor at the School of Geosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

In his research, he found that up to end of 2019, 28 of the 54 African countries were already engaged in the Earth observation and geo-information sciences through 90 academic institutions, 17 national scientific associations, 53 national space agencies, 10 satellite receiving and tracking stations and a few regional technical laboratories. While the industry currently provides employment to some 15 000 people on the African continent, Woldai expects this number to exceed 100 000 by the year 2025.

The growing dependence of the continent on the satellite industry is also clear from the fact that by the end of last year, 11 African countries have already launched 36 satellites together into orbit while another five are expected to be launched by the first quarter of 2021; and yet another five by 2025 – amounting to 46 satellites in total.

Woldai believes the industry is not limited by the continent’s overall poor infrastructure, yet it can address some of its most pressing problems cost-effectively, including that of environmental protection and management, water resources, food security, mining and forest management, marine protection, urban and regional planning, transportation and disaster risk reduction.

In his paper, Woldai also argues that academic institutions play a critical role, since they tend to be sustainable and focused on applied research. Traditionally, much of the Earth observation capacity was based regionally (e.g. AFRIGIST in Nigeria, the defunct Regional Remote Sensing Center in Burkina Faso, and RCMRD in Kenya) or abroad. Today, African universities function as training nodes in geomatic, remote sensing and geoinformation science – around 23% offer degrees and research programmes in these fields, and 11% of the universities and colleges offer three to seven-day GIS courses to undergraduates.

Professional networks such as the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, AfriGEOSS, the Environmental Information Systems Africa (EIS-AFRICA); and the University Network for Disaster Risk Reduction in Africa (UNEDRA) too have contributed to knowledge sharing.

Woldai concludes that if Africa is to leapfrog its challenges effectively, the continent needs to invest in science and maths education at schools and develop an indigenous critical mass of trained space scientists, engineers and programmers at universities. He further recommends that the continent prioritises ICT infrastructure such as satellite communication, navigation and positioning, and space sciences, as well as internet connectivity.

Woldai outlines three criteria as necessary for the space sector’s success in Africa:

  • A well-informed public sector to develop a strategy and architecture for space exploration and space data, and create an environment for public-private partnership
  • Developed academic institutions to support capacity development in Earth observation and geo-information sciences, space engineering and technology
  • A thriving private sector to serve as an engine for economic growth

Read the full paper here.

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