The launch of the first Ethiopian satellite

Let us have a look at the launch of the first Ethiopian satellite. Ethiopia is worldwide known for its culture and art, for its sports skills, for its cuisine, mainly coffee (which plays an important part in the culture and in the national traditions). There is however an area in which we did not expect Ethiopia to participate in: outer space. Indeed on December 20, 2019, Ethiopia launched its first microsatellite, baptised ETRSS-1 or Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite, from a launching center in China. Even if the launch was in China, Ethiopian and Chinese officials, as well as scientists, watched a live broadcast at the Entoto Observatory and Research Center, which is located in the suburbs of the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has therefore added a new stone to its edifice of space conquest, or at least of its presence in the occupation of outer space. Currently, having its own satellite has become a necessity for each State, and more and more of them are launching satellites of their own nationality. It is necessary both for security and autonomy reasons, but also for symbolic reasons, since it shows a certain power that the State has (it is a source of pride for a country). The data from the Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite, the first Ethiopian satellite, will help the country to monitor its resources, such as forest and mining resources, improve weather forecast, as well as observe agricultural transformations which will therefore improve the quality of the country’s responses to various issues. The satellite will consequently have very precise and concrete uses.

Solomon Belay, the director general of the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute, explained to the press agency Reuters that China covered most of the manufacturing costs of the satellite. Indeed, of the seven million American dollars in manufacturing costs, China paid for six million American dollars. However, if a large part of the funding has been provided by China, the satellite was designed by both Chinese and Ethiopian engineers. If at first glance, the Chinese funding seems surprising, it’s not when you understand the context. Indeed, China is Ethiopia’s first trading partner. Trade relations between Beijing and Addis Ababa dates back from the late 1990’s, and have intensified in recent years, with an increasingly strong presence of China in Africa. Beijing has a heavy preponderance in the economy of Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa. Thus, Ethiopia has become the second largest recipient of Chinese loans, having borrowed more than twelve billion American dollars from China since the early 2000’s, according to a study. There have been a lot of partnerships between the two countries, the most recent one being an industrial park project worth more than three hundred million American dollars in Ethiopia.

All of this is part of the Chinese strategy (since 2005) to settle in Africa. China invests a lot of money in Africa, in its strategy of creating the “New Silk Roads”. It invests in the African continent to assert its power in many ways. Its presence also has a political dimension since it gives the country support from an entire continent to establish itself as the first superpower in the world. However, the Ethiopian Minister of Technology and Innovation, Getahun Mekurian, expressed a clear willingness of the country to become more independent and more autonomous for the future satellite launches, by using their own system.

The Ethiopian Space Program was launched back in 2004 by the Ethiopian Space Science Society and its status was formalised by the government in 2016, with the creation of this institute. This space program is still in its early stages, currently focusing on the launch of satellites. Thus, the launching of the Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite is the first phase of Ethiopia’s space development program. The second phase should begin in early 2020, with the construction of satellite manufacturing, assembly, integration and testing facilities in Addis Ababa. This is a very substantial project which has been entrusted to French ArianeGroup. The amount of the contract has not been revealed, however, we know that the project is supported by the European Investment Bank in a tripartite agreement between the Ethiopian government, the European bank and ArianeGroup.

This desire to establish its presence in the field of outer space and to participate in the conquest of outer space is not unique to Ethiopia only; indeed, many sub-Saharan countries thus want to develop their own space programs to speed the development of their objectives up, as well as to encourage scientific innovation. Today, there are a few leading African countries in this domain like South Africa, Egypt, or Nigeria. There is a clear will on the part of African countries to form an agreement in this field with the aim of organising a continental cooperation. In this framework, the African Union adopted a policy on African space development in 2017, which declared that space science and technology will promote economic progress and natural resources management on the continent. As Dr. Mahaman Bachir Saley explained, the African space policy and strategy has four main goals: the Earth observation, the satellite communication, the development of astronomy and space science, and navigation and positioning. He explained that one of the strategic goal of the African space policy was to define a coordinated, effective and innovative African-led space program.

It was then with this objective in mind that African countries announced the creation of an African space agency, whose headquarters should be installed in Egypt. This will help create a cooperation on an entire continent, countries that will be able to form a significant space power and thus, take a part of the center stage, probably next to the United States of America, next to Europe, next to China and India. More and more African countries are launching satellites and will continue to launch satellites; more and more countries will give more funds for this domain. It is about pooling countries’ strengths so that the benefits will go to everyone.

The launch of the Ethiopian satellite is therefore a foundation, a stone brought to this massive building which corresponds to a cooperation between the countries of Africa concerning the outer space conquest. It also shows that space conquest is not a business concerning only the richest anymore, as each country can in theory participate in it. It is no longer reserved for a particular elite, it has become the business of the humanity in its entirety.