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Why Ethiopia is building a space program

By The Economist

THE ancient holy town of Lalibela, perched some 2,500 metres above sea-level in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, boasts some of the clearest night skies imaginable. Ethiopian stargazers dream that the mountains around Lalibela may one day host a world-class observatory to rival the big ones in Chile and Hawaii. And in time Ethiopia hopes to do more than just gaze at the stars. It would like to launch its own satellites, too.

In January the government said it would launch a Chinese-built civilian satellite from an overseas rocket pad within the next five years. It would be designed to Ethiopian specifications and used to monitor crops and the weather, and doubtless to spy on neighbours, too. The government also wants to reduce reliance on foreign telecoms by launching its own communications satellite.

In putting its own satellites into orbit Ethiopia would join the select club of African nations that have already done so. Nigeria has paid for the launch of five since 2003, some of which it says have helped fight terrorism. South Africa has also put several home-built satellites into space. Egypt launched two earth-observation ones, both of which have since failed; a private company, Nilesat, successfully operates communications ones. Kenya, Angola and Ghana are eager to join them.

Being able to beam communications or take photos from space offers some economic benefits. Ethiopia’s government hopes that mapping the country to help resolve land disputes, for instance, could boost agricultural productivity. And it could help with planning cities better. Investment in space science might also help speed up industrialisation, the government hopes.

But do countries like Ethiopia need to own, build, or launch their own satellites to reap these benefits? Constellations of satellites constantly float above Africa today, providing the signals used for global positioning services and, for a fee, pictures that can be used to assess droughts and other natural disasters. Gabon aims to manage its vast forests with the help of a satellite receiving station, not by building a satellite. High-resolution, tailored imagery is still costly, but the sort that can be used for most development purposes, such as monitoring crop yields, is now cheap or even free. And many functions of satellites, such as resource mapping, are increasingly being replaced by drones.

The case for communication satellites, which are much more expensive, is weaker still. Keith Gottschalk of the University of the Western Cape notes that a single communications satellite can broadcast to the entire continent. Nigeria, meanwhile, spent $300m on a Chinese communication satellite which failed in little over a year. Its successor struggles to compete with commercial providers: its annual revenue in 2015 was a measly $3.3m.

Africa is entering the space race at a time when the cost of satellite technology is falling fast. Tiny “cubesats” can be made by private firms for just a few hundred thousand dollars each and launched just as cheaply. For Ethiopia, where few scientists have the expertise to make use of the flood of cheap data, perhaps the best argument for a modest space programme is that it might help the country develop its human capital. But at a time when 5.6m Ethiopians need emergency food aid because of a drought, it seems an odd priority.



  1. This is nothing but soothing music to my ears. Satoshi Kanazawa, eat your hearts out!!! Gag yourself!!! In your face, Dr. James Watson, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Alan Murray. And that Matching Law? To borrow Mel Brooks line in Blazing Saddle, Up Yours With That!!!!

  2. Satellites are more importantly going to be used to blow up Amhara and Oromo from the face of the earth.

    The digital warfare era woyanes Vs. the Arbegna era Ethiopians is what is coming unless woyane is eliminated soon.

    The command post doesnot dare send Woyane soldiers into the jungle because the soldiers might turn the guns on the command post rather than going into the jungle,
    the jungles of north western Ethiopia is where the Woyane soldiers consider to be a suicide for them if they step in right now.
    The woyanes are even considering blowing the whole jungle from air where freedom fighters are operating if they get their locations. that is why woyane deceided to export donkeys so the satellite doesnot mistaken donkies for freedom fighters.
    Unless tanks and military helicopters are there accompanying them the Kitfo and whisky addicts woyanes are not able to go deep in the jungles anymore , that is why the Command post-woyanes spend crazy amount on satellites . The Command-post woyanes need satellites to tell them what is going on in the jungle while they are sitting right their in their couches. The soldiers are not willing to go deep into the jungle and tell the command post through radio like it was done always .

    Just few months ago in the North Western Ethiopia jungle more than 10 Woyane soldiers died of starvation because their leaders that were supposed to be there with them went defecting to Sudan with all the food instead of being in the North Western Ethiopia jungle with the soldiers. they were all sent to be searching to locate student protestors that supposedly went into hiding in the jungle. Till this day the students are not found because Woyanes donot want to go deep in the jungle unless they get tanks and helicopters accompanying them which is almost impossible to do so in some landscapes.

    Coming soon: The digital warfare era woyanes Vs. the Arbegna era Ethiopians

    The Unseen Threat of Digital Warfare http://time.com/4263185/digital-warfare/

  3. since when did TPLF (the ruling party of minority tigreans) ever care about justifying return on investments?

    TPLF is anathema to the laws of finance and accounting in literally everything that it does. EFFORT and METEC, the two quasi-parastatal conglomerates are perhaps among the largest in africa and control 80% of ethiopia’s industrial output, and yet they do not adhere to any financial accounting standards that the rest of the world lives by.

    Request for an ROI, ROA or NPV of projects and/or for the annual reports of these publicly owned companies, you will soon find yourself in a furry of accusation pinning you to a wall for adhering to ideologies of neo-liberalism as if financial standards are the inventions and requirements of particular leaning to a school of thought.

  4. A vanity project to loot more money …..there are burning issues that requires immediate response….millions are dying of hunger and famine is a recurrent phenomena and yet TPLF engaged in projects that do not alliviate fellow Ethiopians suffering.. ..how long Ethiopia sustain the lives of its population with food aid? Every project in Ethiopia has to factor in the prevailing issues on the ground. Projects shouldn’t be copy and paste just for the mere reason that some African countries undertaking them!

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