Ethiopia joins the space race

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on December 20, 2019 06:37

 © All rights reserved/FBC
All rights reserved/FBC

Ethiopia has wanted to build and launch its own satellite for many years. In late 2018, the plans picked up steam amidst wider reforms of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new government. 

The launch date was postponed by three days due to bad weather earlier this week.

China Daily reports, “The Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite-1, or ETRSS-1, was sent into space by a Long March 4B carrier rocket from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in North China’s Shanxi province.”

The exitement among those gathered to watch was palpable.

And that is largely because of the large cohort of Ethiopian scientists and engineers who have been involved in the project.

Ethiopian and Chinese aerospace engineers built the 70kg satellite in China. The project involved 20 Ethiopian aerospace engineers, and 60 PhD and masters students.

China contributed 75% of the funds to build the $8m satellite. 

Ethiopia has wanted to build and launch its own satellite for many years. In late 2018, the plans picked up steam amidst wider reforms of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new government.

  • The satellite will provide all the necessary data on changes in climate and weather-related phenomena that would be utilised for the country’s key targets in agriculture, forestry as well as natural resources protection initiatives,” Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde told the country’s parliament in October.

In January 2020, Ethiopia will also break ground on a satellite manufacturing, assembly, integration, and testing (MAIT) facility. A French company will build the facility with funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB).


Ethiopia’s satellite facility will be the third of its kind on the continent, after those in Algeria and South Africa.  Egypt and Nigeria also have plans to build similar facilities.

Ethiopia’s MAIT facility will take 30 months to complete. It will position Ethiopia as East Africa’s space hub, while cutting the costs of using satellites from other countries.

  • “We are spending a lot in foreign currency for transponder satellite renting… In order to avoid such huge recurrent spending in the future, we are now working to build fully our own satellite within three to four years time,” said Getahun Mekuria, Ethiopia’s Innovation and Technology Minister earlier this week.

In 2017, the African Union outlined a space policy for its members.

From just one country on the continent with a satellite (South Africa, 1999), there are now more than two dozen satellites owned by African countries.

In East Africa, Ethiopia will join Kenya and Rwanda as countries with satellites in orbit.

The continental space agency will be headquartered in Egypt, and will work to bring even more countries on board.

  • “The ultimate goal is: How can we use this technology to solve our challenges, for example in infrastructure, agriculture, environment and disaster management?” Islam Abou El-Magd at the Egypt Space Agency told media in April.


There is also a possibility that the satellite could be used to enhance surveillance, especially given how Ethiopia’s government has previously deployed such systems.

The collapse of Ethiopia’s social surveillance system also raises the possibility that satellites could be used to monitor citizens.

The bottom line: While Ethiopia reaches for the stars, it’s turning its gaze towards its own country to improve weather forecasting and, possibly, watch its critics.

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