To infinity and beyond: Funding the future of space projects for development

A drone antenna test is conducted at a European Space Agency technical center in the Netherlands. Photo by: ESA–G. Porter / European Space Agency / CC BY-SA

While space projects show a lot of promise, from reducing the human cost of natural disasters to boosting crop yields, a perennial problem is securing access to sustainable, long-term funding.

For a start, finance relating to the sector is not always easy to come by for development projects. From the perspective of international aid, for example, less than 0.1% of official development assistance was committed to space projects each year between 2000 and 2016, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Although this is only one funding source and an increasing number of countries have stepped up their focus on space-related development in recent years, obtaining finance that allows projects to be more than just another expensive technology trial remains a major challenge. This means that beyond the money, there is demand for more efficient ways of structuring programs to maximize use of funding.

“It’s easier to get funding to develop a new tool or a new service, or bring technology that is not fully operational into a near-operational phase,” said Christophe Christiaen, sustainable finance lead at the Satellite Applications Catapult. “But the same budgets are not available for ongoing running.”

At the same time, he said, recent funding calls have put a greater emphasis on long-term sustainability from the start. And projects such as IPP CommonSensing, on which Catapult is a partner in Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands, has been putting climate finance advisors in place to aid continuity once the project ends.

He also said money for space and development often comes from different pots and funding bodies, so one thing that might help is harmonizing these more. “There could be an opportunity for stronger alignment between these different types of funding that serve slightly different needs,” he explained.

“We’ve all had enough pilot studies. We have demonstrated the impact … it’s just not yet being taken up.”

— Christoph Aubrecht, program coordinator for global development assistance, European Space Agency

New models

On top of that, Christiaen pointed to the UK Space Agency’s introduction of a two-stage approach in its recent round of development funding, which saw £3.4 million ($4.6 million) awarded to 10 space-related projects.

Awardees are required to conduct an initial eight-month “discovery phase” aimed at rigorous scoping-out of partnerships and user needs in-country, only then receiving funding if this proves successful. The goal is greater focus on longevity from the outset, after UK Space Agency identified challenges in previous projects for securing long-term financing and skills transfer.

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Others are similarly seeking solutions. Last year, in collaboration with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the European Space Agency introduced a new model under its Space for IDA initiative to help improve the impact of projects in low- and middle-income countries.

Via this system, the banks mobilize resources for capacity building and knowledge transfer, tying financing for satellite initiatives into overall sustainable development projects rather than being technology-driven. This is complemented by ESA through dedicated resources leveraging its core expertise in space-related technical development.

Christoph Aubrecht, program coordinator for global development assistance at ESA, explained that this structure is about viewing things first and foremost from a long-term development perspective, and how technology fits into that rather than the other way round — thus helping mainstream space applications in sustainable development.

“The focus here is not on financing space programs, the focus is on using technology to have a sustainable impact on development,” said Aubrecht, adding that the aim is for the development community to absorb this as a “new normal.”

“We’ve all had enough pilot studies. We have demonstrated the impact … it’s just not yet being taken up,” he said.

Access challenge

At present, however, it is still a big challenge to gain access to space financing on the NGO side. This may be especially true for those that have little experience in the space sector, said Duncan Drury, lead for connectivity and infrastructure initiatives at NetHope, a technology-focused consortium of nearly 60 global nonprofits.

And that can have a knock-on effect on project sustainability and continuity. “Satellite projects are quite new to a lot of players, and that means the capacity within those organizations isn’t always that high,” Drury said. “It may be that people are hired on a project basis, so once it comes to an end the people that know how to do that kind of thing are no longer part of the organization.”

There is a clear need for better ways to integrate this, but the high cost of space projects is often prohibitive, he explained. One way to overcome this challenge is to adopt a consortium model whereby multiple players unite to aggregate demand for solving wider problems, which NetHope promotes as part of its ethos and has done, for example, through its initiative to expand broadband access in Uganda.

“We learn better together than all doing things separately,” Drury said, adding that this cross-cutting approach gives organizations a better understanding of how these capabilities can help them and the sector to attract donor funding.

Long-term impact

While Drury says there is a long way to go in the satellite sector, he cited conservation organizations as some that are moving ahead. One example is the Sat4Wildlife initiative in Kenya, which was backed in the UK Space Agency’s recent funding round and is led by Fauna & Flora International.

The project, which also involves organizations including Catapult and the Zoological Society of London, is an initiative seeking a much wider long-term impact to make the most of funding beyond a single project. Part of its aim is to create a set of accessible tools for conservation, including an open-source land-based animal tracking system to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.

What is the International Partnership Programme?

The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme is a £152 million ($199 million) multiyear program launched in 2015, which uses U.K. organizations’ space knowledge, expertise, and capability to provide a sustainable, economic, or societal benefit to low- and middle-income countries. It is funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund, a £1.5 billion fund that forms part of the U.K. government’s official development assistance commitment.

This is aided through the inclusion of conservation platform WILDLABS, which counts FFI and other major organizations among its partners, including ZSL and WWF. With around 5,000 members, it describes itself as “the first global open online community dedicated to conservation technology,” bringing together conservationists, technologists, engineers, and data scientists.

In Sat4Wildlife, WILDLABS community manager, Stephanie O’Donnell, said the hope is that this ethos will make inroads into connecting conservationists with the satellite options, helping overcome the challenge of understanding which technologies are available, how they can be applied in conservation, and filtering proven tech from hype.

“There’s a huge gap in knowledge and access to technology for conservation,” O’Donnell said, so the aim is to help knit these communities together.

“There’s a collective strength in having a community trying to think through these different ways of unlocking funding other than one NGO trying to get funding for something,” she added. “We need systemic change, which is what we’re pushing for.”

Right now, of course, it is difficult to avoid the ever-present specter of COVID-19 — which has raised fears of budget cuts in the space industry. But Aubrecht said the situation also offers opportunities with respect to the key part these technologies can play in pandemic response.

Meanwhile, he said, for long-term space projects, the first thought should be about increasing impact rather than looking only at the budget.

“The goal from the development perspective is they will be able to work better,” he said. “Then the financing component will grow by itself and stimulate a bigger market.”

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About the author

  • Gareth Willmer

    Gareth Willmer is a freelance writer and subeditor based in London. His main coverage areas are science, technology and telecoms, as well as how changes and advances in these areas affect the developing world. He regularly works for publications including New Scientist and SciDev.Net, and previously worked as a subeditor for Nature.