The tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, where China has vast commercial and military interests , could be set to host the continent’s first orbital spaceport. This comes after Djibouti signed a US$1 billion preliminary deal with a Hong Kong-based firm to build satellite and rocket launching facilities, as the country banks on its proximity to the Equator to attract investments into the space industry. Sitting at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is a major linchpin in China’s maritime Belt and Road Initiative plans, and since 2017 has hosted China’s only overseas naval base to date. A commercial spaceport will be built in Djibouti’s northern Obock region, under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a five-year project signed on January 9 with the Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group, in partnership with Touchroad International Holdings. Hong Kong Aerospace Technology, which also has operations in mainland China, manufactures and launches satellites. Touchroad is owned by Africa-focused Chinese investor He Liehui, who is the current vice-president of the Chinese African People’s Friendship Association. The company has built several factories and special economic zones around Africa, including in Djibouti. “Djibouti is chosen to host this project … based on its geographical location close to the Equator, conducive for taking high definition shots in the satellite and aerospace rocket observation and analysis missions,” the Djiboutian government said after the MOU was signed, with the formal contract to be signed in March. How Djibouti became a microcosm of China’s growing foothold in Africa The signing of the deal was overseen by Ismail Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, who said Hong Kong Aerospace Technology and Touchroad would build the spaceport and co-manage in a 30-year concession before transferring the facility to the Djiboutian government. “The satellite and rocket launch project also includes the construction of a port and highway of international standing in the northern region of Obock, for the transport of materials necessary for the development of aerospace sites,” Guelleh said. The investors will also develop energy infrastructure, including solar, wind and hydroelectricity to power the space facilities. A team from Hong Kong Aerospace Technology, led by group vice-president Allen Fund, visited Djibouti to discuss business cooperation. They also met Chinese ambassador Hu Bin, who urged the company to contribute to Sino-Djibouti cooperation, while the embassy said it would actively provide the necessary support and guarantee. Hu also encouraged the firm to strengthen research, comply with local laws, balance corporate interests and social responsibilities. In an update to shareholders, Hong Kong Aerospace Technology noted that it would partner with Touchroad International Holdings to form a company that will sign a formal contract with Djibouti in March 2023 to develop the spaceport, which is expected to include seven satellite launch pads and three rocket testing pads. Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s tour showed Africa what China can offer: analysts The Djiboutian government has agreed to provide the necessary land – a minimum of 10 sq km (3.9 square miles) – under a lease running for at least 35 years. It termed the deal a win-win partnership, saying it would use public-private partnerships to help meet its space ambitions and position the Horn of Africa nation as the hub for space activities in the East African region. For a country of just over 1 million people to host a satellite and rocket launch pad is a huge feat, and this is evidence of the democratisation of space globally, Nigerian space scientist Temidayo Oniosun said. He said some African countries had shown promise in the design and construction of satellites, but none of the 54 satellites launched by African countries were actually launched from the continent. “Hopefully, this move will enable the launch of the first Africa-made satellite from African soil,” Oniosun said. “If successful, this project will also positively affect the industry across several countries, lead to the establishment of new enterprises and new spin-offs, and ultimately play a key role in implementing a continentally driven space programme.” Several engineers and technicians from Djibouti, a former French colony, have joined courses at France’s Montpellier University Space Centre since 2020 to learn about space and satellites. One of the country’s leadership goals is to launch two nanosatellites (Djibouti 1A and Djibouti 1B) this year. “Moving from this to hosting a rocket launch facility [the only working rocket launch facility in Africa] would make an incredible story, but beyond this, it signals that space has become a priority for the Djiboutian government,” Oniosun said. The Centre Interarmées d’Essais d’Engins Spéciaux (CIEES) or Interarmy Special Vehicles Test Centre, set up by the French in 1947 in Algeria – another of their former colonies – was the first rocket launch site in Africa. How the political seeds of China’s growing Africa ties were planted long ago Oniosun said China was playing a partnership role in Africa’s space ambitions from a business perspective. “We have seen Chinese companies win several satellite project contracts in Africa, we have seen China provide loan facilities to fund satellite projects in Africa, and we have also seen China gift an African country [Ethiopia] a satellite,” said Oniosun, who is also managing director of Space in Africa, a media, analytics and consulting company focused on the African space and satellite industry. Ultimately, China’s relationship with African countries has benefited both parties, Oniosun said. “Africa has become one of the most important places to do space business globally, with countries doubling their space investments and creating the right environments for businesses to thrive, and it is good that [Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group] saw this in Djibouti,” he added. Djibouti is important due to its strategic position on the Horn of Africa’s Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea and controls approaches to the Suez Canal. It is also home to a deepwater Red Sea port, and has attracted massive Chinese investments into its maritime and free trade zones. Apart from China, the US has a military base in Djibouti, its largest such facility in Africa, as do Japan, France and Italy.