Will Africa send the first human to Mars?

The pessimism often thrust on Africa denies its youth a chance to dream, when even a space-age future is possible.

FILE - A dashboard at Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA, shows the liftoff of a rocket carrying South Africa's first homemade nanosatellites on January 13, 2022. (Cape Peninsula University of Technology/Twitter)
FILE - A dashboard at Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA, shows the liftoff of a rocket carrying South Africa's first homemade nanosatellites on January 13, 2022. (Cape Peninsula University of Technology/Twitter)

What will Africa look like by 2050? Will the present tale of missed opportunities persist? Or will the continent become a superpower securing a pole position in the new race to reach new frontiers of technology and of our imagination? Will, it, for instance, become a leading space-faring continent?

Today’s forecasts paint a dire picture of the continent’s future. Conflict. Poverty. Unemployment. The plagues of yesterday creep into tomorrow. On the face of it, there appears to be little reason to expect a miracle – a sudden awakening that could herald the rapid transformation that Singapore and South Korea, for instance, have gone through in the past six decades.

Yet this pessimistic narrative has obvious consequences. It scares investors. It demotivates African expatriates who might otherwise have considered returning home. Most critically, it robs African youth of a chance to dream of a better life right here on the continent. All of this perpetuates a vicious cycle where a presumption of future failures denies Africa the opportunities and resources it needs to truly deliver on the potential of its 1.2 billion people – in turn reinforcing prejudices about the continent.

In my new book, From Africa to Mars, I counter this negative narrative. From Africa to Mars tells the story of a technologically advanced African continent that takes on a seemingly impossible challenge: flying to Mars within a decade. However, myriad challenges arise causing the world to wonder: “Will they make it on time?”

I sent an early version of the manuscript to a friend based in the United Kingdom. When he read through it, he noted that it felt somewhat utopic. I asked him whether Iron Man or Wonder Woman felt utopic too. He said no. “It’s Westerners. Flying cars. Lasers. Interstellar travel. They can do all that,” he said, pausing and cocking his head before adding, “Would you ever get on a rocket built by an African?”

He probably meant it as a joke but his query showed just how much the cancer of stereotypes has metastasised. We live in a world where tales of African genius are not just missing, they are discouraged and subconsciously banned.

A few years ago, I was working on a communications campaign in Burkina Faso. Our goal? To encourage youth in the capital, Ouagadougou, to train for STEM careers. I crafted a series of illustrated posters on the outcomes of science and engineering studies. In one poster, a child started as an electrician and ended up as a space engineer. When I shared the poster with colleagues, one sent a reply that left me utterly shocked.

She remarked that it was impossible for a child in Burkina Faso to become a space engineer. I informed her that the West African nation was already building its first satellite, Burkina Sat-1. Hence, there was no reason why a Burkinabe child couldn’t join the country’s nascent space programme.

Indeed, Africa’s space sector is reaching new heights. In January 2022, South Africa made history by launching three nanosatellites that were the first to be wholly designed and produced on the African continent. Cocoa farmers in Ghana will soon be able to receive agricultural advice thanks to the SAT4Farming initiative, a programme that leverages satellite imagery to monitor environmental conditions in the country. Angola’s second telecommunications satellite, Angosat-2, launched last week.

In other areas of tech too, African innovators are showing why it would be a mistake to ignore them. M-PESA, the pioneering mobile money payment service, was launched by Kenyan company SAFARICOM in 2007 and has since become a model for mobile banking services globally. While there were no unicorns on the continent a decade ago, Africa now boasts seven startups valued at over $1bn. More than 600 tech hubs across the continent support startups and in 2021 alone, African startups attracted more than $10bn in funding.

Africa urgently needs nuanced future narratives that, without masking the challenges that the continent faces, deviate from the standard scripts of refugees on boats and rebels in bushes.

This is not just a requirement for attracting tourists and investors. I believe this will be critical to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, statisticians, astronauts and science enthusiasts who will help resolve Africa’s most pressing developmental challenges – and help the continent’s potential take off.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.