Artificial Intelligence: A Tectonic Shift in Africa

Victoria Akindele
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For many countries, the prospects of artificial intelligence (AI) are thrilling. They conjure up the kinds of innovations we see in science fiction.

In Africa, however, the dawn of AI carries with it a fear of falling further behind more-developed economies, rather than the eager anticipation of new technology as the World Economic Forum predicts a net loss of five million jobs to AI worldwide by 2020.

But Africa need not dread the age of robotics and automation. Across the continent, from Ghana to Zimbabwe, this technology has the potential to bring myriad positive changes in sectors such as health care and finance, bridging the gap between physical infrastructure inadequacies and consumer demands, while freeing up more time for skilled labour and increased labour productivity. For Africans to reap these benefits, African governments, investors, and NGOs must prepare for the fourth industrial revolution’s transformation of the modern workplace by training workers for complex tasks, and reforming laws and education to meet the demands of tomorrow.

Yes, there are still obstacles to do with governance and leadership, Infrastructure upgrading, high tech investments, retraining and upskilling of employees. Albeit, as we speak right now 4 to 6 countries with rapid growing economies are in Africa. The level of zeal, innovation and investment driven projects is all time high. The major focus for a lot AI technologies in Africa besides manufacturing and banking is agriculture. Lack of infrastructure and energy are some of the major problems in Africa, besides corruption and lack (transformational) leadership in so many countries. Many countries especially Sub-Saharan have now adopted and adapted the new economic paradigm shift using technology to leap frog these obstacles.

However, labour-intensive industries such as retail and car manufacturing are already automating in the name of efficiency, and the majority of young job seekers simply do not have the skills necessary to compete. Ethiopia, long-touted as Africa’s next manufacturing hub, is vulnerable to automation in important employment sectors such as agriculture and textiles. In Botswana, robot workers have diminished the bargaining power of the labour union representing cashiers and shop assistants.

While these machines may increase worker productivity, they also put downward pressure on factory wages, as the population of low-skilled workers increases in rapidly growing emerging markets. Yet the rapid spread of AI is unavoidable: Accenture Nigeria predicts that within five years, more than half of consumers will select products and services “based on a company’s AI” capabilities, rather than its brand.

But despite the pervasive narrative that AI spells doom for Africa’s development, thoughtful planning can leverage it as a tool to help grow the country’s economies. Economic development depends on increasing worker productivity. For too long, African markets have been stagnant in that capacity, but AI is well poised to change that. In countries like Nigeria and Kenya, where capital is scarce but ideas are abundant, process automation can enable businesses to run on leaner models.


Moreover, rather than displacing employees, machines can empower low-skilled workers and equip them to take on more-complex responsibilities. This, in turn, can help meet an urgent need for countries lacking widespread access to education and skills training.

AI, web-based training programs, could teach more complex skills to a low-skilled worker, and “respond” by adjusting its settings as the worker expresses understanding and knowledge. AI brings together AI and human agents to offer localised client care and professionalism for telecom and utilities providers.

AI could also alleviate Nigeria’s 1:4,000 doctor-to-patient ratio. Aajoh, a Nigerian health tech company, uses AI for fast, remote medical diagnoses. Patients input their symptoms in the app using a range of communication options, and receive an instant diagnosis and, if prescribed, information about where to purchase medication. Technologies like this boost health care efficiency, freeing doctors to treat those who actually need in-person care and providing increased access for all. In cases like these, AI ultimately can help overcome a lack of physical infrastructure.

Also, AI can help protect business financial security by taking massive data sets, discover discrepancies, and predict when financial hiccups will arise. As companies increasingly focus on improving their risk profiles in our interconnected world, AI security programs will become increasingly common. Transformation on its approach to financial crime risk and protect against money laundering, fraud, and other threats can be made.

African leaders should drive the continent’s digital revolution to ensure that people benefit from these technological advances. The government leaders have to fully understand the advantages and consequences of AI disruption in Africa, and then deliberately respond to AI integration. Some African countries like Rwanda, however, are already embracing AI. In 2016, the Rwandan government signed a deal with Zipline, a drone delivery service that delivers medicine and blood to otherwise difficult-to-reach areas and has put every Rwandan within 30 minutes of life-saving medical supplies. Local governments can also use AI to their advantage through services such as customer service chatbots, security camera footage analysis, and even self-driving public transportation.

In the area of education, government oversight should go in alignment with reform to ensure that citizens reap AI benefits instead of shouldering its burdens. In Ghana, for example, school curricula still tends to focus on rote memorisation, rather than honing the creative and analytical ability of young minds.

The curriculum designs of the education systems in Africa should change to suite the 4th Industrial Revolution in the 21st century and beyond. Africa’s education systems must adapt to the needs of the near-future job market, focusing on the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from an early age.

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African state universities should also provide grants within the fields of STEM and information and communications to help bolster domestic research and application, as well as ensure equitable access to advanced technological studies for underprivileged students. The faculties developed in these areas of study are critical for developing the analytical and technical skills young people need to excel in a job market changed by AI.

While AI may be a cause for concern in some African markets, it could ultimately be a boon. Beyond the social innovation AI promises for Africa, intelligent machinery and processes present a rare opportunity for economic transformation. Given Africa’s successful leapfrogging with mobile telephony and banking, it is well-positioned to tackle the AI revolution with agility and innovation. The challenge for Africa lies not in maneuvering AI as a vehicle, but in ensuring that it has capable drivers in government, industry, and civil society.

No one ever thought that the Asian Tigers can be where they are today. AI innovation has the seeds to leap frog development of all African countries and even a Pan-African impact.

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