Embracing the Pivotal Feat of Artificial Intelligence in Africa

Victoria Akindele
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is primed to be the driving force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, though its widespread acceptance and adoption among businesses is still in early stages. 2018 was an important year in shifting current perceptions around AI, demonstrating it as a technology that is augmenting human capabilities, not replacing them, and benefiting the speed and scale of any organisation, large or small. In just four years, the number of global organisations deploying AI has increased by 270 percent.

With AI set to be the most disruptive technology in human existence, it is also an immense opportunity for Africa. The momentum for increase in AI deployment in Africa is similar as to the world, and continues to grow as access to high quality broadband and cloud computing improves. Organisations are recognising AI’s ability to help with some of the continent’s most pervasive problems, from reducing poverty to improving healthcare and enhancing crop yields to feed a growing population.

“AI has the potential to solve some of the most pressing challenges that impact Africa. By enabling intelligent automation of the workforce, augmenting both human and physical capital, and driving innovation, AI is set to unlock huge potential across the continent. If governments can successfully navigate the challenges, AI can be a driver of growth, development, and democratisation in core sectors like healthcare, agriculture and public sector applications like financial services and education,” says Ahmed El Essawi, Corporate Affairs Manager at Microsoft Middle East and Africa. “Yet as with any revolutionary technology, AI also poses a lot of challenges, especially with regards to policies and regulations.

Hence, to achieve an AI-enabled future in Africa, forward-thinking policy makers, innovative startups, technology partners, civil society groups and stakeholders all need to work together to promote a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa, one that enables inclusive growth and provides a clear and trusted path to digital transformation.

Although, many local startups have already begun their AI journeys. Nigerian startup, MyMusic, for example, have experimented with Chatbots to help users discover new local music. And East African fintech startup, MoVAS Group is building AI into their credit-scoring algorithms, enabling more unbanked farmers and small business owners to access loans the first time. In the finance industry, it is said that 66 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is listed as unbanked. The proliferation of mobile banking across the continent has increased financial inclusion, and AI powered intelligent applications are now taking this further. AI they say, can capture and crunch large volumes of non-traditional data such as mobile wallet transactions, that enable service providers to make automated loan decisions to new customers, with no previous financial track records, in seconds.

Also, across the Middle East and Africa, a projected $28.3 million will be spent on developing AI solutions in the financial sector and organisations are ramping up efforts to ensure young developers are well equipped for the task. At the recent AI Boot-camp, hosted by Data Science Nigeria and sponsored by Microsoft, for example, local developers were up-skilled in using deep learning concepts to drive financial inclusion.

Developing this kind of AI capacity in Africa is very essential, not only to ensure our 200 million-strong youth population is equipped for jobs of the future, but also to ensure local AI systems are unbiased and inclusive. Without the skills to build our homegrown applications, organisations are likely to import machine-learning algorithms developed elsewhere, which are trained on biased data sets that lack local context. This could have severe consequences in some of our industries like healthcare.

What Africa needs is a richer pool of local data, coupled with AI applications that are built by skilled local teams with diverse demographic, gender, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. To achieve this, outdated processes need to be digitised, education systems need to adapt quickly, and digital literacy programmes need to be more far-reaching.

As AI opens up these new frontiers for economic and social transformation, governments and policy makers need to ensure that this new data-driven ecosystem is governed by a strong code of ethics. AI systems need to be reliable, secure, private, transparent, accountable and beneficial to all.

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With access to high-quality broadband and cloud computing continuing to spread, organisations are recognising artificial intelligence’s (AI) ability to help with some of the continent’s most pervasive problems, from reducing poverty to improving healthcare and enhancing crop yields to feed a growing population. At every touch point, AI is believed to be able to augment and amplify human ingenuity, and accelerate economic and social prosperity. African innovators have revolutionised the way mobile technology is used. With the right systems in place, Africans look forward to seeing what they’ll do next with AI.

With the right mix of policies, Africa and its citizens can reap the benefits of Artificial Intelligence transformations in the years to come.


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