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How critical is AI for Africa's development?

April 11, 2024
tags:#AI, #Africa, #poverty, #innovation
located:Zimbabwe, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Rwanda, Benin, Sierra Leone, Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Cameroon
by:Cyril Zenda
Only eight out of the 54 countries in Africa have developed national AI strategies or policies. Experts now argue that delaying the adoption of the technology could deepen poverty across the continent.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionising a growing number of sectors. It enhances farming techniques, transforms health delivery systems, combats climate change, fights poaching and helps prevent natural disasters. Given its vast (and incomprehensible, some would say) potential, Africa is rapidly adopting AI to address some of its critical challenges, including poverty, disease and food insecurity.

This subject was floated at the annual conference of African Finance ministers, who met in March in Zimbabwe to discuss the continent’s development agenda. While climate change and debt were identified as the main challenges facing the continent, experts were quick to draw delegates’ attention to the continent's sluggish integration and utilisation of AI. 

James Manyika, Google’s Senior Vice President of Research, Technology and Society, explained to African finance, planning and economic development ministers, as well as governors of central banks, AI's capacity to assist individuals, power economic growth, expand prosperity, accelerate scientific breakthroughs and help tackle societal challenges.

According to Manyika, who also serves as co-chair of the UN High Level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence, significant advances in AI technology in recent years, which were driven by increased computational power and data availability, have enhanced capabilities in machine vision, image classification, natural language processing and pattern recognition. These technological developments, he argued, could be pivotal in supporting Africa's growth.

Among other uses, he said, these developments help professionals elsewhere in the world find cures for diseases more efficiently, discover minerals that can power next-generation technology and predict natural disasters with greater accuracy and speed.  

"In Kenya, AI models are being trialled that make ultrasounds more accessible to lightly trained ultrasound operators in under-resourced settings," the Zimbabwean-born Manyika said. "In South Africa, AI-powered screenings are helping to catch tuberculosis early, reducing its spread," he added.

Slow integration 

But some experts seem concerned about Africa's readiness for AI adoption, highlighting that only eight of the continent's 54 countries have established national AI strategies or policies. These countries are Rwanda, Benin, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritius, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. In the rest of the continent, AI-related issues are addressed on an ad hoc basis and without coordinated strategies.

Baratang Miya, Chief Executive of the South Africa-based Girlhype Coders Academy, who also addressed the conference, told FairPlanet that Africa has no choice but to urgently embrace AI given the technology's rapid ascent and the substantial way in which it transforms the world. 

"Firstly, Africa should embrace AI for its potential to drive socio-economic development, improve healthcare, boost agricultural productivity, revolutionise education, enhance infrastructure, create jobs, address social challenges, increase global competitiveness, leapfrog technology and foster collaboration," Miya told FairPlanet.

Miya founded Girlhype Coders Academy in 2003 to empower women and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds with skills to pursue careers in the tech industry. Over the past two decades, her initiative has benefitted up to a million individuals, significantly contributing to the creation of a robust pipeline of female talent for the continent’s technology sector.

Why is AI Important for Africa?

Other experts advocating for AI deployment in Africa echoed the concerns raised at the conference.

Dr Jacques Ludik, a smart technology entrepreneur, AI expert and founder of multiple AI companies including the Machine Intelligence Institute of Africa (MIIA)- which focuses on transforming Africa through AI, told FairPlanet that the significance of AI for the continent lies in its potential to drive economic growth, enhance government effectiveness, increase transparency and foster innovation. 

"The few African countries that have shown leadership by embracing AI will reap the benefits of significant contributions to their economic advancements," Dr Ludik said. 

"As the continent embraces the Smart Technology Era, leveraging AI becomes even more critical for enhancing government services, improving transparency, and addressing societal challenges."

Dr Winston Ojenge, a senior research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Kenya told FairPlanet that Africa cannot afford to lag behind in adopting this crucial new tool.

"AI is powerful in terms of using data out of a dynamic environment, be it a business, a plant process, etc., to comprehend that environment beyond how a human would," Dr Ojenge explained.

"This deep comprehension enables decision-making, predictions and planning. Does Africa enjoy being on the wrong side of that knowledge divide? I don't think so, since that will impoverish Africa way beyond what it is now."

AI's gradual spread across Africa

Meanwhile, examples of AI integration are multiplying across the continent. The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), for instance, has partnered with global technology firms to develop a coffee traceability solution using advanced analytics, mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. This system will track coffee at every stage of the supply chain.

In South Africa, a tech start-up has developed a platform that leverages AI, satellites and drones to help farmers optimise their yield by analysing processed maps to identify problem areas in crops. The tool is already being utilised in South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, among other countries.

Furthermore, several medical institutions in Morocco, Cameroon and South Africa have incorporated artificial intelligence for clinical genomics into their clinical workflows, enhancing patient care. In Rwanda, the world's first national drone delivery network for medical aid has been implemented, which delivers blood to patients in remote areas.

AI tools are also being used to combat wildlife poaching in South Africa and across the continent.

Overcoming Challenges

Manyika from Google pointed out that there are several capacity, infrastructure, governance and public policy gaps in Africa that would need to be addressed before the continent can fully seize on the opportunities presented by AI. He highlighted the need for improved digital infrastructure, connectivity and access to resources necessary for leveraging AI capabilities.

MIIA's Dr Ludik emphasised that scaling up AI in Africa would require several critical steps: increasing education and awareness, building capacity, developing policies and frameworks, investing in infrastructure and establishing suitable ethical and legal frameworks.

Dr Ojenge from the African Centre for Technology Studies, meanwhile, said there is also need to address the prevalent scepticism that hinders the continent’s embrace of the technology.

"African researchers must unearth and display evidence of the risks that biased AI levies on our society," Dr Ojenge said. 

He added, "Evidence must advise policy. There are instances when researchers must build simple prototypes that demonstrate the extent of the risks. Researchers must learn, beyond academic publications, how to author policy briefs out of the evidence in their works, and find a voice with government.

"The politician has interests separate from community; there must be deliberate effort to drive them to deliver what society actually needs." 

Last year, the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) in Zimbabwe began investing in AI. The Centre offers a collaborative space for young people, journalists, creatives and tech enthusiasts to engage with technology, while also promoting the use of technology and the arts to empower citizens.

"My view is that we have a habit of being negative when something new is introduced," Zenzele Ndebele, the centre’s director, told FairPlanet. 

"A lot of people see AI as something that will disrupt their lives and their jobs. Of course knowledge is also a factor, because we are mainly consumers, and we are not programming our own AI products."

Image by Julien Tromeur.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe Egypt Morocco Tunisia Rwanda Benin Sierra Leone Senegal South Africa Mozambique Malawi Cameroon
Embed from Getty Images
Experts are concerned about Africa's lack of preparedness for AI, stressing that only eight out of the 54 countries on the continent have developed national AI strategies or policies.
Embed from Getty Images
“The few African countries that have shown leadership by embracing AI will reap the benefits of significant contributions to their economic advancements.”
Dr Winston Ojenge
Dr Winston Ojenge
Dr Jacques Ludik
Dr Jacques Ludik
Baratang Miya
Baratang Miya
Zenzele Ndebele
Zenzele Ndebele