Author : Aleksandra Gadzala
Affliated organization : Atlantic Council – Africa Center
Date of publication : November 2018
The success of mobile technologies (tech) across Africa is prompting speculation among tech investors about whether AI applications will also take root in African nations. Mobile technologies, after all, have permitted African nations to dramatically increase their communication capabilities while leapfrogging the need for old-fashioned infrastructure. Will AI offer similar benefits? Unfortunately, except in a handful of countries—namely Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia—the application of AI is a chimera, not a reality.
The application of AI is a chimera, not a reality
The critical factors necessary for the technology to take hold are woefully absent across most of the continent, and many African countries remain incapable of requisite reforms in the areas of data collection and data privacy, infrastructure, education, and governance. Without those reforms, there is little chance that most African nations will be able to exploit AI technologies to advance sustainable development and inclusive growth. The specter of automation threatens to leave these countries behind.
But there are a few African countries where the factors needed for the successful adoption of AI technologies are rapidly converging. In these nations, AI initiatives are still mostly small-scale, pilot, or ad hoc—but appear promising and have thus attracted significant backing from global corporations. This issue brief examines the obstacles to AI’s broader adoption across the African region and explores the enabling factors underpinning its promise in the handful of African countries where, despite significant challenges, AI ventures are enjoying early success.
Where AI Succeeds
Significant hurdles notwithstanding, AI solutions are being successfully deployed at scale in some African countries and especially in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Most solutions currently target the financial services, agriculture, and healthcare sectors. South Africa leads the continent in AI adoption with a robust ecosystem that includes numerous technology hubs, research groups, and forums like the AI Summit— which is sponsored by multinational companies including Intel, Salesforce, Amazon, and IBM—and Singularity University’s South Africa Summit. There are an estimated one-hundred-plus companies in South Africa that are either integrating AI solutions into their existing operations or that are developing new solutions using AI. Elsewhere, technology giants including IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are also making inroads. Google’s next AI research lab—its first in Africa— will open in Accra, Ghana, later in 2018. IBM operates AI-oriented research labs in Kenya and South Africa. In Kenya, IBM’s $100 million initiative, “Project Lucy,” an extension of the company’s supercomputer “Watson,” is working to address development challenges including healthcare, financial inclusion, water and sanitation, human mobility, and agriculture. Facebook opened its first African technology hub in Lagos earlier in 2018. Among the available training programs is a year-long AI Research Residency Program with the company’s AI Research Group.
Smaller, somewhat less coordinated efforts are also surfacing. iCog Labs is a privately operated AI research lab in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. iCog Labs launched in 2013 with $50,000 and four programmers, including the founder and chief executive officer of SinguarityNET, a global AI marketplace, and chief scientist of Hanson Robotics, the Hong Kong-based engineering and robotics company famed for its development of the interactive humanoid robot, “Sophia.” The venture provides a variety of AI research and development services for Ethiopian and international customers and educates young Ethiopians in computer coding, hardware, and entrepreneurship. Many of iCog Labs’ domestic pursuits align with the government’s development priorities, especially in the areas of education and agriculture. Like many emergent AI and technology ventures across the African region, iCog Labs reflects a forward-looking vision for the continent with an ever-more blurred line between public and private sector-led development solutions.
The apparent success of these and other AI ventures in select African markets occurs in spite of numerous data, regulatory, and workforce challenges
In Nigeria, a chatbot called Kudi AI is integrated into Facebook’s Messenger app, and facilitates mobile banking and payment services to users who may not have access to, or may be unfamiliar with, browser-based online banking but are comfortable with textbased messaging. With over 5,000 users since its launch in 2017, Kudi, which receives seed funding from the Silicon Valley incubator Y-Combinator, is among a growing number of AI-powered apps designed to extend financial services to underserved populations. In like manner, MomConnect, a chatbot initiated by South Africa’s National Department of Health, connects an estimated 1.8 million expectant mothers with pre-and post-natal services. Registered women are able to “chat” with the app and receive healthcare advice relevant to their pregnancy. Delivering services is a big opportunity for AI in African markets—this includes social as well as commercial services. IBM launched its Watson Workspace, a messaging app designed to streamline corporate workflow, in Nigeria in August 2018. The app has been adopted by Descasio, Nigeria’s leading cloud services provider, to enhance its email services and improve employee collaboration. The apparent success of these and other AI ventures in select African markets occurs in spite of numerous data, regulatory, and workforce challenges. Various factors conspire to facilitate this success, but several are especially key for fostering favorable AI environments in African countries.
AI holds promise in countries where governments have made technology a national priority and are taking concerted measures to stimulate innovation and to improve data protection, research, and development. Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Nigeria are the nations in which the efforts are most aggressive and advanced—and not surprisingly, they are the nations in which AI technologies are beginning to pay off.
AI holds promise in countries where governments have made technology a national priority
The Kenyan Ministry of Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT), for example, has established an eleven-person “Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence Taskforce,” to explore how the technologies can best be used to advance the country’s development. With a three-month tenure, the team is to propose a fifteen-year roadmap with key milestones in 2027 and 2037.
In Nigeria, the government has similarly approved the establishment of an agency on robotics and AI for the southeast region. Generally regarded for its energy industry, the Nigerian southeast has long been one of the country’s most entrepreneurial areas. Over the last eight years, and with little fanfare, tech hubs and start-up communities have been burgeoning in areas outside of Lagos—Enugu, Abuja, Ibadan, Port Harcourt—diversifying Nigeria’s innovation landscape. The new AI agency is a nod to this reality. It is also a likely effort to attract financing, as well as an encouraging sign that other building blocks necessary for AI to develop and scale are likely to follow. A growing number of African governments are beginning to realize that they cannot on their own fulfill their development goals: commercial technology solutions will play a bigger role in fixing issues previously entrusted to government bureaucrats and aid agencies. Governments are also beginning to realize that for such solutions to prevail, critical regulatory and infrastructure bottlenecks must be eliminated or improved. Leaders in Ghana and South Africa have enacted comprehensive data protection legislation—two of only eleven sub-Saharan countries to have done so thus far. Ghana’s 2012 Data Protection Act regulates how personal information is acquired, stored, and disclosed. The Protection of Personal Information Act, signed into law in South Africa in 2013, similarly introduces an overarching framework for processing personal information and sets up a supervisory function to ensure legislative compliance. Like Kenya, Ghana is one of the few African countries with an open data initiative. In order for technological innovations to be successful in the long term, progress and innovation in government policies is also necessary.
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