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AI Adoption in Africa: How Close is the Continent?

AI adoption in Africa
AI adoption in Africa (DecentralizeAfrica)

“AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined,” according to PwC. The current wave of global economic revolution triggered by the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has set the pace for many nations of the world, with each nation striving to leverage the substantial growth AI offers. Considering the massive engagement of global economies in the adoption of AI, Africa, also, is not staying stagnant in the race.

From Kenya to Ghana to Nigeria to Egypt, nations all across Africa are positioning themselves for the new wave of Artificial Intelligence. Despite the significant barriers to the growth of AI in Africa, the artificial intelligence community has continued to flourish. In 2019, the global tech giant, Google, opened its first Artificial Intelligence centre in Accra, Ghana. Before the launch of the AI centre in Ghana, Google worked with farmers in Tanzania to tackle some of the challenges they faced with food production after which they developed a machine learning model to detect diseases in cassava plant, a major crop in the nation, to drastically improve the production yield of the crop. This move by Google promises to expand the horizons of AI research in Africa.

However, with the history of Africa’s usage of technology, there is a huge risk of the continent depending on AI products and talents from Europe, Asia and the Americas. Nonetheless, developments like the Google AI centre in Ghana and the IBM research labs across Africa foster effective collaboration across the continent and between the continent and the other parts of the world, with the promise of putting Africa on the global map of the AI community and not just being a consumer of the technology. Across Africa, national and industry leaders have also seen the urgency to enhance international collaboration in AI and develop indigenous talents. So far, progress is being made towards achieving this.

In an article for Nature in 2018, Moustapha Cisse, the lead for Google’s Ghana AI centre wrote, “A network of African institutes of artificial intelligence, for example, could retain the best talents on the continent, enlist world-class African scientists to tackle AI challenges in the African context, and collaborate with existing academic institutions.” Organizations like Google’s AI centre, IBM’s two research labs in Nairobi and Johannesburg, and the African Institute for Mathematical Scientists (AIMS) in Rwanda, amongst others, are leading Africa towards the promising future of AI with indigenous researchers and practitioners.

The tech scene in Africa is evolving quite rapidly, with a notable number of citizens and key stakeholders taking great strides to technologically advance the continent and develop AI Talents in Africa. In 2018, Nigeria’s Dr Bayo Adekanmbi founded Data Science Nigeria (DSN), a non-profit and Africa’s largest AI talent development initiative, with the vision of developing the country’s AI ecosystem to world-class standard, consequently allowing the nation opportunities to access about 2-3% of the estimated $15.7 trillion of the global GDP contribution of AI.

The organization has pioneered various activities to penetrate the roots of Nigeria and raise AI Talents through its free trainings, campus communities, world renowned AI research and its annual AI bootcamp in Lagos, Nigeria, that hosts some of the best AI practitioners across the globe. In recent years, Africa has seen more innovative moves to democratize AI across the continent through grassroots and local initiatives like the AI Saturdays across various African cities.

AI adoption is still hindered by a myriad of long standing problems

The growth of AI has, however, experienced its fair share of challenges. “AI is going to be one of the key drivers of inequality in the future and we are already at a disadvantage. Most datasets available in ML are not African,” laments Ogueji, a member of the Lagos AI Saturdays Community and a machine learning researcher at Instadeep. As intriguing as the capabilities of AI may be, all that will be impossible without quality data to train the model. The continent is lagging in terms of local data acquisition for developing custom AI solutions. We cannot build personalized AI technology for Africa by depending on only foreign data gathered by international communities.

In a bid to address this significant threat to AI adoption in Africa, the team at AI Saturdays Lagos launched ChowNet, Africa’s ImageNet for food images. Led by Tejumade Afonja, the team hopes to crowdsource sufficient quality data of images of local food delicacies over the next few years to aid the development of computer vision algorithms for image classification tasks of local delicacies.

The quest to adopt AI systems that are personalized for Africans continues to advance. In 2019, the duo of Africa’s Instadeep researchers, Orevaoghene Ahia and Kelechi Ogueji successfully developed a pidgin-to-English machine learning translation model. The project was accepted at the 2019 NeurIPS, the world’s largest gathering of AI researchers and practitioners. With developments like this, Africa is making robust progress on the path to the adoption of AI technology. 

A growing number of African startups are already deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In recent years, Africa has seen the birth of quite a number of startups using AI to solve some of the continent’s pressing challenges. In the context of AI adoption, “Africa is hungry,” says Tunisia’s Karim Beguir, founder of AI startup, Instadeep. Instadeep is one of the leading AI companies in Africa. The company offers AI-powered solutions to enterprises to solve complex challenges across various industries and sectors. 

The African financial sector is also experiencing the prominent impact of AI adoption in the provision of financial services with innovations like Paylater and the UBA chatbot, Leo. Paylater, a fintech company based in Nigeria, is offering loans to Nigerians without a collateral, by using AI to predict applicants that are most likely to repay the loans. Banking giant, UBA, has also pushed the frontiers of Africa’s adoption of AI through its smart chatbot, Leo, that leverages AI to provide customer-care services to customers more efficiently than human customer-care agents.

In East Africa, AI is fast penetrating the region. Ugandan Shamim Nabuuma Kaliisa is leading the integration of AI technology in the region. Her startup, CHIL AI Lab, whose goal is to leverage AI via mobile cancer screenings for women across the region, is significantly impacting the reproductive health of women across the region. Africans, all across the continent, like Shamim, are embracing the use of AI to solve diverse medical and societal issues.

However, in a continent where more than 66 percent of its populace remain unbanked, more than 600 million people lack access to power and just 21.8 percent of its population, as at 2019, are internet users, the feasibility of AI penetration and adoption is threatened by these significant hurdles coupled with the lack of appropriate infrastructure to enhance the economic integration of AI technology. There is no doubt that the adoption of AI in Africa faces significant barriers. However, the continent is steadfastly preparing to face the current and future challenges, to improve the penetration of AI technology across African nations. In the words of China Cancio, “A little bump in the road is just a bump. There’s more ahead until you reach your destination.”

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