Artificial Intelligence in Africa

The future is intelligent: By 2030, artificial intelligence (AI) will add $15.7 trillion to the global GDP, with $6.6 trillion projected to be from increased productivity and $9.1 trillion from consumption effects. Furthermore, augmentation, which allows people and AI to work together to enhance performance, “will create $2.9 trillion of business value and 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity globally.” Africa has a unique opportunity to develop its competitiveness through artificial intelligence (AI). From agriculture and remote health to translating the 2,000-odd languages spoken across the continent, AI can help tackle the economic problems that Africa faces. Africa faces several known challenges in developing AI such as a dearth of investment, a paucity of specialized talent, and a lack of access to the latest global research. These hurdles are being whittled down, albeit slowly, thanks to African ingenuity and to investments by multinational companies such as IBM Research, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, which have all opened AI labs in Africa. Innovative forms of trans-continental collaboration such as Deep Learning Indaba (a Zulu word for gathering), which is fostering a community of AI researchers in Africa, and Zindi, a platform that challenges African data scientists to solve the continent’s toughest challenges, are gaining ground, buoyed by the recent “homecoming “of several globally-trained African experts in AI.

The rapidly developing set of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies has the potential to solve some of the most pressing challenges that impact Sub-Saharan Africa and drive growth and development in core sectors:

  • Agriculture will be done more efficiently and effectively, raising yields.
  • Healthcare will be better tailored, higher quality, and more accessible, improving outcomes.
  • Public services will be more efficient and more responsive to citizens, enhancing impact.
  • Financial services will be more secure and reach more citizens who need them, expanding access.

Forward thinking policy-makers, innovative startups, global technology partners, civil society groups, and international global stakeholders are already mobilizing to promote the growth of a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa. However, there remain structural challenges that can hamper the development of a healthy AI ecosystem in Africa:

  • Education systems will need to adapt quickly, and new frameworks need to be created for workers and citizens to develop the skills they need to thrive.
  • Broadband coverage will need to expand rapidly — specifically in rural areas — in order for all citizens and businesses to reap the benefits.
  • Ethical implications regarding the fair, secure, and inclusive use of AI applications also must be addressed through collaboration and engagement to ensure AI systems earn trust.
  • Ensuring a deeper, broader, and more accessible pool of data is available will also be key to enable researchers, developers, and users to drive AI.

As with other transformative and revolutionary technologies, there are challenges inherent in the development of AI. Governments can embrace these challenges and benefit from AI by creating clear roadmaps to guide the adoption of this technology. They should recalibrate their laws and legal frameworks to support data-driven technologies and innovation-driven growth; strengthen the supporting infrastructure for development; and set the tone of a collaborative approach that allows all stakeholders to share their expertise, insights, and build trust. With the right mix of policies, Africa and its citizens can reap the benefits of the transformations in the years to come.

AI Solutions for Agriculture

FarmDrive — The Kenyan data analysis startup is an alternative credit scoring platform for smallholder farmers. It uses mobile phones, alternative data, and machine learning to close the critical data gap that prevents financial institutions from lending to creditworthy smallholder farmers.

Sowing App — Microsoft and ICRISAT developed the Sowing App to help farmers achieve optimal harvests by advising on the best time to sow depending on weather conditions, soil and other indicators, leading to higher yields. The Sowing App utilized powerful AI to interface with weather forecasting models and extensive data that was downscaled to build predictability and guide farmers to pick the ideal sowing week.

See & Spray — Blue River Technology has built “smart farm” machines to manage crops at a plant- level. Today, the best practice is to treat all plants as if they have the same needs. However, their See & Spray technology changes this paradigm, empowering growers to make every individual plant count at scale. Using computer vision and AI, their smart machines can detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.

AI Solutions for Healthcare

Sophie Bot — Developed by a Kenyan Startup, this free chatbots provides a platform for questions on sexual and reproductive health. In a society were talking about sexual health is often a taboo, Sophie Bot provides anonymity, credible answers, platform independence and a user-friendly conversational interface. This service is available on several popular messaging apps, including Messenger and Twitter.

Seeing AI — Microsoft’s project is designed to help the blind and low vision community by harnessing the power of AI to turn the visual world into an audible experience. The Seeing AI intelligent camera app allows users to hear information about the world around them just by holding up their phones as it can describe people, text, currency, color, and objects. It can speak short text as soon as it appears in front of the camera, provide audio guidance to capture a printed page, and recognize and narrate the text along with its original formatting. The app can also scan barcodes with guided audio cues to identify products, recognize and describe people and their facial expressions, as well as describing scenes using the power of AI. Seeing AI is an ongoing project that keeps developing new abilities.

Corti — A Danish machine learning company that provides accurate diagnostic support to emergency services, allowing patients to get the right treatment faster. It helps emergency medical dispatchers make life-saving decisions by identifying patterns of anomalies or conditions of interest with a high level of speed and accuracy. In the case of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA), the technology can reduce the number of undetected OHCAs by more than 50 percent.

AI Solutions for Government

Spatial Wave — The Microsoft CityNext Partner designed SANSTAR for the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation (LASAN) using Microsoft Azure cloud services. The smartphone application is used by truck drivers to map and record their daily routes and by citizens to report clean-up issues. The mobile app allows drivers to complete their routes faster and respond to more customer requests.

Veritone— This platform enables federal, state, and local government agencies in the United States to seamlessly and automatically process, transform, and analyse their data. The discovery of mission-critical information is expedited across content silos by cognitively processing and searching for faces, objects, spoken words, logos and more.

AI Solutions for Financial Services

Zenith Bank Plc — Located in Nigeria, Zenith launched several new solutions that enable more convenient, safe and quick customer transactions. These include the bank’s Scan to Pay App which can be used by Zenith and non-zenith customers to make online and in-store payments in seconds through quick response code scanning on any internet enabled phone. The bank’s mobile app also offers enhanced functionalities such as instant account opening for new customer.

ALAT — Africa’s first fully digital bank, launched in May 2017 by Wema Bank in Nigeria. ALAT targets the youth segment based on the three pillars of convenience, simplicity, and reliability. Customers can open an account via mobile phone or Internet in under five minutes and debit cards are delivered anywhere in Nigeria within two to three days, free of charge. ALAT also promises “no paperwork”: photos of KYC documents can be uploaded via mobile app or website.

Strider — A South African fintech company that provides a toolbox of platforms that banks and financial institutions can rapidly white-label in order to provide financial education and meaningful services to new and existing clients.

AI Solutions for Education

Georgia Tech University (GTU) – GTU developed “Jill Watson”, an AI teaching assistant based on IBM’s Watson platform. The system was developed specifically to handle the high number of forum posts by students enrolled in an online course that is a requirement for GTU’s online master of science in computer science program. It attained a 97% accuracy rate in answering student queries – and according to reports by GTU, most students were unaware that “Jill Watson” was not a real person.

China – China is developing AI technology to understand the general logic and meaning of text in academic essays and make a reasonable, human-like judgment about their overall quality. It then grades the work, adding recommended improvements in areas such as writing style, structure and theme. The technology, which is being used in around 60,000 schools, is supposed to “think” more deeply and do more than a standard spellchecker. The technology is designed to assist – rather than replace – human teachers as it could help to reduce the amount of time, they spend on grading essays and help them avoid inconsistencies caused by human errors such as lapses in attention or unconscious bias.

ETS37 – At the company Educational Testing Services, education experts use an e-rater to identify specific features indicative of writing proficiency in student essays to score more efficiently and offer better feedback. The e-rater engine provides a holistic score for an essay as well as real-time diagnostic feedback about grammar, usage, mechanics, style and organization, and development. This feedback is based on natural language processing research specifically tailored to the analysis of student responses. Teachers use the tool to help their students to develop their writing skills independently and receive automated, constructive feedback. Equally, students use its engine’s feedback to evaluate their essay-writing skills as well as to identify areas that need improvement.

Many governments in Africa have begun to take steps to promote AI in their countries:

  • The government of Nigeria has taken steps to promote partnerships and stakeholder engagement towards leveraging AI’s benefits. The Ministry of Science and Technology has announced the formation of a National Agency for Research in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (NARRAI). The new institute will collaborate with international research bodies, enhance instruction on AI topics for thousands of students, and promote Nigeria’s ability to leverage these technologies for economic growth. In March 2018, Minister of Communications Adebayo Shittu also restated his ministry’s commitment to support AI stakeholders, engage in conversations to manage and explore the implications of AI, and share best practices.
  • Kenya was the first African country to launch an open-data portal to make information on education, energy, health, population, poverty, and water and sanitation, which was previously very hard to access, available to citizens. Application development in Kenya is high, and the government wanted to support the industry’s growth. The open-data portal was created in response to requests for data by local tech incubators and co-working facilities for Nairobi programmers, like iHub, which led the government to recognize that access to public datasets is crucial for developing locally relevant AI solutions and services. So far, data from this governmental portal has been key in the development of about 100 apps.
  • The South African Department of Trade and Industry formed a Chief Directorate for Future Industrial Production and Technologies (FIP&T) in 2017 to examine the impacts of emerging digital technologies, including the Internet of Things, big data, AI, robotics, and new materials. The unit aims to build government capacity to address these challenges and partner with industry to enhance South Africa’s readiness. Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has also said that the government aims to boost its investment in research and development, support for entrepreneurs, and skills development.

Africa has proved fruitful ground for AI startups. Several newly formed companies across the continent have attracted investor interest and are providing AI tools that help African industry and governments provide better services:

  • SyeComp, based in Ghana, focuses on enhancing agriculture through ICT and advanced geospatial solutions, research and knowledge management. It specializes in the acquisition, processing, analysis and synthesis of geospatial data from satellites and multispectral drone sensors for various applications using geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing (RS) technology. SyeComp provides support for various actors across and along the value chains in new dynamics of gathering multispectral and hyperspectral image data and disseminating information through multiple channels to gain relevant insights.
  • DataProphet is a South African startup focused on machine learning solutions for business. Its early work has focused on the finance and insurance sector, designing solutions such as predictive analytics and conversation agents. The company, now four years old and already beginning to turn a profit, is also expanding into industrial and fast-moving consumer goods sectors, including international clients.
  • Kudi is another startup based in Nigeria, which has developed a chatbot for the financial sector. It allows users to make payments and send money. Their technology leverages AI to make sense of user requests, conduct conversations, understand user spending habits, and prevent fraud.
  • Numberboost, a South African company, has been working with a non-profit that manages many mobile HIV clinics to give access to patients in different rural communities. To do so, it implemented an algorithm to spatially optimise the scheduling of the clinics and also built a USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) clinic booking system using text messages. Numberboost is currently working on an African language SMS chatbot to enable patients to ask basic medical questions.