The fact of the matter is that AI is not a priority for most African governments. But a few viz. Mauritius, South Africa, Seychelles, Rwanda, and Senegal are trying to establish their stakes in this emerging technology.
South Africa issued a world-first patent to an AI system called DABUS (“Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience”) in July 2021, for instance. In November 2018, Mauritius published an AI strategy document.
To boost its key investment and asset management industry, the Mauritius Financial Services Commission issued rules for robotic and artificial intelligence enabled advisory services in June 2021.
Rwanda, which established a centre of excellence in the areas of digitalisation and AI in November 2020, is already leveraging on the technology for disaster management.Senegal’s Diamniadio smart city being built close to capital Dakar will rely on AI to manage public infrastructure and services. In June 2021, the Senegalese government set up a Digital Technology Park in Diamniadio, where all of the state’s digital data and platforms are to be located.
The facility was built by Chinese tech-giant Huawei but is to be managed by the State Informatics Agency of Senegal. IBM, which has AI research labs in Nairobi, Kenya (opened in 2012) and Johannesburg, South Africa (added in 2015), is working on creating an African AI ‘ecosystem’ that is able to pull its weight globally. In 2019, Google opened its first African AI lab in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
The tech giant also supports a graduate programme in machine intelligence at Rwanda’s African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). In September 2021, Andela, which connects African tech talent with global firms, announced a $200 million investment by Japan’s SoftBank that would allow it to enhance its services using AI.
Scarce talent, weak institutions and poor infrastructure
It would be fair to say that AI expertise in Africa is rather limited, with few practitioners acquiring skills through formal education. The little expertise that does exist is mostly self-taught or comes through work experience. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates the actual number of tech talent across the continent to be 690,000 (2019) – mostly available in South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and Morocco. UNESCO, which published the findings of its AI needs assessment survey for Africa in April 2021, found that AI governance policies, legal and regulatory frameworks, and talent capacity in Africa need to be strengthened.
The UN body says AI priorities should be ‘harmonised’ at a ‘continental level’, and recommends that greater effort should be put towards ‘advancing AI education, research and training’. There are already initiatives afoot to bridge some of these gaps. In September 2021, for instance, South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand took the lead in establishing the AI Africa Consortium – a partnership between academia and industry to build AI research and application capacity on the continent. This addresses a much repeated refrain about limited synergy between the private and public sectors on the one hand, and academic and industry on the other.
While basic AI can be applied using 2G mobile technology, which is widely available across Africa, the exponential value-add from AI can only be realised with 5G technology (and the advanced ones that are likely to follow in the future). Some African countries have already started building the foundations for 5G services. But basic hard infrastructure like reliable power supply and robust telecommunications would have to be made available more widely if Africa is to successfully unleash the potential of AI.
Progress is being made. AI-based smart electricity metering has been introduced by many state-run utilities as a way to tackle illegal consumption, inaccurate billing and poor customer service. A global drive towards renewable energy also increases the urgency for AI-powered smart grids on the continent, which are better suited to manage an energy source that is both intermittent and distributed. Global consulting firm BCG believes telecommunication firms would be better placed to manage “fluctuating demand levels, adjust to supply chain disruptions, and adapt to sharp shifts in consumer confidence and priorities” using AI.
Some of these challenges are magnified in many African markets, where mobile telecommunication towers are sometimes powered entirely by standby generators, secured by armed guards, and are not easily accessible by road.
Thus, while AI would only thrive when the requisite power and telecommunication infrastructure is in place, AI would also increasingly be needed to build and maintain this infrastructure.
An edited version of this article was first published by Nanyang Business School’s
NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, Singapore.