Can African economies compete in the global data and AI race?

MEST Africa
Sep 3, 2018 · 7 min read

This post was written by Ulrich Mabou, an Entrepreneur-in-Training in MEST Africa’s Class of 2019. Mabou writes on tech, leadership and entrepreneurship in Africa here.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

We are currently at a very strategic point of the history of humanity. We are entering an era where technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) will drastically alter the way we live, work and interact with each other. It is not yet clear where this technological revolution is going to lead us, but it is clear that several nations and companies around the world have entered the race of AI in their quest to become the forerunners of the fourth industrial revolution.

The first industrial revolution used steam power to mechanise production. The second used electric power to create mass production. The third used electronics and information technology (IT) to automate production. The fourth industrial revolution, commonly referred to as Industry 4.0, is building on the third. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. AI is poised to play a central and critical role in reach Industry 4.0’s full potential.

Industrial revolutions — credit
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

“AI is going to have as big an impact on our society as electricity.” — Risto Siilasmaa, Chairman of board, Nokia

The sheer commercial opportunity in this technology has undoubtedly lead to an AI race among nations. For instance, in its “New Generation Of Artificial Intelligence Development Planning” report released on July 2017, China outlined that “the rapid development of artificial intelligence will profoundly change the life of human society and change the world.” China is planning to seize the major strategic opportunities for the development of artificial intelligence, and to build the first-mover advantage of its AI development.

Several other nations have also drawn their plans and reports on how to leverage AI. This interesting article by Darlington Ahiale Akogo, Deep Learning and Machine Learning Engineer and founder of minoHealth, states that “at least 23 nations and bodies have published some form of plan for AI development.” Among them are Canada, China, France, UAE, South Korea, EU, Germany, Mexico, Australia and USA.

In Africa, Kenya and Tunisia are the only nations with any attempt towards developing an AI plan.

“65% of the jobs in Nigeria, 67% of the jobs in South Africa, and 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia could be replaced by automation technologies by 2030” click to tweet — Citi Group & University of Oxford Martin School Technology at Work Report

Credit: Technology At Work v2.0 by Citi

A report by Citi Group and the Oxford Martin School predicted potential job loss in African nations due to automation technologies at rates of up to 65–85% by 2030. In contrast, only 35% and 47% of the jobs are expected to be automated by the same date in the UK and USA respectively.

Africa has historically been a consumer, rather than a producer of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). The statistics above should definitely trigger an alarm bell, given the fact that developing economies are most susceptible to the threats that come as a result of developments in AI and automation, if not adequately addressed.

According to Akogo, if we fail to start planning for an AI future in Africa, we are going to remain simply data points in the data-driven economy.

“Even if we fail to locally develop AI systems, just like Africa consumes software and services from America like Facebook or Google, institutions in Africa would end up as consumers for foreign AI systems and we would all just be data points.” — Darlington A. Akogo

There is some progress, however, toward making an AI-forward Africa a reality — led in large part by some of the world’s tech giants.

You may have heard of Google’s plan to open its first African AI research center in Accra, Ghana later this year. The Silicon Valley behemoth announced its move in a blog post and stated that it is “committed to collaborating with local universities and research centers, as well as working with policy makers on the potential uses of AI in Africa.

During his recent visit in Johannesburg, Alibaba founder Jack Ma made an outstanding announcement at the “Netpreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions” conference. He established a new contest that will see African entrepreneurs compete for $10 million in funding, with the aim of supporting businesses that are growing the continent’s nascent digital economy. More details…

A number of FAMGA (Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon) and other players like Tencent are all gearing up to compete for market share in the age of AI, IoT, Cloud Computing, Blockchain and VR/AR. They are all doing it by diversifying their product and service offerings, heavily investing in R&D, hunting down innovative startups for M&A deals, and so on.

Given the fact that the margin for growth is getting smaller and smaller in their respective continents or countries, they are all looking at Africa as the next big market to conquer given its significant predicted rise in population size and economic growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, markets continue to recover steadily, with growth forecasted to pick up to 3.1% in 2018, and to firm to an average of 3.6% in 2019–20.

However, economic gaps between Africa and the rest of the world (Western and some Eastern nations) remain very large, and they could get even larger over the next few years if we don’t plan to take advantage of the 4th industrial revolution for ourselves.

In my view, the two fundamental questions that we should be asking are:

1- Are Africans prepared and equipped to solve our own problems in innovative ways?

2- Are we going to be able to compete in the global data-driven economy, or will we remain data points and market shares for the others?

Photo by Peter John Maridable on Unsplash

I was very excited when I found out that we would be covering AI/ML and Blockchain as part of the curriculum this year at entrepreneurial training program MEST Africa. MEST portfolio startups like aidahbot have already been making use of these new technologies to solve specific problems in innovative ways.

Additionally, Akogo and his team at minoHealth are doing very encouraging work in the healthcare space to “democratize quality healthcare with artificial intelligence for medical predictions and diagnoses, cloud medical records system for hospitals, health ministries and patients and health data analysis.minoHelth AI Labs is doing the type of research you will normally expect from the Silicon Valley or some academia in China.

Photo from a minoHealth’s research paper

Other initiatives are being taken around the continent to inform the general public about AI and other exponential technologies. The Blockchain Academy, for instance, is one of the first institutions to develop tailored Blockchain and IoT courses and consulting services for entrepreneurs, developers and institutions.

Akogo and his team have also started conversations about AI in the form of seminars, lectures and interviews in order to get the Ghanaian and African public informed about AI. Their efforts are channeled towards getting the attention of governments so that we can start developing national and continental plans. It is critical that we start developing the right infrastructures and frameworks in Africa to be able to tackle our own problems by leveraging on those new technologies. Failure to do so will undoubtedly result in us lagging the train of the fourth industrial revolution as we have been for the previous ones.

Do you agree that Africa needs to start planning towards the future? Help us to spread the message about AI and industry 4.0 by promoting this story. Please leave some claps (👏) and share with your network to get the message out there!

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