AI Generation: Learnings from Alliance4AI’s First 100 Startups in Africa
Those who raise questions about Africa’s preparedness for the fourth industrial revolution should look no further than the continent’s young entrepreneurs, transcending tough resource constraints to lead a burgeoning AI startup ecosystem.
Studies show that young people are more enthusiastic about technology. With the youngest and fastest-growing population on earth (Africa has a median age of 19 years compared to Europe’s 41.8 years), there could be no better time for Africa than now.
Young people in Africa are rising above infrastructure and resource constraints to create ingenious processes to adopt and apply the fourth industrial revolution technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to generate more value for their localities. Since we founded the Alliance for Africa’s Intelligence (Alliance4ai) one year ago, we have interacted with more than 100 AI startups to learn about their work and support them with a platform where they exchange knowledge and opportunities with students, schools and other players in the ecosystem.
From our first 100, we see that AI can empower frugal innovators to address Africa’s developmental challenges in core areas such as:
- Agriculture — early and accurate disease detection, knowledge-sharing, improved yields
- Healthcare — freed-up doctor time, disease diagnosis by mobile apps, improved outcomes for rural and urban patients
- Financial services — increased trust-system to enable financial services for bottom of the pyramid and provide them a path towards the middle class
- Public services — streamlined processes, reduced bureaucracy, faster more accurate service for citizens, further reach of limited resources
The adoption of AI by Africans can accelerate the continent’s pace of development if the examples of these first 100 are followed by others, and if governments learn more about the technology to institute policy reforms that drive further adoption.
WHAT IS AI?
“Every aspect of our lives will be transformed by AI. In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization or the worst. We just don’t know.”
AI is a technique that enables machines to learn from data, and act with higher levels of intelligence that emulate human capabilities to sense, comprehend, and act. AI augments human capabilities by dramatically improving the speed and correctness of our decision-making, enabling completely new approaches to solving problems we never thought possible.
Like Stephen Hawkins predicted, AI has already transformed the world with applications in every field: health, education, finance, transportation, security, entertainment, and even governance.
AI’s unprecedented growth and impressive advancements are not limited to specific geographies but rather have an impact on all continents — Africa included.
At Alliance4ai, we loosely categorize companies building solutions with machine learning and deep learning as AI for easy identification of a new breed of companies choosing to improve the speed and correctness of decision-making using large piles of data.
ADOPTION OF AI BY AFRICAN STARTUPS SO FAR
“Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity”
- H. Jackson Brown
From our research, we observe that most early adopters of AI in Africa empower their tech consulting practices, leveraging the technology as a horizontal tool to improve outcomes for multiple business areas.
The top areas of application are discussed below, highlighting the low-hanging fruit use-cases top startups in those fields chose to address.
Minohealth of Ghana introduced an innovative Medical Health System to democratize duality healthcare with AI for medical diagnostics, Cloud Medical Records system for hospitals, health ministries and patients, and big data analytics for health.
Ubenwa of Nigeria developed an AI app that analyses a baby’s cry to give warning signs of asphyxia, which is the third leading killer of infants worldwide.
Tambua Health of Kenya arms medical practitioners with an app that helps doctors and health practices spend less time and money diagnosing and treating cardiopulmonary diseases using lung and heart sounds analysis.
Aerobotics of South Africa develops state-of-the art image recognition and analytics tools for application across many industries. Their top use case today is for early pest and disease detection service enabled by images captured from drones. This system allows farmers accurately detect diseases and pests early to administer the right solutions and reduce waste.
Agri Predict of Zambia builds tools to keep farmers informed on when to expect droughts, plant diseases as well as find the nearest source for treatment when required. They got created after the 2016 pest attack that affected 130,000 hectares of land in Zambia.
Apollo Agriculture of Kenya helps farmers in emerging markets to maximize their profits. They use agronomic machine learning, remote sensing, and mobile phones to deliver financing, farm products, and customized advice to smallholder farmers with radical efficiency and scalability
Aja. La studios of Nigeria builds natural language & speech processing applications for low-resourced languages, with a focus on African languages. Currently, the studio offers both cloud and on-premise enterprise ASR and TTS solutions. The technology currently supports 5 African languages, with additional languages in the pipeline.
SayPeace of Nigeria is an AI-powered tool for monitoring hate speech on social media in real-time to predict the possible occurrence of violence.
Together, these firms are gaining competitive advantage in their localities by solving previously unsolvable challenges or solving key problems with higher speed and efficiency.
These companies show that AI in Africa can take a different path from the rest of the world, and focus on solving basic problems common people face everyday. By leveraging readily available platforms like smart and feature phones to deploy solutions and focusing on primary problems like food, healthcare, finance, African emerging tech innovators can succeed in uplifting millions into the middle class to make better choices for themselves.
THE BIG GAP IN THE MAP
Quite evidently the entire map is not covered red with startups all over the continent. The explanation to this is part process and part ecosystem-maturity.
Regarding process, we compiled our list by evaluating entries we acquired from channels such as approaching startups featured in popular media outlets, working with startup hubs around the continent and opening up our platform for people to make add requests for startups they knew were gaining considerable traction leveraging AI techniques to drive business value. We also had to remove a number of companies from the map when we didn’t find significant proof that they were still operational. This process was limited by our resources, and so we leverage this medium to encourage people aware of AI adopters anywhere in Africa to add startups to our platform.
Regarding ecosystem-maturity, we see a correlation between countries home to the most AI startups with African countries where investors are increasingly spending more money on technology startups, an activity previously unfamiliar to the average wealthy African and typically labelled as too risky by foreign investors.
INVESTMENT TRENDS FOR AI COMPANIES IN AFRICA
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on AI systems is forecast to reach $35.8 billion in 2019, an increase of 44.0% over the amount spent in 2018. With industries investing aggressively in projects that utilize AI software capabilities, the IDC expects spending on AI systems will more than double the $79.2 billion by 2022 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 38.0% over the 2018–2022 forecast period.
To see how African companies were aligning with this global trend, we sourced data on a representative subset of the African startups on our list, and found that they raised a collective $140 million with the mammoth percentage going to companies leveraging the technology for finance. The largest raises were enjoyed by Cellulant with $47.5 million, Mines.io with $17.2 million and Instadeep with $7 million.
Companies leveraging AI and new techniques are raising more funds than other African startups, suggesting that they are providing more compelling stories to the investment elite on why they can scale their ventures. On the not-so-positive note, the cumulative $140 million represents less than 1% of the investments made in companies that identify as AI startups around the globe. This leaves a lot of room for improvement, and perhaps a call-to-action to investors to afford African startups another look, as they are finding innovative ways to apply AI amidst the many infrastructure challenges they face.
THE ROAD AHEAD
“In our pursuit of knowledge creation, it is also critical that Africans are the contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning”
-Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor,wits university
Africa, like the rest of the world, is in its very early days of adopting artificial intelligence and other frontier technologies powering the fourth industrial revolution. Pioneers across the world are recognizing the dramatic benefits these technologies offer to transforming how problems are solved, and have likened its impact to the introduction of electricity to business processes a century ago.
We demonstrated above that Africa hasn’t enjoyed commensurate size of investments to keep pace with the rest of the world in adopting AI. The continent however can further the reach of its minute resources by collaborating across borders to share information, resources, market and reap the benefits of improved outcomes to reinvest to continue its growth cycle. Alliance4ai provides one such platform to initiate this collaboration: it offers people an opportunity to find information about the whole continent in one place, stay up-to-date on African and global advancements in AI through the Alliance4ai newsletter and discuss solutions to common adoption challenges. We invite founders who didn’t find their names on our list of companies to submit their details for verification and encourage other stakeholders to run their analysis on information we have aggregated thus far to help the ecosystem continue to make better decisions with its limited resources.
Will you take part in supporting Africa’s adoption of AI and technologies of the fourth industrial revolution? Your answer determines the road ahead for our blessed continent.
About the Authors
Alex Tsado is founder of Alliance4ai. He is also product marketing lead for GPU cloud computing at NVIDIA, with verticals in AI, HPC and Graphics.
Nicholas Litombe is a founding director of Alliance4ai. He is also a postdoctoral associate in physics and visiting scholar at the Institute for applied computational sciences at Harvard University @nicklitombe
Edosa Leta is the community builder intern at Alliance for Africa’s Intelligence. He is currently a 3rd year student at Africa Leadership University, Kigali Campus Rwanda.
Dario Giuliani, founder of Briter Bridges, a think tank and data-driven research company focused on the role of innovation and technology, as well as private sector development across underserved markets