The question of whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) really stands a chance in a country plagued by lack of infrastructure is warranted.

Belinda Japhet
Jul 11, 2018 · 5 min read

One skeptical respondent reacted to Tanzania’s June Hacks/Hackers invite …“but we don’t even have traffic lights in many parts of our cities?”

Now, we hate buzzwords but this is exactly where the leapfrog effect comes in. The rise and uptake of mobile banking in Tanzania shows exactly how ‘high-end tech’ can find a perfect home in developing nations which lack stepping stones such as nationwide banking and health care services. It’s the latter that this month’s speakers were concerned with.

Both speakers are doing some pretty amazing things in healthcare and education with tech and they are both Tanzanians.

Ally Salim Jr, a software engineer and CEO/Founder of Inspired Ideas, is the creator of Dr. Elsa, a smart health platform that uses AI to better diagnose patients in rural areas, detect early cervical cancer using blood test results, and better connect patients to doctors through their mobile phones. He is also the lead researcher of Mary, a soon to be released AI system that puts Africa first in an attempt to compete with the likes of Google and Siri.

Yesaya R. Athuman, is the CEO at Index Labs. Almost a year ago he joined a team of developers to create an AI Chatbot — eShangazi which is an educational platform for young people to learn about sexual reproductive health across multiple channels like Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram and SMS.

Yesaya during his presentation

So what can AI do?

It can solve the doctor shortage in rural Tanzania

But there is still much backlash about using AI to fill the gap. It’s up to developers like Ally to change this: “I told a doctor at Muhimbili Hospital about Dr Elsa and his response was, “So you want to put doctors out of jobs?” With over 69% of the country’s doctors in urban areas, many rural communities are in desperate need of basic medical services. “At the moment we are piloting Dr Elsa in Akeri, a small remote village in Arusha. They’ve allowed us to conduct testing there because they have virtually no medical workers,” said Ally.

Yesaya’s area of interest is a taboo one for many Tanzanians who find it uncomfortable to discuss sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence issues. eShangazi is a chatbot which allows users to ask questions, play games and learn across multiple platforms (Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram and SMS). What makes the chatbot attractive is that it allows users to chat with the Shangazi (Swahili for Aunty) in a safe and confidential manner.

It can help diagnose diseases such as cancer

Dr Elsa is now going through the pilot stages of helping doctors predict cancer by suggesting a diagnosis. Getting the bot to the level of over 95% diagnostic accuracy involves various stages. “It’s a step by step process which involves data collection. 80% of our time is actually spent doing this; after that we clean the data.We have chosen to build all the tools needed to collect and clean the data.” After this was a rigorous machine learning testing period in which the bot was fed vast amounts of data. Ally shows the guests what data Dr Elsa uses to predict cervical cancer.

Using these steps, Ally has been able to teach Dr Elsa to classify breast tumors as either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

“This is to allow health providers an easy and fast assessment of the patient’s tumor and recommend next steps.”

But how exactly does Dr Elsa predict cancer? What variables does itdepend on to make an accurate prediction? According to Ally there are many variables. He has chosen to look at the number of lymphocytes and neutrophils cells in the cervical tissue. Both of these are white blood cells which cancer patients tend to have lower amounts of.

They help provide more efficient customer/patient service

At the core of their work, both Yesaya and Ally are focused on providing better care and service to Tanzanians. Yesaya explains, “The concept of conversion is key to building chatbots. There are several open source platforms available which can help any developer to input good dialogue settings.” Examples include:

  • dialogueflow (Google)
  • Rasa
  • (Facebook)
  • Watson (IBM)
  • Luis (Microsoft)

Yesaya showed the crowd how a chatbot used in food delivery services could work. We use to prototype nyama choma (barbeque) agent/bot to order some meat and a side of chips. We then plugged the bot into Google where we could access the nyama choma agent directly with a voice command! Yesaya’s other bots are also in the business of providing services. Da Asha is a chatbot developed to help victims of gender-based violence by giving them much needed information, providing support, and directing them to the closest social services centre.

For Ally part of the Dr Elsa package is streamlining medical services with more efficient patient filing through online cloud storage of all patient history files, making them accessible from any hospital in any part of the world.

If there was ever any doubt just what AI has to offer to a developing country like Tanzania, Ally and Yasaya have dispelled it.

The worlds of hackers and journalists are coming together, as reporting goes digital and Internet companies become media empires.

Journalists call themselves “hacks,” someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code.

Hacker-journalists try and bridge the two worlds. Hacks/Hackers Africa aims to bring all these people together — those who are working to help people make sense of our world. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories. In the age of information overload and collapse of traditional business models for legacy media, their work has become even more crucial.

Code for Africa, is the continent’s largest Open Data and civic technology initiative, recognises this and is spearheading the establishment of a network of Hacks/Hackers chapters across Africa to help bring together pioneers for collaborative projects and new ventures.

Follow Hacks/Hackers Africa on Twitter and Facebook today.

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Journalism x Technology. The umbrella group for African chapters of Hacks/Hackers, where civic tech pioneers play with ways to rewire the media.

Belinda Japhet

Written by

Belinda Japhet is a communications consultant, writer and poet

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Journalism x Technology. The umbrella group for African chapters of Hacks/Hackers, where civic tech pioneers play with ways to rewire the media.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade