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The influence of AI : Strategies of African startups

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The influence of AI : Strategies of African startups

AI is exacerbating the digital divide in Africa; however, local startups are looking to leverage it to prevent digital dependency.

Understanding the spread of AI in Africa

Bigger and more complex than a standard algorithm, artificial intelligence (AI) performs cognitive tasks on par with human thought processes. Its capabilities extend to perception, learning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Certainly, AI improves productivity and stimulates innovation. However, it is damaging the labor market, leading to large numbers of redundancies, especially in advanced economies. In Africa, AI is developing at a less moderate pace. The socio-economic benefits and risks remain an interesting topic of debate.

AI in Africa and the risk of digital colonialism

At present, the digital divide between advanced economies and those of African countries is palpable. The same is true for digital revolutions, including AI. This is because large entities such as the US and China monopolize its design and control. In other words, this trade-off creates the risk of “data colonialism”.

From an international business perspective, AI would disproportionately benefit these data-collecting countries, leading to a loss of influence and economic power for emerging economies such as South Africa and the rest of the continent. And this fear is growing with the debate over « Big Tech » data collection in the global South.

Myth of the open-source algorithm

Beyond everyday uses, popular applications of AI include speech and image recognition, natural language processing, and targeted advertising. AI can also perform predictive maintenance on machines, be integrated into driverless cars, and be used by drones. Today, computing power and AI algorithms are widely available thanks to « cloud computing ».

When it comes to AI, the critical element is abundant data. More data leads to better products and attracts more users, who generate more data to improve the product. The scale of data required to develop advanced AI applications is fundamental to the impact of centralization and monopolization of this tool.

Like material resources, digital data can be offered, taken, and resold. This means that AI is a technological tool that can continue to exploit us. Although it has been configured and designed for universal users, its coding is more geared towards international languages. Furthermore, the use of AI opens up the risk of potential exploitation of African data without equitable benefits. It is therefore essential to develop local AI initiatives that meet the needs of African countries, taking into account the diversity of local languages.

Major AI players in Africa: startups and applications

Indeed, the integration of AI in Africa offers many opportunities and is revolutionizing various sectors. Here are some concrete success stories of companies integrating artificial intelligence.

African countries investing most in AI

A research Centre in Uganda focuses on the effectiveness of technology in empowering African women. In addition to their research, they have the Data Ladies program, which teaches women data skills. Namely, analytics and machine learning, to get them involved in the sector.

Also in Uganda, Sunbird AI, which launched in 2019, is committed to solving social problems in East Africa. The company is using AI to translate into local languages, detect noise pollution, electrification plans, and analyze social media. All of Sunbird AI’s initiatives are open source, allowing businesses and government agencies to use its algorithms and results. Sunbird AI prioritizes ‘social good’ over monetization, underlining its commitment to positive impact at scale.

In southern Africa, startup Lelapa AI stands out as a research laboratory for artificial intelligence. It positions itself as a « laboratory for socially anchored products and research ». The startup has developed AI for under-represented African languages, facilitating the translation, transcription, and analysis of text and audio. Profits from the project will support the creation of an open data platform documenting the return of African cultural heritage.

Artificial intelligence in digital health

Laure Beyala, engineer at Esigelec and founder of E-santé Expertise, is an expert in digital health and has been named Young Leader 2021 by the French Africa Foundation. Author of two scientific books, she advocates the massive integration of artificial intelligence in digital healthcare in Africa. This approach aims to significantly improve care and provide effective responses to difficult and rare diseases. Beyala stresses the crucial importance of this breakthrough in promoting healthcare solutions tailored to the specific challenges of African countries.

Artificial Intelligence in African Agriculture

In May 2023, AKADEMIYA 2063, a pan-African non-profit research organization, unveils the creation of a revolutionary AI model. This tool predicts agricultural yields for 9 key crops across Africa. The Africa Agriculture Watch (AAgWa) platform provides forecasts for 47 countries, covering key crops such as maize and cassava. It is aimed at farmers, governments, and local communities. Its use aims to strengthen crisis management and facilitate the application of mitigation methods.  This contributes to the development goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063 and Africa’s Digital Transformation Strategy (2020-2030).

In the same category is the Busitema University for Artificial Intelligence and Interdisciplinary Research in Uganda. BUAIIR responds to Africa’s specific challenges with locally adapted AI solutions. Focusing on crop disease prediction, it uses AI to help smallholder farmers cope with climate change. By focusing on local agricultural needs, BUAIIR aims to create sustainable and effective solutions, demonstrating the importance of AI in solving concrete problems in specific regional contexts.

AI in Africa’s financial sector

AI is transforming digital finance in Africa by offering innovative, faster, and more affordable services while improving security and regulatory compliance. Several African fintechs are using artificial intelligence to enhance their services. Here are some non-exhaustive examples:

  • Branch International uses AI to assess credit risk in Africa.
  • Aella Credit, another fintech, also uses AI to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers.
  • Carbon, a lending platform, uses AI to automate the lending process in real-time.
  • Cowrywise, meanwhile, uses AI to provide online wealth management services.

Challenges for AI development in Africa

The number of AI initiatives in Africa is growing, with 112 applications and organizations identified in 9 countries, according to a UNESCO report. However, local AI pioneers still face several challenges. Obstacles in Africa, such as the digital divide, power and internet outages, poverty, and brain drain, create unique challenges. But these constraints can also drive innovation out of necessity. UNESCO warns against quick fixes without protecting local communities and calls for careful ethical reflection.

Legal and ethical challenges of AI

Effective implementation of antitrust laws is essential to foster the growth of local AI companies. Emerging markets need to establish regulatory sandboxes, inviting AI startups to explore their data and develop innovative applications. Sandboxes, which already exist in more than 20 countries, are popular frameworks for financial technology regulators. Their use can also be extended to other innovations, as Rwanda has demonstrated with its forward-thinking regulation of drone technology.

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