Does Artificial Intelligence Have A Big Future In Africa?

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Written by Tom Jackson

There are signs that artificial intelligence has a bright future in Africa, but businesses and industries need to embrace the technology in order to make that happen.

Back in June, Google made waves by announcing it was opening an artificial intelligence (AI) research center in Ghana.

Google launches new initiatives such as this from time to time, but the focus on AI and machine learning in this latest launch was telling. Google is bringing together machine learning researchers and engineers at the new center to come up with AI specifically for Africa.

In 2017, the AI market in the Middle East and Africa was estimated to be worth just $66 million but growing. Google is the biggest player to jump on board so far, with companies using AI in a variety of ways.

South Africa is the continental leader in AI. Investment firm Ethos, a leading South African fund manager with 34-years of experience investing across various industry segments in the country, just launched a $40 million fund to identify and invest in startups that the company believes will benefit enormously from AI, specifically algorithmic decision-making.

artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence and drone technology combine to analyze farms and monitor conservation. Photo – AP – Alex Brandon

Aerobotics is applying AI to agriculture, while DataProphet is using it in manufacturing.

Stellenbosch-based company Clevva, founded in 2011, was one of the first movers for AI in agriculture. Clevva uses virtual advisors on AI platforms to advise sales and technical consultants, removing the need for people to know the prescribed product, policy and procedure rules that impact on their specific decisions and actions.

Ryan Falkenberg, co-CEO and co-founder of Clevva, says AI in Africa is still very immature but has “enormous potential” given that skills are at a premium.

“If we can offer powerful digital intelligence to people who have the resilience, determination and drive to make a difference, we can help them unlock rapidly. Plus we can use AI to create jobs by making more people employable,” he said.

Major challenges related to growing the market in Africa include:

  • inconsistent IT infrastructure,
  • lack of relevant big data,
  • varying cultural, linguistic, political and legal frameworks.

Yet there is evidence of serious growth.

“While the market is still relatively immature, we are seeing increased take-up as companies gain a better understanding of what AI technology can offer them. And of course, it’s commonplace in products from Google, Facebook and the like on the consumer end of the market,” Falkenberg said.

From a Clevva point of view, Falkenberg said his clients are increasingly attracted to how quickly they can build digital expertise to help optimize decision-making accuracy and consistency. A local financial services company is using the platform to build different virtual advisors to guide its sales teams, while a petroleum company has deployed it to help clients and technical service agents work out the causes of technical problems.

Itopaking David is co-founder and CEO of Nigerian company Hubs.ng, an online ecosystem that offers a range of digital services to boost the use of tech in everyday life. The company recently launched Emily, an AI-based digital assistant that doubles as a customer care agent for reviews and user questions. He said the emergence of startups is helping his industry develop.

“The growth rate of this technology is increasing in the African scene as emerging startups apply AI tech to their solutions. More will come with Google having an AI research center in Ghana,” David said.

Users are increasingly willing to use such solutions too.

“I don’t think we need to persuade users to use AI,” David added. “Users are ready to use disruptive emerging technology to solve physical challenges.”

There is a serious need on the part of African businesses. Most companies know they need to “get moving on their digital journey,” Falkenberg said, but are held back by dependencies on integration, connectivity and access to relevant data.

“The reality is also that many companies remain largely human-powered, and so they have limitations to moving straight to full automation, even if the technology supports it,” he said.

Falkenberg explains that the most forward-thinking and realistic companies will realize that in most cases, the starting point is combining AI with staff, making use of digital intelligence to empower, not simply replace, staff.

“By augmenting first before you move to full automation, you allow AI to gain traction within the current reality,” he added.

Embracing AI is going to be pivotal for the development of businesses in Africa, however.

“Companies that are not looking to embrace AI within the future have no future. AI will become a norm rather than an exception,” said Falkenberg.

“Right now, companies are still learning how to leverage the capability of digital intelligence within their existing business models,” he said.

Artificial intelligence has the capacity to boost businesses in ways that may not even seem possible at the moment, but those unwilling to transform their business models to incorporate AI may quickly find themselves left behind.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.