How Artificial Intelligence Can Affect Developments In Africa

By  |  October 3, 2018

For some time now, the global tech scene has somewhat been abuzz with activities centered around the subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which can be thought to serve up quite an exciting prospect — and for good reasons too.

It is not uncommon to have tech blokes and geeks come up with all sorts of innovations which, at times, can even seem like something out of a sci-fi movie. While all these may come across as promising and thrilling in some quarters, it is kind of a whole different narrative on the African continent. The implementation of the technology seems to be mostly marred by the fear of missing out and falling further behind established economies as against any genuine anticipation or calculation of how the technology can make lives better. And this trepidation and dark cloud surrounding the technology is not exactly helped by figures from the World Economic Forum which estimates that technology might be well on its way to causing around five million job losses worldwide by the year 2020.

In spite of the cynicism and skepticism still trailing the technology on the continent, a more open stance might just do us all a solid. We may indeed be in for what seems like a machine and robot invasion, and we might as well make the most of all the automation.

Across various parts of the continent, artificial intelligence can be leveraged to telling effect to bring about significant improvements across diverse sectors. From healthcare in Ghana to finance in Zimbabwe, the technology can serve to eliminate apparent shortcomings which exist in the form of inadequacies in physical infrastructure; a situation that leaves a lot to be desired on the part of consumers. The technology can also contribute to increased labor productivity as it boasts the capacity to free up more time for skilled labor, which might otherwise be less-than-gainfully employed.

But these changes are not going to just surface at the stroke of a magic wand. To cash in on the benefits of this novel technology, a combination of African governments, investors, and NGOs might have their work cut out them in the area getting preparations into top gear to herald the transformation that is expected to accompany what is primarily referred to as the fourth industrial revolution. A revolution that is envisaged to train workers for complex tasks, reform laws, and revamp our educational system, intending to bringing into reality what can be described as a modern workplace.

What It Looks Like For The Future Of Work In Africa

Automation is almost certainly expected to significantly cut down on job openings in such areas as call-centers, factories, and rote manufacturing. Interestingly, these jobs are known to serve up the most opportunities to African youths, even though rapid urbanization, unchecked rural-urban migration, and high unemployment rates significantly hamper any chance of making any significant headway on this front.

In truth, it is not exactly out of place to assert that the rate of population growth in Africa is several leagues ahead of what is available by way of job opportunities. And some of these novel technologies may have a hand in this. It, against this backdrop, that ‘the future of work’ now seems like a bleak prospect when examined through all the mire, especially from the perspective of a continent that is still bedeviled by staggering unemployment rates.

A considerable amount of jobs are being sacrificed on the altar of increasing efficiency as labor-intensive industries are now adopting these automated systems, which to be fair, could do a better job than some of those job seekers who are somewhat underskilled. Figures from McKinsey even make for gloomier reading as it is estimated that around 13 percent of South Africa’s job functions would have been lost to automation by the year 2020. And to think the country recorded an unemployment rate that was leaning towards 30 percent about a year ago.

The same danger looms around Ethiopia; a country that is widely touted as the next manufacturing hub in Africa, where automation in such employment-rich sectors as agriculture and textiles may yield mixed feelings. And this has all the makings of a similar narrative from Botswana where robot workers can be implicated in the significantly battered bargaining power of labor unions which protect the interests of cashiers and shop assistants.

Such technologies are known to offer greater efficiency and productivity, while also reducing the pressure on company wage bills especially because the population of low-skilled workers is experiencing something of rapid growth in emerging economies. And as such, AI keeps gathering momentum and show no signs of slowing down. With these in mind, it is little wonder why companies like Accenture Nigeria are of the opinion that AI capabilities, rather than brand, will be given more importance when consumers make choices on products and services in the next five years. Although this claim may be far from justifiable at the moment, it does paint a picture.

How AI Can Be Used To Africa’s Advantage

In spite of the tales of woe and doom that are rife whenever AI is mentioned in the same breath as the development of Africa, it can do a solid to the growth of the African economy if leveraged with some insightful action plan.

The relationship between economic development and worker productivity seems like an obvious one and improving the latter could work wonders on the bottom lines that serve as indicators of the former. And AI can help bring about those improvements.

Valid cases in point exist in the form of countries like Kenya and Nigeria where it would seem ideas run aplenty, but funds for the execution of these ideas are the major bottlenecks. Incorporating automation into such ideas may well mean leaner models which are just as or even more efficient than the regular systems. Instead of taking away job opportunities from employees, such technology could serve to empower low-skilled workers and impart them with the know-how to take on responsibilities that are even more complex. And this will also rub off positively on the education and skills training needs which are clamored for in countries that lack them.

More so, through AI web-based training programs, low-skilled workers could be imparted with sophisticated skills, and as is dictated by the design of the technology, automatic responses in the form of settings adjustments can be made by the system as the worker progresses in understanding and knowledge of the skill. African companies could use such an AI-powered mobile learning platform, of which San Francisco’s Volley for Enterprise represents a prime example as a learning platform that serves up corporate systems, to enhancing continuous training and closing knowledge gaps. Such technology could come in handy in countries like South Africa where unemployment still poses a problem mostly because vacancies remain unfilled mainly due to the unavailability of workers of the requisite skill.

Chatbots which are employed in the services industry, for example, function to relieve customer service representatives of less-demanding tasks, thus, affording them more time to attend to more complex assignments. A good illustration of this function can be cited in the form of; a tool that combines AI and human agents with the aim of offering localized client care and professionalism for utility providers and telecom service operators. The Y Combinator-backed app allows users to send payments, pay bills, and add money to their cell phone plan in a secure manner by reaching out the mobile chat robot, “Kudi,” via texting on Facebook Messenger, Skype, and other social media platforms.

AI can also play a role in the protection of workers, with a good example being South Korea’s DRC-Hubo which is necessarily a robot that functions to guarantee the safety of individuals who work in mines and nuclear plants by handling such operations as capturing detailed information, scouting, and operating drills.

In a country like Nigeria, AI can be called upon to control the infant mortality rate which is known to be troubling the healthcare system of the Western African nation. A Nigerian health-tech startup, Ubenwa, appears to be already making significant strides in this sector as it leverages AI for the deployment of rapid, remote medical diagnoses.

Through the startup’s mobile app, patients can receive an instant diagnosis, and even information about where to get medication, after inputting their symptoms using a variety of communication options. This kind of technology can serve to improve healthcare efficiency in the country by taking care of things on this front while doctors are allowed ample time to handle the more critical cases that require in-person attention. Developments like this bring about increased access for all and serve as further testament to how AI can help us get around the bottlenecks associated with the shortage of physical infrastructure.

AI can also come in handy in the area of protecting the integrity of the financials of businesses, with an example being Ayasdi. It is quite interesting to note that HSBC has already employed Ayasdi to telling effect in changing its approach to handling the risk of financial crimes with a view to checking money laundering, fraud, and other threats to its financials. The AI program can crunch massive data sets, unearth discrepancies, and forewarn as per envisaged financial hiccups. Most finance companies of today’s world are leaning towards technologies that significantly reduce risk profiles and shield against setbacks, and as such, AI can be expected to see more use in this regard.

The Role Of African Governments In The AI Revolution

The digital revolution of the continent ought to be championed by governments to ensure that these technologies have a significant impact on the lives of the populace. An excellent place to start would be to gather genuine knowledge as per the merits and demerits of AI disruption on the continent and then channel appropriate efforts towards responding to the technology’s integration.

The policies of African governments should lean towards two areas of focus which are primarily centered around encouraging a dynamic and transparent regulatory framework, as well as the implementation of extensive educational reforms from primary to tertiary institutions.

AI-focused regulations ought to be imparted with a reasonable degree of transparency as this will encourage innovation. Such regulations should also stipulate that companies follow guidelines in line with international best practices. There should also be a conscious effort, especially on the part of local governments, to not give off an air of hostility to the technology — whether by way of reflexive blocks or overregulation.

On this note, it does seem quite encouraging that many African countries like Rwanda are already leveraging AI. Back in 2016, the government of the Eastern African nation was reported to have signed a deal with Zipline; a medical drone delivery service that delivers medical supplies and blood to otherwise inaccessible Rwandan communities within minutes. Other African governments can take a cue from this development and summon the full potentials of AI, as other opportunities abound in such areas security footage analysis, customer service chatbots, and even self-driving public transportation systems.

The reach of AI should also be extended to the educational sector where government oversight ought to be in tandem with reform to ensure that citizens make the most of AI developments instead appearing to be adversely affected by it. In some African countries, it would seem that rote memorization is favored in the school education curricula — which is a long way off from the educational ideals of fashioning creative and analytical minds.

With that in mind, it could be surmised that Africa’s education systems could use a shift to frameworks which support the development of fields that are considered relevant to the job market of the near future — which include the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). African governments could also ply the route of providing grants to support studies and research into the STEM fields, as well as information and communication. This will serve to boost application and afford underprivileged students access to advanced technological studies that may otherwise remain elusive. The educational sector holds strategic importance as it is considered the incubator within which the faculties, capacities, and technical skills that are required for one to thrive in a job market that is increasingly being transformed by AI are honed.

On the other hand, investors are not left out of the party as they too have a role to play in the proceedings. In their bid to make shrewd investments that can yield substantial profits, they should also pay attention to improving the lives of people. Investments into companies that use AI to achieve a recognizable social and developmental impact can be placed on the front-burner. This can also be made by forming partnerships with civil society groups.

Another way investors can get in on the act is by throwing some of their financial weight behind tech hubs as a way of ensuring that the impact of AI is felt across various segments of the African society and economy. Kenya’s iHub serves up a prime example in this regard as the one of the most successful technology hub is known to have secured funding from the likes of Omidyar Network. This investment network, who themselves are known to have weighed in with considerable funds in a number of emerging tech companies including South Africa’s Giraffe which is an online marketplace that offers job openings to mid-skilled employees.

AI may have caused eyebrows to raise for the wrong reasons in a number of African markets, but if done right, it could well spell the beginning of many good things. Looking past what it has in the offing by way of social innovation, the view may well reveal a rare opportunity for far-reaching economic transformation. Having almost seamlessly adopted mobile telephony and internet banking systems already, Africa seems poised to make the most of the innovations and developments that could spring forth from AI.

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