Which African Startups Are “Really” Deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

By  |  January 15, 2020

In many of those Hollywood films, some of which even went on to become blockbuster hits, Africa tends to be portrayed as a big country just below Europe where everyone talks funny and thousands of people are at the mercy of a power-drunk dictator who rules with an iron first and eats people for lunch.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Africa is a diverse continent with 54 countries and 1.2 billion people, most of whom are young people. As a matter of fact, the continent would be home to most of the world’s working population by 2050.

Even though dictatorship and mindless corruption remain a problem on the continent, it takes away nothing from the fact that Africa is endowed with rich natural and human resources including 60 percent of the world’s non-cultivated arable lands.

With a combined GDP that still hovers below one-third what is obtainable in the United States, Africa has lots of room for growth and the World Bank have tipped most African countries to achieve middle-income status by 2025.

Additionally, the view from the World Economic Forum (WEF) is that “no part of the planet is urbanizing faster than sub-Saharan Africa.”

Although the African continent is playing catch up in terms of inclusive human and economic development — especially as the continent is still home to the world’s poorest people — some progress has been achieved in a number of areas including power supply and high-speed internet.

Also, over the last decade, the tech startup ecosystem in Africa has seemingly tapped into the continent’s improved fortunes in such areas as mobile phone penetration and internet connection. The proliferation of tech startups has attracted huge amounts of venture capital investments with over USD 1 Bn raised in 2019 alone.

A combination of factors including improved power supply and high-speed internet, more early-stage investment funding, and an increase in smartphone use have created a fertile environment for Africa’s emerging tech industry, and artificial intelligence (AI) does seem like one fascinating area of interest.

What’s Up With Africa And AI?

A recent paper published by Access Partnership and the University of Pretoria highlights four important sectors where AI could greatly benefit Africa’s nations – agriculture, healthcare, public services, and financial services. 

The paper also points existing structural challenges that hamper AI development including little broadband coverage, inflexible education systems, and a lack of big data.

Notwithstanding, there are initiatives focused on overcoming these hurdles, and Google recently opened an AI research lab in Ghana, the first of its kind on the continent, managed by a former Facebook researcher, Moustapha Cisse.

Leading African countries in the advancement of AI in Africa include Kenya and Ethiopia in the East, Nigeria, and Ghana in West Africa, South Africa in the South, and Egypt in the North.

These are the countries where a number of tech startups have carved their niche in the AI segment while attempting to solve everyday problems through the implementation of smart technologies.

So, Which African Startups Are Really Using AI?

Along with “we-are-the-Uber-for”, “disruptive”, and “innovative”, artificial intelligence happens to be one of the words most misused and abused by tech startups globally.

In fact, some industry experts describe AI as a “big, fat lie”; a hollow buzzword and a gimmick used by startups that want to look cooler than they really are. 

There’s even an argument that what most people describe as AI is really just machine learning or its more advanced cousin, deep learning.

So, it’s hard to tell which startups are really driven by AI. But we’ve managed to identify four African startups that appear to be bringing AI (or its other ‘politically-correct’ variations) to Africa’s education, finance, and health sectors.

Aerobotics is a Cape Town-based startup launched in 2014 by Benji Meltzer and James Paterson. 

The company uses machine learning to analyze maps and extract actionable information for crops such as wheat, citrus, and sugar cane. 

Its farming consultation services are used in South Africa, Australia, and the UK. Aerobotics participated in Startupbootcamp InsurTech’s accelerator programme in London.

This edtech startup matches qualified tutors with students according to area and budget. 

Tuteria tutors must maintain a user good rating to win more clients and compensation, and falling below a specified minimum level leads to teaching disqualification. 

The startup’s Founder, Godwin Benson, is a Systems Engineering graduate from the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

FinChatBot was launched in June 2016 by Far Ventures. The company builds chatbots for client websites. 

It also monitors industry trends to increase sales conversion rates, predict customer needs and suggest business solutions. FinChatBox is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Affectiva was launched in 2009 by Rana El Kaliouby, a pioneer in Emotion AI and a former MIT research scientist. 

Affectiva’s “emotion recognition products” draw on the company’s extensive database to detect moods and make decisions based on facial expressions. 

More than 1,400 healthcare, automotive and gaming brands reportedly use its AI emotion technology. The startup has gone on to raise nearly USD 50 Mn in venture capital since inception.

Featured Image Courtesy: TheExchangeAfrica

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