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How Africa Can Thrive in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

By Sanni Alausa-Issa Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come to stay. Technological advancements have been unprecedented in the last two decades, and their impact has been…

By Sanni Alausa-Issa

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come to stay. Technological advancements have been unprecedented in the last two decades, and their impact has been disruptive. AI is at the forefront of this disruption. AI’s limitless possibilities present a unique problem for Africa: Can its youthful population harness these possibilities for economic growth? As global economies continue to embrace the immense powers of AI, Africa must position itself for a future of prosperity and sustainable development, with AI playing a pivotal role. 

A Young and Vibrant Young Population: An African Advantage? 

Conversations about Africa are never complete without mention of its youthful population. 70% of the continent’s population is under 30, which has led many to describe the continent as “the future”. These young people are innovative, energetic, and enthusiastic and have demonstrated their capacity to create a future that Africa needs through their groundbreaking efforts. But is the continent providing an environment for these young people to excel?

You need an agile and adaptable workforce to harness AI’s opportunities. Africa has this. However, the lack of digital infrastructure and investment in technology that matches this burgeoning population is a concern. For example, there is an alarming increase in young people who are unskilled or unfit for jobs. As a result, youth unemployment continues to soar, making it difficult for this demographic to contribute its full strength to the future Africa can build.

But what needs to be changed?

Bridging the AI Skills Gap

Strategic investments in education and skills development are the way for Africa, but it must involve critical stakeholders: the government, private enterprises and educational institutions. All these stakeholders must unite to equip the African workforce with the knowledge to design, implement, and manage AI systems effectively. With it, it will be possible for the workforce to navigate the intricacies of AI.

This multi-pronged approach is essential, with each part playing its role effectively. Governments need to revamp education curricula to incorporate digital literacy and AI-related subjects. Many governments across Africa have shown readiness to commit resources to AI – Rwanda is looking to invest $76.5 million over the next five years in setting up a comprehensive AI ecosystem. These investments must be effectively utilised for Africa to accelerate AI’s adoption.

Private sector collaboration can further support skill development by offering apprenticeships, internships, and continuous learning opportunities. Edtech platforms like AltSchool Africa and uLesson are championing digital literacy across the continent to foster the early adoption of AI.

Also, AI-driven educational initiatives are already making strides. For example, the “AI Kenya” programme in Kenya trains developers in AI technologies, while “AI Saturdays” is a continent-wide movement offering free AI education to communities across Africa. By nurturing AI talent, Africa can unleash a wave of innovation that addresses local challenges and fuels economic growth.

Harnessing AI for Socio-Economic Impact

Beyond workforce development, AI can transform two critical sectors in Africa: Agriculture and Healthcare.

For instance, farmers can benefit from predictive analytics of weather patterns or precision farming techniques in Agriculture. In Ghana, cashew farmers are using AI-powered aerial vehicles for disease detection. These robots gather information from the various parts of cashew trees—leaves, stems, and trunks—enabling farmers to identify signs of pests and diseases before they become visible, thereby averting significant harm to crops.

Healthcare is another sector ripe for AI disruption. The shortage of healthcare professionals across the continent can be mitigated by AI-powered telemedicine and diagnostic tools. These tools can enhance healthcare and improve accessibility. For example, the hard-to-reach populations – women, persons with disabilities, refugees and lower-income households – can benefit from teleconsultation and remote monitoring.

The deployment of AI-driven innovation must be matched with improved digital infrastructure. Countries like Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria have the potential to be trailblazers here, allowing other countries to transition faster.

Addressing Challenges and Ensuring Ethical AI

As Africa ventures into the AI era, it faces unique challenges, including limited internet connectivity, inadequate infrastructure, and data privacy concerns. The Digital Access Index, developed by the International Telecommunication Union, highlights the significant digital divide in many African nations. To harness AI’s full potential, addressing these challenges is critical.

Moreover, ethical considerations must be central to AI development. The risk of perpetuating biases and discrimination through AI algorithms is real. Initiatives like the ‘Partnership on AI’ and the ‘African Institute for Mathematical Sciences’ are working to ensure that AI technologies are developed responsibly, with diversity and inclusivity at the forefront.

International partnerships can play a pivotal role in shaping Africa’s AI trajectory. Collaboration with global tech leaders, academia, and international organisations can facilitate knowledge exchange, technology transfer, and investment. Initiatives like Google’s “AI for Good” programme, which supports social and environmental projects, offer models for how AI can be harnessed for positive societal impact.

Notably, Africa must adopt robust regulatory frameworks that prioritise transparency, accountability, and fairness in AI deployment.

Collaboration and Path Forward

The path to maximising Africa’s benefits from AI requires collaboration. Governments must create enabling environments through policy frameworks that promote innovation, investment, and digital inclusion. Nigeria’s Minister of Communication, Innovation and Digital Economy, Dr. Bosun Tijani, recently announced Nigeria’s plan to pioneer ethical and inclusive AI innovation through a National AI Strategy. According to the Minister, this plan will involve a co-creation approach that engages top AI researchers of Nigerian descent. This is a move in the right direction.

Businesses can also contribute by fostering innovation and embracing AI technologies, leading to increased productivity and global competitiveness.

As the World Economic Forum emphasises, AI’s potential can only be realised through a holistic approach involving governments, businesses, academia, and civil society. By establishing innovation hubs, investing in digital infrastructure, and nurturing AI talents, Africa can position itself as a global AI leader, driving economic growth, improving lives, and shaping a future where technology works for all.

Conclusion

The age of AI presents Africa with an unprecedented opportunity to redefine its future. With a youthful population, a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, and a commitment to learning, the continent stands on the cusp of transformative change that will chart a course of sustainable growth in the digital era. Through investments in AI education, fostering innovation, and embracing responsible AI practices, Africa can pave the way for inclusive prosperity, transforming its workforce and its entire socio-economic landscape.

As we navigate the complexities of the AI revolution, let us remember that the future of work is not predetermined; it is shaped by the choices we make today. Africa’s journey into the age of AI will be a testament to its resilience, adaptability, and unwavering belief in the power of innovation to drive positive change.

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