Technology guru speaks on sector’s role in job creation

Akshay Shah. PHOTO | POOL

What you need to know:

While Akshay Shah’s academic background is in computer science and business management, he has spent the last 30 years in manufacturing in various countries in Africa in different sectors. He has also been actively involved in tech startups during the last six years.

What are your views about technology helping or hurting jobs? What’s the future of employment for the youth in developing countries like Kenya?

Technology has always created a net positive for employment when we take a very long-term view. For example, the printing press, steam engine, life-saving drugs, high-yield farming, etc, are all technologies that have created a net positive for more people than not.

How we as a population use instead of abuse technology, and make the technology widely available to as many people as possible, will determine how the current generation of technology will help or hurt us.

Coming to the future of employment of youth in Kenya, if the youth embrace & adapt to technology to solve some of our country's and our world's biggest challenges, there will always be a bright future for Kenyan youth, whether it is as entrepreneurs or employees.

My suggestion is to focus on solving problems in Kenya, in Africa and globally for climate change, food & health security, progressive education for all, sustainable housing, inclusive equitable & diverse ways of living together, and connecting everyone to productive opportunities. 

You are involved in Silafrica plastic packaging and an investor in two tech startups, WayOut and Ponea Health. Can you explain the role of technology in each of these companies? 

Silafrica is a 60-year-old plastics packaging manufacturing business, where both manufacturing and information technology have been used in an integrated way to improve product innovation, process efficiency and improve the role of manpower through information empowerment to make better timely decisions.

 Recent examples are the use of IoT (Internet of Things) to connect manufacturing machines in real time to product optimisation & planning systems, warehouse management systems, and manufacturing ERP systems. 

WayOut is a beverage-tech business that uses IoT-enabled hardware to operate decentralised remote-operated solar-powered factories to produce filtered & mineralised drinking water in smart kegs for hyper-local distribution networks.

In WayOut, we see a convergence of multiple technologies to bring safe high quality drinking water without the carbon footprint of large-scale distribution & single-use packaging, which ultimately prioritises both people & planet.

Ponea Health is a software technology startup which develops a combination of platforms for health insurance and hospitals, labs, pharmacies, marketplaces and apps SME or Individual health professionals to serve more people affordably and conveniently, and citizen health apps to gamify and improve their health experience.

The vision is to use all this technology to make it easier for everyone to be healthy, and also provide everyone a way to consolidate their health records & mode of payment for healthcare via different sources.

 In Ponea, we eventually see the use of AI layered on top of these systems to give every adult and their dependents a personalised way to understand their health & take proactive decisions to stay healthy. 

There’s a lot of buzz about Artificial Intelligence, can you explain Artificial Intelligence in layman terms.

Artificial Intelligence in simple terms is using the combination of large amounts of data and computing power to simulate human cognition and communication, but not original human creation.

In addition, AI can also carry out actions autonomously based on achieving a started objective (which can sometimes create unintended consequences).

Imagine all publically available images in the world were like jigsaw pieces of multiple massive puzzles, and AI is able to create entirely new puzzles using the individual jigsaw pieces that happen to fit together in a way that is compatible to human cognition.

What AI can't do is create entirely new jigsaw pieces from scratch, however, it could create new pieces by merging elements of other jigsaw pieces.

Another way of thinking about AI is that once humans have done the 0 to 1 stage of original creation of information, images, music, etc.. then AI is able to take billions of 0 to 1 examples across billions of humans, and get better than humans to extrapolate the 1 to 10 stage of among them information, image and music, creation. 

Where do you see the practical use of Artificial Intelligence in any of these companies?

In all the companies, the aim of AI would be to augment human understanding and decision-making capabilities in significantly less time and cost. In Silafrica it would mean improving operational efficiency, time to innovate new products & processes, and improve profitability & cashflow.

In WayOut it would mean operating the micro-beverage factory & hyper-local grid at high efficiency & low energy to meet the just-in-time demand for drinking water, which means further reducing any carbon footprint to get safe quality drinking water to more people at lower cost.

In Ponea Health, it would mean using a combination of the individual's health data cross referenced with large population health data, medication data, etc.. and provide individuals with personalised understanding of why their health could be below optimal levels, which then enables their health care providers to also provide better treatment options.

We expect in Ponea, this is just the beginning when it comes to using AI, and the potential could be exponentially more. 

What are your views about Kenya being dubbed the Silicon Savannah?

Recently someone mentioned that by 2050 Africa will be home to 25 percent of the world's population, and 33percent of the world's working age population.

Within Africa, Kenya is one of the most progressive countries with open markets, a tradition of leading in home grown technology globally, being a global forerunner in climate related legislation, and having a young highly educated tech savvy hustler culture that is also open to people from all countries.

These are the ingredients which would foster innovation especially to solve some of the world’s most real pressing problems through startups and scaleups that have received lion's share of global & local capital, which have also given some great success stories.  

What are the key bottlenecks in scaling up a tech company and what in your experience do you find as appropriate mitigations

The big difference between scaling a tech-enabled company versus a traditional business such as manufacturing, construction or farming, is that in most cases traditional businesses need significant upfront capital & effort before making revenue & cashflow, while tech-enabled companies can apply a concept called minimum-viable-product, where one builds the business in stages where each stage generates profitable revenue and cash flow.

The key bottleneck I feel is the mindset of entrepreneurs because growing a business using an MVP approach requires a lot of discipline, resourcefulness and creativity from the entrepreneur and their team.

The second bottleneck is not to get stuck in a particular MVP stage, so remaining agile & continuing to keep growing profitable revenue & cashflow is really important.

This sounds easy but I can tell you from personal experience, it is very difficult even for highly experienced entrepreneurs. 

What does the future hold in terms of innovation?

We are entering a very interesting age of innovation with AI converging with a number of other important technology trends in healthcare, energy production and storage, robotics and mobility.

This also applies in cognitive improvements in learning, organising and managing information using blochains and quantum computing, and sustainable ethical food production.

The future of innovation, I believe is to connect the dots between these different technologies to solve real world challenges to improve the human condition for as many people as possible, who can also co-exist in an improved sustainable climate and biodiversity for our planet.

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