Africa needs artificial intelligence plans


Today my column is a general letter to the African policymakers. It is focusing on how artificial intelligence (AI) strategy can increase development opportunities and the continent’s competitiveness. And it is also, a reminder that the 21st Century might also pass us by like the previous revolutions, if we don’t take some serious actions.

The potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in transforming Africa are enormous — from economic growth to increase in agricultural productivity and enhancing global trade. This has made many leaders and experts to speak glowingly of how 4IR can make Africa realise its full potential. But little has been done to create the necessary space it requires to reinvigorate the continent.

And considering that AI is one of the technologies that will drive the 4IR, many policymakers in Africa are only looking at it as a new technology that is being used by techies for innovative purposes.

To see how AI can help Africa address some of the economic challenges it is facing and also improve our productivity, policymakers must create an ecosystem which can enhance the development of an AI strategy. To embrace the potential of AI, for a start every nation in Africa must digitalise (convert every information into digital formats) to create data. The data is then used to teach machines (machine learning) to act like human beings (AI). At the moment, every country in Africa is at different stages of effectively using AI.

Globally, since 2017 when social media platforms began to intensively leverage AI, it has spread to virtually every other sector. It has simply become a general-purpose technology even before the world puts in place mechanisms to regulate it.

For example, in finance it is reducing risk and enabling inclusive lending. In health it has increased productivity and the efficiency of care delivery; in transportation it is reconfiguring traffic management; in education it is customising learning to individual students and in manufacturing it is enabling mass customisation, predictive maintenance and reshaping the source of value creation.

Currently, the US and China are leading the world in AI application, investment and human resource capacity. As a result, AI and its sister technologies — the big data, machine learning, and robotics — are revolutionising production processes. For example, in agriculture, an AI algorithm can predict weather conditions, enable early detection of diseases or poor plant nutrition and provide other data necessary to guarantee maximum output from farms. This has enabled adoption of smart farming by many farmers.

In other words, to be food secure it is not how large the land is but how much more one can produce from a small piece of land. With such massive productivity, the advantage that Africa has on the abundance of arable land ceases to exist and also the labour cost.

In effect, productions that used to move out of developed countries to low labour cost countries may never happen again due to productivity improvement in advanced countries. This brings to life the Ricardian theory of comparative advantage, which states that: “ability of a country to produce a particular good or service at a lower opportunity cost than its competitors,” may cease to be relevant.

The repercussions of this emerging scenario to developing countries will be severe. This is because, AI could disrupt the well-travelled development path from agrarian to industrialsation to information age. This might force Africa to prematurely deindustrialise and continue to be dependent on highly productive nations. Already Africa has been struggling to add value to its primary products as a strategy to industrialise.

The writing is clearly on the wall. And this must be a concern to every policymaker in the continent since it is not in the interest of rich countries to outsource production to emerging economies. But it can only happen if the developing countries can also raise productivity and improve skills of their workers.