Will Africa sustain AI momentum?


Artificial Intelligence is transforming every walk of life. PHOTO | POOL

The revolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quietly underway in Africa. This technology is transforming every walk of life.

It is a tool that enables people to rethink how we integrate information, analyze data, and use the resulting insights to improve decision-making.

Although AI has been around for many years, it has only recently become popular. For example, one can teach a computer to detect a brain tumour from medical imaging using cancerous images from past data.

As a result, it helps doctors to decide the treatment the patient needs and minimize costs quickly.

For Africa, AI presents many opportunities that can put the continent at the forefront of the digital revolution. Africa cannot and should not be left behind.

New startups are disrupting virtually every economic sector from North to South and East to West. Some ideas are groundbreaking and winning awards in competitive hackathons globally.

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Critics, however, say that AI momentum unless the continent rapidly ramps up its capacity.

A recent study, Artificial intelligence-based prediction for cancer-related outcomes in Africa: Status and potential refinements, by Adeoye and others reveals that several systems built using AI algorithms have been demonstrated to increase risk prediction accuracy.

Further, clinical impact when compared to clinical scenarios not using these models.

The researchers primarily evaluated high-income and resource-driven centres.

However, the study noted that oncological AI-based prediction tools are projected to have a more significant impact, especially if the models are used in low-resource and rural locations with a dearth of skilled physicians and specialists.

Scientists in Uganda developed an AI platform PapsAI, which uses AI to speed up cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The digital solution extends survival for many people and saves lives through early diagnosis. In addition, a cervical cancer diagnosis in the country is accessible to many due to affordable diagnostic instruments.

The platform has dramatically improved pap smear screening's ability to detect cervical cancer by eliminating manual analysis. Labour-intensive analyses demand a lot of work and time and are often prone to error.

Nevertheless, health institutions have acknowledged the system's usefulness in lessening the cancer burden in the country.

In Kenya, AI startups like Lima Labs in agriculture are assisting in enhancing the overall quality and accuracy of harvests.

A few other startups use the technology to aid the detection of pests, plant diseases, and undernutrition in farms such that farmers can employ mitigation measures.

For example, AI sensors can identify and target weeds before deciding which herbicide to use and when. As a result, farmers have better yields at a reduced cost.

Research, especially in the application of AI for healthcare, has intensified in Africa, notably in Ghana, South Africa, and Nigeria, with immense success. As a result, the momentum in research, development and use of AI in Africa has picked up.

There are still challenges that the continent must overcome to leverage AI for productivity improvement and economic development. These include data management, legal and regulatory environment, ensuring inclusive infrastructure and an adaptive education system.

Driving AI innovations, however, requires a considerable amount of data for researchers and developers to build better and more accurate products.

Often, these data are unavailable due to many challenges, including legal, quality, storage, compatibility, security, and breaches. Some of these problems gave rise to strict data protection laws.

But for Africa to sustain the emerging AI momentum, the region needs to formulate a comprehensive continental blueprint to guide its AI strategy.

Continental initiatives call for the involvement of critical Pan-African institutions, academia, and the private and public sectors in its conception.

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The legal and regulatory environment is essential, but it must be enabling. Balancing the use and protection of data is complicated, and this has made some regulators stifle innovation.

For AI systems to gain public trust, we must address ethical issues about the fair, secure, and inclusive usage of AI applications through collaboration and involvement.

Africa, barely 43 per cent connected to Broadband, still lags behind the entire world. Yet it is only through inclusive infrastructure coverage that AI can significantly contribute to the well-being of the people and improved productivity.

There are creative ways of building a business case for telecommunication companies to invest in marketplaces for rural micro and small enterprises and linking them to urban markets.

Such an investment will enable hospitals, schools, and farmers to access affordable internet. Moreover, with universal Broadband, developing an adaptive educational system for capacity development is possible.

Developing such a framework will give employees and ordinary citizens the tools they need to succeed. From the Covid-19 pandemic, we learnt enough lessons that virtualization can indeed work.

And it is the future of engagement. With these interventions, Africa can undoubtedly sustain the emerging AI momentum.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization.

The article is written at a personal level.