The Surprise Adopters of AI in 2019

With $100B annual infrastructure gap, the world’s largest population of young people and an incredible databank with insights that could answer many of the world’s problems, we argue that no other continent needs to spend its next dollar more efficiently than Africa does. It is said that the single most powerful tool for making accurate and fast decisions today, transforming lives across the world is artificial intelligence. So regardless of infrastructure drawbacks on the continent, the importance of Africa’s accelerated adoption of AI cannot be overstated. 

It was hence good news that 2019 saw great strides taken by exemplary Africans across the four corners of the continent to further this course. We’ll take you through this year of awareness and coordination, and introduce you to 2020, the year of global emergence as we call it at Alliance4ai.

AI is Not About Killer Robots 🙂

Contrary to depictions in sci-fi movies and killer-robot or job-stealing propaganda, artificial intelligence is really a tool that helps us see the world more clearly. It’s a technology tool, the most powerful technology tool that is already transforming all of the world and we engage with this technology to live and work. Look at the mobile phone in your hand and recognize that many of the applications you use today are already powered by artificial intelligence and you don’t even know it. Every time you search Google for an answer, it uses AI to search billions of answers to provide you split-second response. Amazon similarly uses AI to recommend items for you to buy that suit your desires. These tools would be incredibly expensive to operate, and crappy to use without AI.

In Africa, Alliance4ai advocates for the use of AI to solve problems that transform people’s chances of climbing the economic ladder to choose better options for their children’s futures. We advocate for the use of AI to improve access to healthcare, efficiency in cultivating food for millions and providing credit to support business activity.

2019 was an exciting year where enthusiasts, in the form of individuals and private organizations, popped up around the entire continent to increase awareness and drive impact.


The Champions of 2019

We started off the year at Alliance4ai releasing the Africa AI web platform that now provides everyone information on everything AI in Africa, from success stories to startups and ecosystem organizations making them possible, and the training programs skilling Africa’s youth. One of the many beauties of doing that is you can now received a comprehensive pan-African coverage of activities on this complex, rich, and promising continent.

Our work with partners is directly aimed at including more Africans, young people and women at the decision tables of AI to foster inclusion and reduce harm. 

Data science Nigeria, driven by private individuals trained 10s of thousands of people this year, ran bootcamps and connected young people to jobs mostly in banks, telecom organizations and  startups. Most notably, they published an AI textbook that is being distributed for free across all of Nigeria, mostly to kids and young people.

The next champion is Zindi, which is the AI competition platform in Africa. Zindi has over 9000 data scientists across all of Africa, waiting for you and your company to post a project or contest on their platform, put out a prize money, ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. And after three months, you return to pick the top three solutions that have been built for you by Africans. This is cheaper than hiring consultants from outside Africa, and more effective as the African solution providers are highly-skilled and build with local context for your work.

The Deep Learning Indaba has grown to become the largest conference for AI researchers in Africa, just like Neurips is to the world. This year, they assembled their family of 700 researchers in Kenya, visiting from across the continent to showcase their exemplary research. Similarly, AI Expo Africa is the largest business conference in AI on the continent. This year in Cape Town, South Africa, it brought up to 1000 people, local and international, to display how AI is affecting the business world in Africa today.

Icog labs from Ethiopia gave us more reasons to revere them, beyond their design of the brain of the Famous Sophia. They partnered with the US Embassy in Addis Ababa and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on important works in 2019, and hosted the prestigious annual event Solve IT.  Solve IT is an annual nationwide innovation competition which provides modern, adaptable, and properly configured and conditioned platform decentralizing innovation activities to the grassroot.

Moving up north to Tunisia, InstaDeep, as is popularly called the number one AI startup in Africa, partnered with the government through the Ministry of Industry to host a hackathon with 1000 machine learning developers from across the MENA region to solve challenges across six domains. This hackathon was so large it needed a basketball court to host all these developers with their laptops, solving problems. It was the first of its kind, with plans to go bigger next year.

Hosts InstaDeep went ahead several months afterwards to launch the first deep tech product to come out of Africa. It’s called Deep PCB, an incredibly impressive solution that can potentially be used by the largest companies around the entire world. Think about Intel, NVIDIA, Google, buying from an African startup – the sky is only the limit.

On the research side, many researchers across Africa are excited about natural language processing (NLP) and using that to save and store African languages. Led by the Masakhane Open Source project, they translate from English, French and other popular languages to make education and technology more accessible for hundreds of millions of Africans.

The foreign tech companies are increasing their activities as well. Google joined IBM who already had AI research labs on the continent to open its first research lab, located in Ghana to produce primary research that West African resources are uniquely suited for. Microsoft announced a $100M fund to open up engineering offices across the continent, mostly taking advantage of the growing talent of African data scientists. These global companies still have much to catch up with the many indigenous African entities that have been conducting AI research and building products with the technology before their entry. 

Lastly, governments and governmental organizations are starting to get involved. This year, the Africa Union invited several entities including our group, Alliance4AI, to work on a digital transformation strategy for the coming age. They are putting together ethical frameworks to guide the use of these technologies, and coming up with policies that open up the space for education, research and innovation. South Africa appointed a presidential commission for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to position South Africa as a leader in the digital age. Similarly, Rwanda, that pioneered the idea of smart cities in Africa is also making many strides when it comes to using digital technologies and artificial intelligence to drive growth. Just this past week, it launched a satellite to extend internet coverage to schools in rural communities. In a few months, we hope to see clearer communications from these countries and others on how they will approach the age of AI.

Some Drawbacks of 2019

It was not all rosy in 2019. The biggest dark spaces were in the form of exclusion of African activity and innovators from global reports and events. Global reporters claim to not have access to information on what is happening on the African continent. For example, the Stanford Global AI Index and Europe’s State of AI Report had minimal information on activity from Africa. We hope that the work we do at Alliance4AI, and our web platform will help provide these organizations a one-stop-shop for all the information they need on research, startups, training organizations and use cases of AI in Africa, so these better inform how we all think about what the world is doing with AI. 

Top African researchers, looking to attend global conferences to network with their colleagues and share their findings were mostly denied entry to countries where these conferences were held. A key example is the Neurips conference in Canada. For the second year more than half the African researchers who applied to showcase their work were denied visas. This systematically excludes African researchers from contributing to innovation at a global level.

Lastly, big challenges still hold back mass adoption of AI for development in Africa. We will cover more of these in coming articles, but the most important challenge receiving the least attention today is the absence of powerful compute infrastructure for AI. Incredibly smart African professors, students and innovators still use old tools that make them 10 times slower than their counterparts abroad, dramatically reducing competitiveness for those not able to design around this. A number of challenges hold back access to compute on-prem or via the cloud that need to be addressed by relevant stakeholders.

The Road Ahead in 2020

We are hopeful that many of the drawbacks subside and that we see an emergence of African luminaries to the rest of the world. The level of activity today should already encourage increased investment in the African AI ecosystem, by local governments, foreign technology companies and global investment houses. 

One of the key global AI events, ICLR, will be held in Ethiopia, Africa in 2020. This should provide greater opportunity for Africans to showcase their work. Similarly, The UN’s AI for good summit, which is always held in Geneva, should for the very first time, have a stronger African voice, with top AI organizations from Africa displaying their works and contributing to panels and sessions. This should provide a more complete picture of how the world, including Africa is using AI for good to combat the many challenges of the UN Development Goals.

Deep Learning Indaba (DLI) and AiExpo also have plans to be bigger next year, and we’ll look forward to how they will go beyond sessions to foster more connections that lead to innovation, and drive development. DLI, after running in South and East Africa will be in North Africa this time, hosted by Tunisia after the success of their 1000-people ML Hackathon.

We see increased activity across private organizations, public entities and foreign foundations like Mastercard and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations to gather and curate African datasets across image and speech. This key infrastructure layer should serve as a bedrock for further innovation by the continent’s researchers, hopefully, followed by investments to increase access to powerful compute for African innovators to build world-class products.

From the conversations we’ve had in 2019, we see consortiums of universities, global foundations and a number of African governments getting more serious about procuring local compute infrastructure for building and running AI, as we continue to help them realize that this is the single-most impactful action that can be taken to unlock the innovative promise of Africans already skilled in these technologies. Without compute infrastructure, the “Einsteins” of these economies will have no options but to leave the continent to be productive.

We also hope that as many more AI startups pop up, we start to see a clearer communication of value proposition across different domains or industries, and perhaps a consolidation of startups collaborating on marketing and awareness campaigns with Alliance4ai to help the rest of their communities and people of Africa understand how their work provides tremendous value over the old way of doing things. 

For example, there are many applications and startups that are working in the healthcare space using apps on phones to diagnose and treat different types of diseases – how can they work together to help everyday Africans learn how to find the apps that detect eye problems or issues with the skin? Similarly in Agriculture, how can startups make it easier for farmers to find the applications that cater to their particular crops, be it tomatoes, or potatoes.

As all these use cases become more prevalent through the year, we expect to naturally see an increase in discussions on standards, procedures and ethics, as these technologies like AI that drive tremendous value at the same time, when applied unchecked, can provide strong bias and discrimination against marginalized groups on the continent. It will become increasingly important to come up with these standards to protect against misuse of these technologies, especially as people’s data can be taken and used without their permission by local, and more importantly, foreign companies.

Engage Us, Join The Movement

We are grateful for your support and contributions towards growing Africa as a hub for AI. With its diversity of data, people, culture, use cases, it can be home to the most transferable AI solutions that find application for  the rest of the world.

A key objective of ours is for you to have access to a pool containing information on everything AI in Africa. But we need your contributions to achieve this. 

As you build or become aware of new AI organizations in Africa, request that these startups, training programs and success stories be added to our platform. Also have a look at the impact of our work and consider leaving a donation

Together, we can build the Africa of our dreams.

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