Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making a real impact across the African continent with many young tech-savvy entrepreneurs making their mark within the global AI community. Connectivity, access, and mobile services have played a significant role in fueling AI tech innovations, but more needs to be done to equip Africa’s next generation of AI Entrepreneurs with the skills and resources needed to grow the industry.
The AI Landscape in Africa
AI is changing the way businesses operate globally and is set to contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. When looking at this number, it is essential to note that markets, sectors, and regions are all different and some are more advanced than others. In the context of Africa, AI has considerable potential as many global companies invest in the creation of technology innovation hubs across the region. This is being seen in Accra, Nairobi, and Lagos, where technology companies are opening up AI centres to develop the talent in this market.
In Africa, there have been several AI innovations developed by a growing number of tech-savvy entrepreneurs. These innovations answer many of the economic and regional problems facing citizens in these countries, which often relate to education, health, the standard of living, and limited access to different amenities. The African environment, in many ways, has fueled entrepreneurial spirit and these young businessmen and women are using technology to create tools to improve their communities.
There have been many different startups created in recent years that illustrate how AI technology can be used to answer to the unique needs of those on the continent. Examples of these startups include:
- Flutterwave – this Nigerian founded startup provides B2B payment services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. From its inception to date, the company has processed $5.4bn. In 2019 alone, they processed over 107 million transactions.
- Kea Medicals – in 2018 this Benin based startup received a grant from the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund to deploy a mobile-enabled integrated health system. This system allows doctors to access patient information from any medical location across the country by scanning a universal medical ID.
- Lifebank – this startup, created in 2016 by Nigerian entrepreneur Temie Giwa-Tubosun has made massive inroads in the healthcare sector in Nigeria. It has moved more than 20000 blood and oxygen products to 300 hospitals, using technology to match supply and demand. In 2020 the company, in partnership with government institutions, also launched a drive-through mass testing centre for Covid-19.
- OkHi – this Nairobi-based startup is a mobile app that allows users to locate someone who does not have a street address. Kenya and many emerging countries lack physical address systems thereby affecting an estimated 4 billion people and costs $200 billion a year.
These are just a few of the thousands of successful startups using tech, and specifically AI, to answer to the needs and challenges experienced in this region.
Mobile as an enabler for AI Entrepreneurship
Tech startups in Africa are drawing significant interest from global companies due to the potential of utilising these innovations and technologies across various sectors and applications. One of the catalysts behind the success of these startups is mobile services. This has proven to be a driver of AI application development in this region and this is primarily linked to the increase in access and connectivity that mobile services provider.
In recent years mobile has seen significant growth across Africa. According to a recent GSMA’s Mobile Economy report, there are 477 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa subscribed to mobile services. The same report highlights that 475 million people in the region will be mobile internet users by 2025 and that there will be a $184BN mobile industry contribution to GDP by 2024. Smartphone adoption also continues to rise rapidly in the region, reaching 50% of total connections in 2020, which is mainly due to the availability of cheaper devices.
How does this impact AI entrepreneurship? The simple answer is that mobile offers more connectivity and access, at a lower cost. With the increase of mobile use across Africa a more extensive customer base has emerged for these entrepreneurs to target and grow their business. Most of the population, especially those living in rural areas, use their mobile phones as a vital tool to access much needed services. Many of these tools are in the form of apps developed by these startups. Mobile is often also more cost-effective to use both in terms of connectivity and general infrastructure, as it is cheaper to buy a mobile phone than a desktop computer or laptop. Mobile is an enabler that enhances connectivity and access which allows customers to utilise the apps being developed by these AI entrepreneurs.
Challenges facing AI Entrepreneurs and how public-private- partnerships can assist
Even with increased mobile use and enhanced access, there are still many challenges facing AI Entrepreneurs that need to be addressed and solved in order to grow and develop this sector. These challenges include:
- Skills development and education – the tech industry is complex and requires a certain level of skill and knowledge. In emerging economies, access to these skill sets, and the education systems needed to develop these skills are still very limited. This limited access to education is hampering the growth of the tech industry.
- Resources and data affordability – for AI entrepreneurs to develop AI innovations they require secure, cost-effective access to the internet as well as the infrastructure to enable connectivity. This is a real challenge considering that only 26.2% of people in Africa have access to the internet. Data is necessary for the development and functionality of AI systems, but with the cost of data being so high in many African countries, there is limited access and connectivity. Slow internet speed and unreliable connections also have a negative impact on the ability of these startups to quickly and effectively develop and deploy their AI innovations.
- Policy framework and regulations – policy frameworks and regulations need to be developed in line with community and local challenges in mind. These frameworks are often designed with profit and business in mind and do not consider human rights or the challenges being faced by those on the continent. The framework for all regulations should be transparent, accountable, safe, and secure for all.
With many other challenges standing in the way of AI Entrepreneurs in Africa, there is an opportunity for public-private-partnerships to become an enabler of success. Investment into these startups is needed and governmental institutions, as well as private and public businesses, can facilitate this. We are already seeing this happening with many of the startups mentioned above.
Global multinational companies have seen the potential and are committing resources and investing in developing the skills needed to take these tech startups in Africa to the next level. A great example of this is Google’s development of the first African AI Research Centre in Ghana, which was opened in 2019. This AI centre is being used to develop solutions to help improve healthcare, agriculture, and education. There is so much potential but more needs to be done within the public and private sectors to help support and enable these innovations.
AI Entrepreneurs continue to innovate and create successful applications that answer to the challenges being faced on the Africa continent. Mobile continues to play a significant role and connects consumers to these innovative apps. But, there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome in order to see more African AI innovations successfully grow in the market and reach the rest of the world. With so much potential, it is up to the private and public sectors to invest in developing this industry and giving African AI Entrepreneurs the resources needed to expand. We expect to see a boom in AI technology advancements globally over the next few years especially as we move into the 5th Industrial Revolution (5IR) and, if invested in, AI in Africa will play a key role in this.
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Steven Sutherland experienced Adapt IT Divisional Executive, dynamic business leader for their Telecoms Division with a demonstrated 25-year history in the telecommunications and IoT sectors. Strong global marketing, sales, and business development professional with 15 plus years focused experience in the Southern and Rest-of-Africa markets and a unique blend of entrepreneurial spirit combined with a passion for both technology and business.
At Adapt IT Steven is responsible for building and growing the Telecoms Division on top of its industry-proven software competencies including but not limited to Customer Experience and Self Service, NextGen VAS, IoT, FINTECH, and Advanced Analytics and always looking forward to an opportunity to demonstrate the value that their 20 plus years of experience in these disciplines can bring to your business