Digital EPRN & FES breakfast about the dawn of AI in Africa

EPRN in collaboration with FES organized yet another edition of digital breakfast, which brought together experts, trade unionists, representatives from various ministries and NGOs, media, and business leaders to discuss the present and future of artificial intelligence, examining the value it is expected to bring forth, as well as its demerits in Africa.

The theme of the day, "Artificial intelligence (AI) and economic growth - What are the Challenges and Opportunities for Africa?", Set stage for an insightful conversation around real life problems AI can solve in Africa to improve lives.

The presenter, Jean Jacques Ndayisenga, the Managing Director of Rwanda Trading Company, and an economist by training, started with a historical perspective of how the past revolutions like the industrial revolution, followed by emergence of the Internet tremendously changed people's lives, noting that the AI what will not be an exception.

He started by pointing out how learning from countries like China, the USA, which have applied AI for decades now, provides a reference point for late adopters like Africa, but of course not forgetting to put context into consideration.

With Africa's population expected to double in the next three decades, a phenomenal rate of rural urban migration, emerging public health problems and a stagnant agricultural sector largely due to traditional methods of farming and climate change, the need to adopt AI solutions has never been more urgent.

In the health sector for instance, it was pointed out that AI can be applied to help in alleviating the appalling patient to doctor ratio in Africa, which has been costly.

It was estimated that 1 robot can do work meant for 8 doctors in record time, with minimum chance of error.

Other sectors like finance, infrastructure, industrialisation among others are ripe to benefit from AI solutions to increase efficiencies in Africa.

The outstanding downside to AI as observed by several participants during the question-and-answer session, was the fear that it might lead to mass job losses, as machines replace human labour.

It came out that these concerns are legitimate, for instance 80 percent of jobs have been lost in the USA in the last three decades, directly attributed to the disruption brought forth by AI.

Responding to these concerns, the expert, Jean Jacques said one of the ways to navigate this is African countries start with developing prudent AI strategies to guide the process and smoothen the transition, and work on employment alternatives for the people who will lose jobs.

It came out that limited access to data, digital illiteracy and low smart phone, electricity and Internet penetration in Africa will be a key impediment to broad and timely adoption of AI solutions.

African countries will also need a large talent pool of experts and innovators in AI as well as building research and development (R&D) capabilities around AI, to have a chance of benefiting from this revolution.

AI solutions will also have to be tailored to the local context if it is to generate the expected value.

Countries like Rwanda for example which has set out to be a nursery bed of tech innovations should be learned from by those that are starting from scratch.

Robots have been deployed in Rwanda to help in COVID-19 response, and these are some of the low-hanging fruits in terms of lessons that can be leveraged on to scale AI application in providing solutions to everyday problems in Africa.

It was observed that with AI, countries will have to take educated risks and that governments should take the lead in AI R&D and adopting well thought through, adequate regulation to minimize the damage that can come with AI and accrue the efficiencies that African countries so desperately need.


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