WACSI Editorial: Play Catch Up or Be Ahead of the Curve – AI in West Africa
Two years ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a very worrying report; the Fourth Industrial Revolution would lead to significant changes in labour markets which would in turn result in the loss of over 5 million jobs in the next five years. More recently it was reported that: “As many as two billion jobs could be at stake by 2040 globally, as robots and other sophisticated digital systems take up a larger role in production.” 
In a region where unemployment rates are high and the youth bulge looms ominously, any data that predicts further trends in unemployment grabs my attention. One of the drivers of the disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The term AI was first coined by John McCarthy in 1956 at Dartmouth University and generally refers to the capability of machines to imitate intelligent human behavior.
In the West today, the public is becoming more aware of the pervasiveness of AI and how it affects every facet of their lives. The recent Facebook data privacy scandal raised a major uproar and highlighted the need to have increased oversight and monitoring of how personal data is managed and used. In contrast in Africa, and more specifically, in West Africa, I get the distinct impression that we are not paying sufficient attention to the issue. This is where civil society comes in.
Civil society must start raising awareness among key stakeholders and policy makers about the potential impact of AI in the region. For example, a report by McKinsey found that in South Africa, where the unemployment rate was nearly 30% in 2017, automation could displace nearly 13% of the country’s current work activities by 2020. Similarly, Ethiopia could be affected by disruptions in agricultural and textile manufacturing sectors as a result of increasing automation. Again, in Botswana, robot workers have been said to have weakened the ability of cashiers and shop assistants to advocate for increased pay and benefits.
Yet civil society should not fall into the trap of painting a picture that is all doom and gloom.
There are innovative examples of AI currently being used on the continent for growth and development. Some of these include:
- Kudi.ai, is an AI driven app launched in 2017 in Nigeria to facilitate payments through messaging channels for Africans. Kudi helps customers buy airtime, pay bills and send money to friends and family via messaging applications like Facebook, messenger, telegram, Skype and Web chat. It thus makes peer-to-peer payments much easier using a chatbot.
- MinoHealth is an AI based app developed in Ghana by a group of IT and Health professionals to predict and diagnose medical conditions of patients. The idea is to democratize quality health care in Ghana.
- Sophie Bot is a sexual and reproductive health app that uses AI to provide users with verified information on sexual and reproductive health through conversations driven by text or voice chats. The app, developed by a group of six students from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has been said to have revolutionized access to sexual health information in Kenya.
- Aeroview developed by, Aerobotics, a startup in South Africa, uses AI to help farmers increase productivity and reduce crop failure. This is done using drones and satellites to process geographical data and infrared imagery and offer optimized solutions.
What is critical therefore is for the region to position itself to mitigate the latent risks of AI while taking advantage of its potential benefits. The World Wide Foundation has advocated for policy dialogue on AI in Africa and makes a number of recommendations that civil society in West Africa could pursue. For example, they recommend:
1. The creation of multi-stakeholder platforms to discuss the impact of AI.
2. The development of a national strategy on AI to inform and guide coordinated action in each country to leverage the benefits of AI.
3. The use of AI to improve the delivery of public services and public goods, particularly those that target marginalised groups. There are many exciting examples from the private sector to learn from in this respect.
4. The establishment of effective legal frameworks and codes and conduct to provide for protection and responsible use of data across governments, companies, and civil society.
5. The provision of training on AI that is accessible by all, particularly marginalized groups such as girls and low-income groups. Indeed, Donald Kaberuka, the former African Development Bank President, also recommends that there is a need to reorient our education systems towards a more digital economy. As stated: “The challenge we now face is making sure the young people are trained on the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.”
The challenge is before us. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will radically change the world as we know it with AI at the heart of this change. In West Africa, we have a choice; civil society can help us make the right choice. We can either play catch up and clean up or we can start to pay attention to AI and the opportunities it has to offer.
 World Economic Forum (2016). The Future of Jobs. [online] Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf.
 Novitske, Lexi (2018, Feb 12th). “ The AI Invasion is coming to Africa (and It’s a Good Thing)” Available at: https://ssir.org/articles.
 A Chatbot can be described as a computer program designed to mimic conversation with human users over the Internet.
 Citifm. (2017, August 12th). “Ghanaian develops Artificial Intelligence healthcare system.” Available at: http://citifmonline.com/2017/08/12.
 Genrwot, Jeddy. ( 2017, October 31st). I”mpact and Growth of Artificial Intelligence on Business in Africa.” Available at: https://pctechmag.com.
 World Wide Web Foundation. (2017). Artificial Intelligence – Starting the Policy Dialogue in Africa [online]. Available at: https://webfoundation.org.
 Rodrigues at page 1.
Taaka Awori is the Managing Director of Busara Africa. She is a Leadership Consultant, Trainer and Professional Coach in the private sector, civil society and public sector and a Board Member of WACSI. She writes this editorial in a personal capacity.