On June 27, experts gathered to discuss different aspects of Africa's future in the Carnegie Africa Forum.

Carnegie Africa Forum Discusses Bridging the AI Gap in Africa

Experts at Carnegie Africa Forum discuss AI's potential to address socio-economic challenges and emphasize need for infrastructure and equitable access to tech.

3 mins read

Mia Boykin

The recent Carnegie Africa Forum explored Africa’s positions in an array of sectors, including green energy, economics, and artificial intelligence (AI). The forum highlighted both the opportunities and challenges facing AI, featuring experts on the subject to give a concise read of the future of AI implementation in Africa. 

The day featured multiple forums that focused on a specific topic to Africa in the green energy transition. In particular, “Rise of the Machines: Will AI Enable or Undermine Africa’s Digital Future?” focused on the future of the implementation of AI for the continent. Sitting on the forum were Alex Tsado, the co-founder of Alliance4AI, Dr. Jane Munga, a Carnegie Fellow in the African program, and Nicholas Bramble, who is the Head of Economic policy at Google. 

Dr. Munga began by describing Africa’s large youth population and pressing socio-economic challenges that present fertile ground for AI-driven solutions. She highlighted AI’s potential to address local needs, from flood forecasting to improving maternal health. This optimism, however, is tempered by an awareness of the significant challenges ahead.

In the agricultural sector, which employs a substantial portion of the continent’s workforce, AI could revolutionize practices for smallholder farmers. By analyzing crop data, automating pest control, and breeding more resilient seeds, AI could improve productivity and increase wage gains for farmers who often earn below the basic living income standard.

The forum also discussed how the healthcare sector also stands to benefit greatly from AI adoption. The technology’s ability to analyze vast amounts of data could lead to breakthroughs in understanding protein structures, potentially accelerating the development of new drugs and treatments. This is particularly crucial for a continent that faces numerous health challenges.

Nicholas Bramble, head of economic policy at Google, emphasized the critical need for inclusivity in AI development and deployment. This includes ensuring African representation in global AI discussions and equal access to technology across the continent. Without such inclusivity, there’s a risk of an “AI divide” that could exacerbate existing inequalities.

AI also brings a benefit to the business sector, providing organizational tools for businesses to properly manage their sales. Alex Tsado discussed the impact of the mobile revolution on Africa, citing that now mobile phone business makes just under 10% of the entire continent’s GDP. 

He focused on the future of Africa’s youth population, saying “All those [young] people are going to need opportunities, and how can you use AI and technology to create jobs and create those opportunities for them? And thankfully, there’s progress.” 

The Downsides

However, the forum made it clear that while these are great benefits of AI, it is difficult to achieve such success on a large scale. Infrastructure, for example, remains a significant hurdle to widespread AI adoption in Africa. Many parts of the continent still struggle with basic internet connectivity, and the lack of access to fast computers is a critical issue. Without substantial investments in infrastructure, training, and education, the benefits of AI may remain out of reach for a large portion of the population.

Data protection and privacy have emerged as major concerns as AI systems become more integrated into various aspects of society. Dr Munga said, “I think privacy has to be given to the individual, a kind of agency. When your data is being used, what can companies do with it, and not do with it?” 

There’s a growing need for clear regulations and strategies around data collection, use, and protection. While some African countries have implemented data protection laws, there’s still work to be done in giving individuals agency over their data. 

The issue of AI governance is another critical area that needs attention, globally. AI regulation is a hot topic in just about every nation, but Africa could be particularly vulnerable because of governmental issues that already exist.  While some African nations are beginning to work on AI strategies, there’s still no clear continental consensus on where the norms should be set. This lack of unified governance could potentially hinder innovation and create regulatory inconsistencies across borders.

Despite these challenges, there’s cautious optimism about Africa’s AI future. Efforts are underway to build AI research centers in countries like Kenya and Ghana, focusing on developing applications tailored to local needs. Brambles said, “We want to ensure that we have learned those questions and building connectivity across and around the continent, that allows anybody to get access to these technologies.”

Education and awareness are key to ensuring widespread adoption and acceptance of AI technologies. As AI becomes more integrated into daily use, such as Apple considering including Google’s AI Gemini in their phones, education about usage is even more important. Initiatives like Google’s AI Essentials course aim to demystify AI and make it more accessible to a broader audience. There’s also a call for more “AI champions” within Africa to elevate the conversation and fast-track adoption.

As Africa navigates its AI journey, the focus should be on creating solutions that are truly inclusive and adapted to local contexts. This includes developing AI applications that can function offline to cater to areas with limited internet connectivity. It also means involving government workers and local communities in building and deploying AI solutions to ensure they meet real needs and reach a wider audience.

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