Africa and the Middle East might be overlooked by some in terms of AI, but the region has many assets. With some countries already advanced in development, the benefits apply to all. We review the situation with Egyptian entrepreneur Marc Banoub, Founder and CEO of the start-up LyRise.
For a few years now, AI has been experiencing a real boom across Africa and the Middle East, as AI specialist Marc Banoub is fully aware. He set up the LyRise platform in 2019 to connect North American and European companies with homegrown AI talent in Africa. Four years later, he says he is optimistic about the progress made possible by AI.
AI could bring 1.5 Trillion USD to the African economy by 2030, even if it only makes up 10% of the global AI market.
So far AI has mainly been developed within the major European and Asian countries and it raises ethical questions. The technology is powerful and the fact it enables economic development is undisputed, so it is particularly gratifying to see countries in Africa and the Middle East using AI to broaden the benefits to all.
How AI addresses major priorities
AI has an important role to play in helping farmers.
Many promising uses are already emerging, particularly for the most strategic sectors of the economy. Take agriculture, for example, which employs between 65 and 70% of the workforce, according to the African Development Bank. Although it occupies a leading position in the African economy, it is struggling to modernize and remains highly vulnerable to climate variations or disease. For Marc Banoub, AI has an important role to play in helping farmers “by optimizing crop yields and irrigation, soil analysis, disease diagnosis, and more.”
One example is the Nuru app, which diagnoses cassava diseases and is already helping 28,000 Kenyan producers to protect their crops. Other projects are underway to better predict crop growth and protect vital food from global warming.
Further advances made possible by AI include optimizing conditions in the mining sector through Rocketmine, a mapping service using commercial drones. In the insurance sector, Curacel uses AI as a fraud detection tool.
Strengths and challenges
In African and Middle Eastern countries, AI can tap into incomparable benefits: the youngest and largest workforce in the world; strong digital infrastructure in some countries; and unique commercial opportunities.”
In African and Middle Eastern countries, AI can tap into incomparable benefits according to the winner of the Forbes Middle East 30 Under 30: the youngest and largest workforce in the world who are keen to adopt it; strong digital infrastructure in some countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa; and unique commercial opportunities such as low banking rates and hereto untapped data.
However, there are also obstacles to its acceleration. Firstly, a lack of technical skills. Although many young people have been trained in AI, only a handful can boast several years of experience in the field. Secondly, digital technology is still not fully accessible, with 20% of the population deprived of internet connectivity. This is where the Egyptian entrepreneur expects a “ripple effect" with broadband adoption, 4G democratization, and the arrival of 5G. Another challenge is that many countries in the region depend on foreign players for software and hardware, which is why Marc Banoub encourages local players to take up the mantle so that hardware can be entirely produced on home soil “within 5 to 10 years.”
Last but not least, the region suffers from underinvestment in education and research and lack of vision by public decision-makers. “It should be one of the top priorities of every government because if there isn’t enough investment, if there aren’t educational programs, and if we don’t catch up, we risk missing out on all the opportunities that are available to us,” he warns.
Partnerships to drive development
One thing is clear: although promising, AI is still struggling to assume its rightful place in the region, which is why Marc Banoub is delighted to see public-private partnerships emerging, along with fruitful collaborations between business and academia. “To date, there are more than 30 developer communities in Africa, such as IndabaX, which brings together the best researcher network. More and more universities are offering degrees in the subject. Projects are also multiplying, with around 2,400 in several business sectors.”
While the Egyptian entrepreneur notes an exponential increase in AI initiatives, innovation ecosystems are slower to emerge. They are also on a much smaller scale then in the United States, for example, which takes advantage of the strong enthusiasm in AI of Big Tech and major American universities and a massive increase in commercial investment. This is why he calls on stakeholders across the content to come together and co-create new ecosystems, such as Google, which has inaugurated an AI research center in Accra. “Start-ups like LyRise or InstaDeep must also drive the market and invest more openly so that meetings can take place and connect all AI players.”
Ensuring responsible and bias-free AI
As elsewhere in the world, the next challenge is daunting: ensuring AI ethics and accountability. The first step is to agree on what we mean by responsible AI, says Marc Banoub.
Then there is the need to mitigate the risks associated with this new technology, particularly in terms of data protection, especially when the vast majority of data is stored outside the continent. Africa and the Middle East also suffer from algorithmic biases because most of the data comes from Europe and the United States. Indeed, according to a UNESCO report, only 9 of the 32 African countries claim to have a legal framework to protect against bias and discrimination within algorithms.
“We hope put this subject on the table, in partnership with leading tech giants such as Meta and OpenAI, to pioneer in the field,” concludes Marc Banoub, who predicts that the subject will advance in 5 to 10 years when governmental issues such as regulation and ethics have “matured.”
While the AI revolution is well underway, not all countries are adopting it at the same pace. Pioneers such as Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa are proving particularly dynamic technology hubs in the field of innovation, along with Tunisia and Mauritius, the only country in Africa to have published an AI strategy. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is in pole position – 18th in the world – according to Oxford Insight's AI readiness index, in an effort to diversify its economy away from oil. This offers some hope to its neighbors wishing to follow the same model.
Egypt, which created its first National Council for AI, now wants to boost AI development further by creating p a unified strategy for the entire African continent, or at least its most advanced countries. This is no mean feat according to the LyRise CEO: “To date, there is no clear incentive to do so. What’s in it for those who take the risk? Who will lead this alliance? I fear it will be hard to reach a consensus on the model such as the one adopted by the European Union. We’re still at the beginning of the AI era," he concludes.
TOP 10 initiatives to follow:
InstaDeep (Tunisia) : Created in 2014, this start-up specializes in decision support and became better known to consumers when it developed a system for the early detection of Covid-19 variants. It has also been supported by Orange Tunisia.
LyRise (Egypt) : founded by Marc Banoub in 2019, LyRise helps bridge the gap between workforce gaps within large Western companies and African AI talent.
Sama (Kenya) : This platform provides high-quality data to feed into learning algorithms.
DataProphet (South Africa) : this company aims to improve manufacturing performance and efficiencies through machine learning.
Yemaachi Biotechnology (Ghana) : this MedTech conducts cancer research and uses AI to analyze data faster.
Curacel (Ghana) : This insurance software provider has developed an AI-powered fraud detection system to help businesses identify fraudulent refund claims.
IndabaX : these international conferences bring together an African AI community of more than 400 researchers, students, professionals, and experts.
Responsible AI Network Africa (RAIN-Africa) : this organization is dedicated to overcoming AI’s ethical and social challenges in Africa.
Data Scientists Network (Nigeria) : this NGO aims to train 1 million people in IT to prepare for future high-value jobs.
The Gradient Boost : this online bootcamp aims to help African students gain strong Data Science skills..