Microsoft: Getting behind AI growth in Africa

Microsoft: Getting behind AI growth in Africa

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) dominated discussions at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos – with delegates touching on everything from ethics to democratization and workforce re-skilling – Amrote Abdella, Regional Director, Microsoft 4Afrika. 

While AI is primed to be the driving force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its widespread acceptance and adoption among businesses is still in early stages. The year 2018 was an important one in shifting current perceptions around AI, demonstrating it as a technology that is here to augment human capabilities, not replace them, and to benefit the speed and scale of any organization, large or small.

These conversations have carried weight. In just four years, the number of global organizations deploying AI has increased by 270 percent.

In Africa, the momentum is similar, and continues to grow as access to high-quality broadband and cloud computing improves. Organizations are recognizing AI’s ability to help with some of the continent’s most pervasive problems, from reducing poverty to improving healthcare and enhancing crop yields to feed a growing population.

Microsoft, through initiatives such as 4Afrika, has its sights set on making AI available to everyone on the continent, in line with our global mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. We are partnering with forward-thinking policymakers, innovative startups, technology partners, civil society groups and stakeholders to promote the growth of a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa – one that enables inclusive growth and provides a clear and trusted path to digital transformation.

Promoting innovation with AI
Many of our local partners, including SMEs and startups, have already begun their AI journeys. Nigerian startup, MyMusic, has experimented with chatbots to help users discover new local music. And fintech startup, MoVAS Group, who we first met in 2016, is now building AI into their credit-scoring algorithms, enabling more unbanked farmers and small business owners to access loans the first time.

In the finance industry, 66 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is listed as unbanked. The proliferation of mobile banking across the continent has increased financial inclusion, and AI powered intelligent applications are now taking this further. AI can capture and crunch large volumes of non-traditional data, such as mobile wallet transactions, that enable service providers to make automated loan decisions to new customers, with no previous financial track records, in seconds.

Across the Middle East and Africa, a projected $28.3 million will be spent on developing AI solutions in the financial sector – and organisations are ramping up efforts to ensure young developers are well equipped for the task. At the recent AI Bootcamp, hosted by Data Science Nigeria and sponsored by Microsoft, for example, local developers were upskilled in using deep learning concepts to drive financial inclusion.

Developing this kind of AI capacity in Africa is essential, not only to ensure our 200 million-strong youth population is equipped for jobs of the future, but also to ensure local AI systems themselves are unbiased and inclusive.

Developing the right skills and data sets
Without the skills to build homegrown applications, organizations are likely to import machine-learning algorithms developed elsewhere, which are trained on biased data sets that lack local context. This could have severe consequences in industries like healthcare.

What Africa needs is a richer pool of local data, coupled with AI applications that are built by skilled local teams with diverse demographic, gender, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. To achieve this, outdated processes need to be digitised, education systems need to adapt quickly, and digital literacy programmes need to be more far-reaching.

Local organisations are making good headway. The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR) in South Africa recently collaborated with Microsoft to build a first-for-Africa technology platform on Azure, which is enhancing the storage and processing of African genomic datasets. With this data and computing power, the CPGR is running more ground-breaking biomedical research in local disease development and prevention.

In Malawi, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has opened a Microsoft AppFactory at the Dzaleka camp, which is bringing skills in coding and data analytics to young refugees and asylum seekers. Applications that have already been created include Smart Mapokezi, which manages schedules for the allocation of food at the refugee camps.

Policies for an AI-enabled future
As AI opens up new frontiers for economic and social transformation, policy makers will need to ensure that this new data-driven ecosystem is governed by a strong code of ethics. We need to ensure that ethical AI systems are reliable, secure, private, transparent, accountable and beneficial to all.

Across Africa, Microsoft is supporting government bodies in developing necessary policy frameworks. Initiatives such as the Microsoft Policy Innovation Centre at Strathmore University in Kenya are providing forums to discuss policy issues surrounding the digital transformation of industries and countries. Together with Access Partnership, we also recently commissioned a white paper on the implications of AI in Africa, which will be presented to South African Government delegates in March, during an event dedicated to addressing AI policy advancements.

Putting humans at the centre
Through Microsoft’s various programs, from skills development initiatives to growing the startup ecosystem, we are working to help make an AI-enabled future in Africa a reality. In every AI endeavor, our goal is to augment and amplify human ingenuity, accelerate economic and social prosperity. African innovators revolutionized the way mobile technology is used, and we look forward to seeing what they’ll do next with AI.

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