In the sixties, Philip Emeagwali grew up in a civil war-torn Nigeria but found the curiosity, resourcefulness and tenacity to obtain two master’s degrees in mathematics and civil engineering despite incredible odds. Inspired by a 1922 science fiction novel, Emeagwali disproved naysayers and accessed the Los Alamos National Laboratory to remotely program 65,536 processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second.
This, amongst other notable technology advances in that era, laid the foundation for the computational models behind the Artificial Intelligence (AI) machines and mechanisms of today. In modern computational circles, he is considered one of the true AI visionaries, and a pioneer to a league of great Afrikan innovators.
Fast forward to 2018, and the 4th industrial revolution has been ushered in by the power of AI, with a potential to add $16 trillion to the global GDP and create 2.3 million new type of jobs according to data from McKinsey. Attentive and innovative nations are currently devoting significant investments towards better placement in the potential reformulation of the new world order.
Across Afrika, some visionaries have also started tackling major socio-economic challenges with AI with multi-sectorial focus and outcomes. South African business icon and chief supporter for AI initiatives in Afrika, Andile Ngcaba once remarked "the blank slates in many areas of Afrika represent massive opportunities for the brightest entrepreneurs and innovators."
DEMO Africa, the continent’s premier launchpad for startups recently announced its 2018 class of 30 finalists for this year’s edition in Casablanca, Morocco. Six of the 30 competing startups leverage AI to tackle important socio-economic challenges across industries like finance, healthcare and agriculture.
From our vantage point, there are three (3) major factors that will drive Africa into the Fourth Industrial revolution, and these factors will be powered by AI in a new age of venture creation and innovation methods. The factors that we are betting on are Courageous Founders, Ecosystem Enablers and Infrastructure Advancements.
The 6 DEMO Africa finalists leveraging AI are my new favorite class of founders, as they look to transform lives for millions on the continent across a number of industries. In the health space Elcs research from Algeria has built Smarth.io, a radiology information system that helps hospitals manage cancer patients, provide access for doctors abroad to assist during busy periods and collect data used to train AI models to automate cancer diagnosis for millions who can’t make it to the hospital. In agriculture, Complete Farmer from Ghana is looking to create food sustainability in the region by offering a secure online channel for expanding local agricultural investments while employing improved seedlings, novel farming methodologies and AI-driven insights to maximize farm output.
"The blank slates in many areas of Afrika represent massive opportunities for the brightest entrepreneurs and innovators."Andile Ngcaba, Chairman & Co-Founder of Convergence Partners and Chairman of FTTX Afrca Council
In the industrial space, Niotek from Egypt is building industrial IOT solutions to enable manufacturing facilities automate processes to reduce errors, improve quality of service and directly impact bottom line. Casky from Morocco is making it safer to be a motorcyclist by offering an IOT safety and data collection device attachable to driver helmets, along with a SaaS platform with data analytics to improve riding habits and insurance premiums. Atlan Space also from Morocco is providing drones to track illegal fishing activity, while Chefaa from Egypt offers a smart on-demand prescription drug service to expand care to more people.
These founders along with the 24 other finalists represent the fresh crop of African entrepreneurs who, like their counterparts abroad, obsess about making the world around them a better place, but also have to display a peculiar courage and tenacity to innovate through all the infrastructure and resource gaps unique to their countries. They have shown great personality to make it this far, and hope to meet and engage with DEMO delegates who will plug their gaps and accelerate their road to impact.
African governments, investors, entrepreneurs and innovation stakeholders including diasporans are beginning to build pockets of innovation ecosystems across the continent to promote the use of AI driven technologies in delivering solutions to some of the continent’s greatest problems.
General venture investments on the continent grew about 50% last year to the tune of about $560 million. Recently the Rise Fund invested $47.5 million in Cellulant to advance the direct application of cutting-edge technologies like AI and Blockchain to drive financial inclusion. As far back as 2011, Cellulant had built e-wallets for Nigerian farmers to receive subsidies from government and increased the reach of the national subsidy program from 1 million to 17 million farmers. Cellulant intends to continue to leverage this type of reach to expand the transformation and digitization of the Agricultural value chain across Africa.
Now in its 7th edition, DEMO Africa continues to provide a technology launchpad for young African startups to meet a global stage of customers, investors and enthusiasts. Moving from South to East and now North Africa via Casablanca, Morocco, the DEMO event has also focused on identifying budding ecosystems and opening them up to the rest of the world for an innovation exchange that positions that region for stronger growth and impact. This year, a good percentage of the DEMO Africa finalists are launching technologies that are AI driven.
A number of African governments are also driving initiatives to foster a culture of solving problems with data, bringing in transparency and efficiency to the way resources are deployed. Tunisia and Kenya are two African countries that have publicized their long-term national strategies towards growing the general awareness of AI driven initiatives that will drive economic growth. A number of national governments and their respective innovation stakeholders continue to send key delegates around the world to engage in knowledge exchanges with leading global innovation actors,and return home to implement policy and infrastructure improvements that position their countries for growth powered by AI.
The nature of infrastructure that is necessary for sustainable AI adoption and integration continues to evolve around the world especially as technology as tools and services advance towards making the complex processes of AI more practical, and expanding the required human capital pool from just statisticians and scientists to software developers, and from tier-1 engineering organizations to regular businesses. This encapsulation and abstraction layer is best delivered by cloud service providers around the world who provide access to the required big data storage, low-latency serving networks and specialized high performance computing hardware and software stack to catalyze scalable AI environments.
Cloud and mobile penetration are key to operationalizing AI in Afrika, and both depend on having a strong network capacity and connectivity backbone to support smooth distribution for smart end-user services. It is no longer news that the Afrika mobile phone adoption growth rate is one of highest in the world, with almost a billion connections and over 35 mobile network operators on the continent today.
Several countries, such as Seychelles, Tunisia, Morocco and Ghana, have mobile subscription penetration rates in excess of 100%. Mobile phones are the primary distribution channels for new technology solutions on the continent and have already enabled companies distribute AI-powered finance, health and education solutions to users in urban and rural centers alike.
Cloud adoption is a bit slower as large corporates continue to hesitate on moving away from their already deployed on-premise infrastructure, but represents a remarkable opportunity. Companies like Deviare in South Afrika continue to push the cloud & digital transformation message and have achieved considerable success transitioning younger companies to the cloud and ramping up their operations to serve millions of customers.
Internet penetration on the continent grew a further 20% in 2018, after growing more than seven times the global average from 2000 to 2012. Bandwidth and connectivity on the continent continues to grow with strategic investments to reduce cost of access. Continental pioneers like Convergence Partners, Liquid Telecom and SEACOM in collaboration with Silicon Valley players like Google, Verizon and Facebook have deployed critical infrastructure towards faster and better priced broadband services across the continent. These investments and advancements will open the doors to new digital economies across the continent driven by ubiquitous, high-speed networks that will deliver digital services to millions of citizens at affordable rates.
As Afrikan stakeholders continue to bet on future technologies like 5G, local economies will start to set infrastructure targets towards supporting everything from self-driving cars to remote medical surgery, new immersive virtual realities, drone deliveries, AI robots, intelligent agriculture, connected cities, smart logistics and more.
Africa is ready, are you?
As the continent embraces the Fourth industrial Revolution, progressive thinking early adopters are using AI to address tough socio-economic challenges and ensuring that a lot more businesses are empowered with knowledge, capital and market ready resources to solve a myriad of multisectorial problems with cutting edge solutions.
"It is no longer news that the Afrika mobile phone adoption growth rate is one of highest in the world, with almost a billion connections and over 35 mobile network operators on the continent today."
The recently concluded conference for African Academics in AI — Deep Learning Indaba — saw a total of 274 top quality research papers get showcased and the likes of Nando de Freitas of DeepMind shared their experiences on the ingenuity and applicability of Africa specific research in solving problems of global relevance. Over 500 professionals in AI from within and outside the continent came together to gain knowledge and exchange global best practices that are geared towards advancing the impact of AI on the continent and empowering a self taught, youthful population that is bench-marking against global standards.
The next stop on our journey is Casablanca at DEMO Africa this October. The DEMO platform has connected more than 3,000 local startups to a global network, created thousands of high paying jobs, and incubated 250+ startup teams across the continent. At this year’s event I will join several other industry specialists to advance the discussions on the Business of AI in Afrika, and work with the DEMO Africa finalists to sharpen their technology driven go-to market strategies.
Join us at DEMO to amplify this movement as we look to reshape the very tapestry of technology and investment in Afrika.We expect the ripple effects of our efforts to travel beyond the boundaries of the continent.
Cover image credit: Franki/Unsplash