AI for Africa, by Africa: A call to action for inclusive and Ethical Artificial Intelligence Policies (1)

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From South Juba to Entebbe, from Marrakesh to Accra, on the cusp of technology in Africa, the need for responsible AI development and ethical data practices has never been more pressing. As technology continues to advance and shape the global economy, Africa is taking steps toward positioning itself as a leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Investments and innovations in AI are on the rise across the continent, with a growing number of countries beginning to develop policies and strategies to harness the power of this transformative technology. Although only a few countries have officially adopted AI strategies and policies, many more are actively working towards defining their AI policies. As philosopher and economist Amartya Sen noted, ‘Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.’ By creating policies and fostering innovation in AI, African countries can empower their citizens to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this innovative technology and make meaningful contributions to their communities and the world at large.

Current state and trend of AI policy framework on the continent

Africa has been slower to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) technologies compared to other regions of the world because of a range of factors, such as infrastructure challenges and limited financial resources. According to the Global AI Index, African countries are generally classified as “nascent” or “waking up” in terms of AI investment, innovation, and implementation, with countries like Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya being nascent and Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia as waking up. Notwithstanding the challenges, the AI industry is rapidly expanding on the continent, with over 2,400 companies specializing in AI, 41% of which are startups. These companies are poised to tap into the immense potential of AI to transform industries, create jobs, and drive economic development. As a renowned computer scientist, Alan Turing, aptly puts “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” This statement underscores the potential economic impact of AI. Experts suggest that the technology could contribute up to US$1.5 billion to the continent’s GDP by 2030. A recent study conducted by McKinsey, a leading global consultancy firm, found that, by analyzing approximately 160 cases of AI’s social impact, they could identify ten areas where incorporating AI into solutions could cause a significant positive impact on society. These areas align with all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and have the potential to positively affect millions of people globally.

A few African countries have taken the steps to develop policies, strategies specifically focused on advancing the use of AI in their countries. Three notable examples include Mauritius, Egypt, and Kenya.

Mauritius’ AI strategy was published in 2018. This policy document recognized the potential of AI and other emerging technologies to address a range of social and economic issues and as a key driver of economic growth. The strategy lays out areas of focus, such as manufacturing, healthcare, FinTech, agriculture, smart ports and maritime traffic management.

Kenya, in 2018, created the Distributed Ledgers Technology and AI Task Force to develop a roadmap of how the country can fully leverage these technologies. The task force’s report published in 2019 notes that AI and other frontier technologies can increase national competitiveness and accelerate innovation, positioning Kenya as a regional and international leader in information and communication technology. The report recommends investments in infrastructure and skills development, as well as the development of effective regulations to balance citizen protection and private sector innovation.

Egypt, in 2021, introduced a national AI strategy with a two-fold vision of utilizing AI to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and positioning Egypt as a key regional and international player in AI. The strategy is built on four pillars: AI for government, AI for development, capacity building, and international activities. The country aims to foster cooperation on AI through active participation in relevant international initiatives and forums, launching regional initiatives, promoting AI for development as a priority, and initiating projects with partner countries.

Besides the African countries that have already developed AI strategies, there are many more that are taking steps toward defining AI policies. Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda are all exploring ways to harness the potential of AI to drive economic growth and development. For example, Ghana and Uganda participated in the Ethical Policy Frameworks for Artificial Intelligence in the Global South, a 2019 pilot project led by UN Global Pulse and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, which aimed to support the development of local policy frameworks for AI. Ghana continues to work with UN Global Pulse to map its AI ecosystem and develop a blueprint for its national AI strategy. Similarly, Rwanda is working to develop a national AI policy that focuses on the ethical use of AI to support social and economic development. Ethiopia has established the Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute, which is tasked with formulating national policies, legislation, and regulatory frameworks related to AI.

Several prominent technology companies have been increasing their presence in the African AI market in recent years. For instance, IBM has established research facilities in Kenya and South Africa, and Google has set up similar centers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Google has a dedicated African AI research center in Ghana that was opened in 2018, and in 2022, the company announced a product development center in Kenya.

To add, in February 2023, AIDEC Consultancies International Ltd (AIDEC Digital), and its Consortium Partners, launched an AI Centre of Excellence with co-location at Academic City University College, Accra, Ghana. The two AI Centers of Excellence results from a Consortium Partnership between them, the Institute of ICT Professionals (IIPGH), Ghana, and their International Partners, 7W Artificial Intelligence company Ltd of Slovenia. The Centre will provide both in-person and virtual training, educational programs, and consulting services to organizations, Institutions in the private, public, and third sectors, giving practical knowledge in areas of AI and its application for Agriculture, Health, Education, FinTech, Mechanical Engineering, etc.

These multinational and local companies are helping to drive innovation and investment in the African AI ecosystem, and their presence will have a significant impact on the growth and development of the sector.

The writer is a member of the Institute of ICT Professionals Ghana (IIPGH) and works at the nexus of technology and society as a Technology Policy Analyst. For comments, contact [email protected]

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