AI in Africa: The Last Battle Lost Before the War Begun

The wide impact of this technology in Africa has not yet begun to be seen, especially considering that it has not yet been implemented in sectors that directly affect employment and social welfare.

In 1970, at the Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Head of States and the government of the Organization of African Union (O.A.U) now AU, the then President of Tanzania, the Late Julius Kambarage Nyerere stood at the podium and deliver his views about the direction of the African economy. During that period, many African countries were in the midst of political tension between the East under the USSSR, now Russia, and the West led by the United States. One of the agenda of the meeting focused on how Africa can embrace these developed countries’ policies in boosting its economy. President Nyerere’s contribution shocked the leaders of those African countries who were ready to humbly “cut and paste” the policies either from Washington or Moscow. Nyerere said, “While Europe continues with her plans and policies, we as Africans should do the same; let Europe land on the moon and we Africa move to the agricultural fields”.

It has been more than 50 years, and we all know that Africa did not go to the agricultural fields…. Where did Africa go? We both know that; no one knows where Africa went.

Since independence, African nations have been in a state of self-searching, a situation that has made the continent to accept every policy that has been brought before it with the belief that “these are the rightest policies that we were waiting for”. Unfortunately, many of the policies introduced further plunged Africa into the mire of poverty and even threatened its freedom and liberty. Why? because Africa never seriously researched itself and decided to stand up and act on its own.

At the moment, as it appeared in the past, Africa is in the process of receiving technology and policies “as they are” from developed countries, these technologies and policies will not only define the development of its people for generations to come but will also determine whether there will be Africans in the years to come. This technology is called Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Evolution of Artificial Intelligence.

Where should we begin? Let’s begin here! The technology officially began in 1956 in the United States under the Ministry of Defense where computers developed to recognize the system and process of human thinking in solving various daily challenges that confront them, this system was named “Handcrafted Knowledge“. By 1980, expertise advanced the technology and enabled computers not only to memorize but to integrate statistics “Statistical Learning” with the aim of predicting human attitudes and decisions;  by the beginning of 2010, the technology had developed the ability to think and give explanations on different things, that step was referred as “Contextual Adaptation“.

The development of these reforms led to the existence of the view that Machines or Computers should not only be used by humans to simplify their daily duties but should also perform the same or more tasks than humans. All three steps mentioned are combined and named “Neural Networks“.

In July 2023, there was a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, and it was famously known as the “AI for Good Global Summit“, this meeting involved organizations under the United Nations (U.N), various government leaders, technology experts, but mostly the Company involved within the artificial intelligence technology.

The goal of the meeting aimed at securing the green light for the official operation of the manufacturing activities of robots using artificial intelligence, and through their influence; The Secretary General of U.N, Mr. Antonio Gutierrez “Approved” the process, policy, and technology. So now suffice it to say that the creation of a robot that thinks and acts the same or more like a human has been officially approved.

Views of Developed Countries on Artificial Intelligence.

“There is a lot of competition for artificial intelligence technology from the United States, China, and Europe. The United States is currently leading, but China is coming fast, and by 2030 it will lead the world in this technology. As for us in Europe, it is not a matter of winning or losing the race but finding ways in which this technology will not affect humanity, security, morals, and the entire order of life of the people of Europe”.

That is part of the European Union Commission Report on the evolution of Artificial Intelligence on the development of the European continent. The report named A European Approach to Artificial Intelligence explains how the European Union initiated the “Artificial Intelligence for Europe” policy based on protecting and making the human being the basis of the operating system of artificial intelligence, not artificial intelligence driving the human being.

The basis of that policy is what they called “Human-Centric AI“. This policy was created to protect Europeans against Mega technological companies that have the ability to influence human behavior through the gathered data.

It should also be noted that in July 2017, the Chinese government introduced its “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP)”, which set a target to ensure that by 2030 it will lead the world in AI technology. Among other things, AIDP planned that this technology will be the driving force of the country’s economy in every aspect from investment in industry, business, health, social welfare, defense, and security. To implement the plan, the country set a ten-year plan in two phases, where 2020-2025 will be a term of industrial construction and production, and from 2025 to 2030 the plan will be to expand its sphere of influence in AI by capturing the AI markets globally with major focus in Europe and Africa.

Until now, China leads in a huge budget and researches in AI. Unlike European countries, China has had few laws to regulate and control the use of the technology, a matter which has been viewed as a risk of enforcement in countries that do not have the laws and power to control the use of this technology. It should be noted that the use of this technology depends on the collection of “big data”, most of which are related to information on human behavior, and daily human thoughts, something that the Chinese Government has been doing for a long time.

Is Africa prepared for Artificial Intelligence?

The Artificial Intelligence Revolution in Africa: Economic Opportunities and Legal Challenges report, has detailed the situation of the implementation of AI in Africa in terms of the opportunities available with the laws to safeguard the end user. The report analyzed how Africa is far behind in controlling the inappropriate use of AI technology and more far in seizing the opportunity in AI markets. South Africa has been named as the leading country in AI investment in Africa with more than 726 companies followed by Nigeria with 456 companies.

In East Africa; Kenya leads with 204 while Tanzania and Uganda both have the same number of 44 companies.

The wide impact of this technology in Africa has not yet begun to be seen, especially considering that it has not yet been implemented in sectors that directly affect employment and social welfare, unlike the developed countries.

Take an example, recently in the United States there have been reports of protests involving actors, writers, and film directors. The protests were sparked after the Film companies announced the beginning of using AI in the industry, the decision which was being viewed as the beginning of the end of human activities roles in the film sector.

The companies aimed at reducing the costs by reducing the number of employees for jobs that can be done with the AI, but also they aimed at acquiring the accuracy of decisions without bias or defects, and ease of work.

In Africa, this technology has been viewed as an assistant and not a substitute as it can be considered its performance in different sectors. In Kenya; Chatbots technology has been used as a way to seek health advice without seeing a doctor, in Nigeria, Zenvus technology has been involved in giving advice in agriculture while in South Africa, Mama Money and Mukuru have been involved in the provision of instructions in money transactions.

According to the report of the Global Government Artificial Intelligence Readiness Index (2022), only five African countries (Mauritius, Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia, and Morocco) have been indexed  ready in the preparation, operation, and control of the technology. These measures are expected to reduce the negative impact and create an enabling environment for this technology to not affect the humanity, morals, economy and the well-being of its people.

Among the policies prepared by these countries were, the National Plan for the operation of Artificial Intelligence Technology, Information Protection Systems, Privacy Laws, Laws not to affect the freedom and welfare of the community, as well as Systems to combat cybercrimes.

As in the case of the European countries and the United States that prepared a common policy to protect the moral, dignity, well-being, and development of their people, it is also significant for Africa to do the same collectively, letting the individual countries to control this mega technology will be the same as self-deception. 100 years after the implementation of this technology, Africans may not have the chance to discuss the results of this matter, not because they will not have the ability, but because they may not even have the ability to think about the effects.

Ezra Nnko
Ezra Nnko
Ezra Nnko is a Geopolitics and International Policy expert based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He works for Liberty Sparks, an independent think-tank based in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi.