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By: Anne-Hélène Mai

As the world of artificial intelligence (AI) speeds up, Africa is mobilizing to take full advantage of the promises of this technology.

As early as 2014, heads of state from 32 countries created the Smart Africa Alliance to identify priorities and stimulate investment. Then, the prestigious African Institute of Mathematical Sciences launched a master's degree in artificial intelligence, sponsored by Facebook and Google. In Lagos, the Data Science Nigeria centre aims to train one million Nigerians in data science by 2027 and to create a thriving ecosystem to make the country an ideal partner internationally. Young people have launched the Institut des algorithmes du Sénégal, as well as the GalsenAI space, to bring data enthusiasts together. And these are just a few examples!

When the Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute was established in 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, “We don't want our young people to just watch from afar and adopt what the rest of the world has produced. There is a sense of urgency in Africa: if the continent was not able to take its full place during the last industrial revolutions, this time it will be different, we promise.” At the Africa CEO Forum in June 2022, political and business representatives agreed that with 84% of the continent's trade being with the outside world, its emancipation is not possible without greater economic independence .

While projects abound and companies multiply (see portraits of the finalists of a Villgro Africa innovation competition below), researchers are trying to take a step back.

An Automatic Agronomist

2 men stand in field looking at a cellphone that one of the men is holding.
Agrix Tech

In 2015, computer engineer Adamou Nchange Kouotou invested in a small plantain plantation as a second source of income. Although he had no agricultural training, he wasn't worried:

“I thought it was simple: you plant, it grows.”

A virus quickly attacked his entire plantation and he threw in the towel.

This jarring failure left its mark on him, so agriculture was his first inspiration when he began looking at AI in 2018. “I realized that we could help farmers fight plant diseases, using machine learning and computer vision,” — a practical solution because farmers can rarely afford the services of an agronomist.

According to the engineer, nearly half of Africa's agricultural production is lost to disease and poor practices. Faced with these risks, financial institutions are reluctant to lend funds to small producers.

So Adamou Nchange Kouotou developed Agrix Tech, an app that recognizes diseases and pests from photographs and videos provided by farmers. The free version works with advertising and is limited to diagnosing the infection.

Paid services, on the other hand, offer personalized monitoring of the progress of the harvest, with notifications for each task that needs to be performed.

Support even includes a risk analysis of the land before the cultivation project. “We provide a score that is determined by our local microfinance partners to decide whether or not to grant a loan.”

Used by more than 700 Cameroonian farmers, the program is still developing, and the model is being enriched as data on the characteristics of the plantations and the yields are accumulated.

“The goal is to make it smarter and more efficient than the empirical solution,” explains Nchange Kouotou.

A true authority on human rights and AI, South Africa's Rachel Adams founded the African Observatory on Responsible Artificial Intelligence (AORAI) in early 2022 to provoke thought. What does AI mean for Africa? What are the risks and benefits for African societies? Can the deployment of these technologies undermine democracy? How can we build on African value systems, traditions and cultural codes to set ethical guidelines? And what would an AI by Africa and for Africa be? These are some of the questions that will be discussed by members of the Observatory.

“We want to bring the African experience to the world stage,” says Adams, who also directs the Just AI Center.

The discussions surrounding artificial intelligence are influenced by countries in the northern hemisphere. As a result, the tools developed reflect their ethical, normative and governance standards: the countries of the South must have their place in these discussions.”

Through the AORAI, which is supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, among others, the researcher wants to provide tools to African countries to supervise the implementation of AI and provide guidance.

Solution or losing control?

In concrete terms, how is AI being deployed in Africa?

The banking world is among the first to adopt it. From east to west, financial institutions are rushing to integrate AI into their credit granting or customer service systems. Similarly, the Canadian firm Proto has had great success with African banks: its technology automates the receipt of claims in a variety of local languages such as Kinyarwanda and Twi. The Africa Digital Financial Inclusion Facility sees the digitization of banking services as a way to provide more efficient and inclusive services.

AORAI members are critical. “When it's the machine that decides you don't qualify for a [bank] loan, a job, a visa . . . where do you turn?” asks Namibian researcher Kristophina Shilongo in an interview.

The fairness of intelligent systems relies heavily on the data with which they have been trained. “The data available in Africa is largely based on men's experience,” says Rachel Adams. "As a result, the services are biased. But it's not just an AI problem: this is the result of deep structural problems.” It is to counter this trend that AORAI is committed to including gender and race in all its work.

Moreover, the AORAI network is also working on the decolonization of AI. “We want to identify, in the AI world, the dynamics inherited from colonialism, in order to defuse them,” explains Adams.

Importing technologies that are not adapted to local contexts is a problem, she says. For example, facial recognition systems "trained” outside the continent are prone to error. This is particularly worrisome when they are used for police surveillance, as in Johannesburg, where more than 5,000 AI-assisted cameras from the Danish company iSentry & Milestone record the actions of passersby.

Africa is also targeted by companies for “beta testing” their innovations. Populations that are not always able to give free and informed consent are used as guinea pigs. The company specializing in psychological and ideological profiling, Cambridge Analytica, tested its capacity for political influence in Nigeria and Kenya before tackling the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Then there are abuses related to data.

In Kenya, credit applications lend money at high interest rates without assessing borrowers’ creditworthiness and massively harvest borrowers’ data, such as location, text messages, contacts and call history...

To counteract these abuses, Nokuthula Olorunju, a South African member of the Observatory, is working on AI governance and the legal framework of cyberspace. In her opinion, framing technology is a collaborative bottom-up approach. “We're reaching out to people to listen to their experiences and find out what technology and their data mean to them. From there, we have a better understanding of their perceptions and realities, to build on to protect them.”

To identify what constitutes ethical AI in each country, Rachel Adams and an international team set out to create the Global Index on Responsible AI. This tool will make it possible to compare countries on the basis of criteria established globally and not just imported from Northern states.

"This instrument is developed in the South, and especially from the African continent,” explains Adams proudly. It will be based on regional conceptions of human rights, with the hope of being as inclusive as possible.”

The aim of the index is to help each citizen become aware of what is at stake in their society. Despite the concerns raised by researchers, AI innovations are part of the future and represent valuable opportunities.

Mass Screening for Malaria

A man and a women look through a microscope in a lab
Rose Nakasi

Malaria is the cause of 27% of deaths in Uganda. The country lacks trained laboratory technicians. To prevent eye strain, they are not supposed to analyze more than 25 microscope slides per day… But because of the number of patients waiting for results, they may examine as many as 100 per day. Errors are more common and the risk of prescribing the drug to people who don't need it is higher, which is a problem: the parasites tend to develop resistance to treatments.

Rose Nakasi set out to address these issues in 2015 as part of her PhD, to create a model that could recognize infection in the blood. She had to collect thousands of photographs of blood samples to feed the machine learning.

Nakasi, who is now a professor at the University of Montréal, wanted her technology to be accessible from a smartphone.

“We want to take advantage of the equipment that our professionals already have available. Every lab technician has a telephone and every healthcare facility has at least one microscope.” Using an adjustable, 3D-printer-designed holder, the mobile device's lens is affixed to the microscope's eyepiece.

"The model’s performance rate quickly reached that of lab technicians,” says Nakasi. And with each use, the model improves. The scientist is now working to ensure that her invention can pinpoint the severity of the infection. She also wants to determine the minimum quality of the camera required.

Two prototypes are already in use at the Mulago hospital complex, the largest in Uganda. The researcher hopes to eventually bring her invention to the entire region, especially to rural communities.

Some of the work described in this article and the production of this report were made possible by the support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Québec Science.