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Summary
AI4D Africa partners with data scientists and policymakers to support the home-grown development of artificial intelligence in Africa

Like the internet, artificial intelligence (AI) systems are rapidly becoming a new layer of infrastructure, with transformative potential. Fuelled by the increasing availability of computational power, improved connectivity, and big data, AI applications offer exciting possibilities for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals by spurring new start ups, improving food systems, enabling higher-quality education delivery, and contributing to tackling pressing health and climate challenges.

As with any widely adopted technology — especially one as powerful and potentially pervasive as AI — the benefits come with risks that must be managed and mitigated. It can reinforce structural inequalities and bias, perpetuate gender imbalances, threaten jobs, and facilitate oppressive government surveillance. The time to write the future of AI in Africa is now, as the policies and practices put in place today will shape the benefits and harms of AI in the decades to come.

To contribute to these efforts, IDRC and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency launched the Artificial Intelligence for Development in Africa (AI4D Africa) program in 2020. This four-year, CA$20-million partnership will seek to address the above challenges by supporting the African-led development of responsible and inclusive AI. The program will promote excellence in applied research as well as in applying AI technologies to solve development challenges and improve livelihoods for those living in poverty.

Our approach  

AI4D-Africa support focuses on three pillars: 

  • scaling proven responsible AI innovations that address Africa’s different development challenges, through the creation of four, pan-African AI4D Innovation Research Networks, and supporting innovative small-grant programs 

  • supporting policy research think-and-do tanks to establish responsible AI, by funding two AI4D research-to-policy think-and-do tanks in East Africa, and a policy network in West Africa, to engage in AI policy research 

  • academic capacity building to foster African talent and skills around AI, through the development of two multidisciplinary  AI4D university labs as well as the African AI4D Scholarships Program. 

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The challenge

Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are rapidly becoming a new layer of infrastructure, with transformative potential. Fuelled by the increasing availability of computational power, improved connectivity and big data, AI applications offer exciting possibilities for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals by spurring new start-ups, improving food systems, enabling higher-quality education delivery and contributing to tackling pressing health and climate challenges. 

As with any widely adopted technology — especially one as powerful and potentially pervasive as AI —, the benefits come with risks that must be managed and mitigated. AI can reinforce structural inequalities and bias, perpetuate gender imbalances, threaten jobs and facilitate oppressive government surveillance. This is why IDRC supports research in the Global South around the concept of responsible AI: the practice of designing, developing and deploying AI systems that are safe, inclusive, rights-based and sustainable. 

The vision: A responsible AI ecosystem

The vision of the AI for Development (AI4D) program is to support a responsible AI ecosystem where local experts are enabled to solve their own development challenges with safe, inclusive, rights-based and sustainable AI applications and policies. AI4D is also supporting and advancing Southern leadership in local and global governance decisions, debates and innovation fora. 

The vision goes back to 2020, when IDRC and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency launched the Artificial Intelligence for Development in Africa (AI4D Africa) program. That five-year, CAD20-million partnership set the foundations for a responsible AI ecosystem in Africa, supporting one French-language and two English-language responsible AI policy research hubs, funding the establishment of three multidisciplinary AI laboratories at public universities and spurring the development of nearly 100 locally led innovations. 

In 2024, IDRC partnered with the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to launch the AI for Development (AI4D): Responsible AI, Empowering People program. This program, with an investment of close to CAD70 million, will continue building on consultations, scoping work and the first phase of the AI4D Africa program. It will also coordinate IDRC’s AI programming in Africa with work we support in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, such as the Global Index on Responsible AI, the Feminist AI Network and the AI for Global Health initiative, to maximize the potential for impact. The second phase of the AI4D program runs until 2029 and will continue to support locally led AI ecosystems engaged in the development and deployment of responsible AI.

Three-pillar approach

Specifically, AI4D focuses on three pillars: 

Media
Graphic depicting high-level framework for AI4D. Described in detail below the image.

The vision depicted in the above infographic is a high-level framework for AI4D, developed in collaboration with FCDO. Currently, the innovation section contains only generative and predictive (narrow) AI elements, as examples of potential fields in which innovation may be supported. However, the AI4D program will remain flexible in its innovation approach so that it can respond to advances in AI (including definitions/typology) that have not yet emerged in this fast-moving field. Similarly, sections that are faded represent those where IDRC and FCDO are not currently collaborating. However, IDRC has a history of digital foundations and computer programming and remains open to opportunities in those areas. 

Beyond Africa

An important part of the second phase of AI4D is going beyond Africa. For example, IDRC has been supporting the creation and debiasing of datasets and research in AI health applications globally through its Artificial Intelligence for Global Health initiative as well as research and innovations to fight gender inequality in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. IDRC and Global Affairs Canada have also co-funded the Global Index on Responsible AI. The AI4D partnership with FCDO will integrate and strengthen these and other initiatives as a means of building program activities that extend beyond Africa, by strengthening and scaling our policy work and the Feminist AI Network and Artificial Intelligence for Global Health initiatives. 

Learn more

Visit the AI4D Africa website 

Follow us on X (@AI4Dev), LinkedIn (AI4D Africa) or contact us at ai4dafrica@idrc.ca

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