Artificial intelligence in Africa: National strategies and initiatives
Generally speaking, Africa has been slow in the uptake of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, for a variety of reasons, from infrastructure challenges to limited financial resources. The Global AI Index, for instance, places the African countries it analyses among ‘waking up’ and ‘nascent’ nations in terms of AI investment, innovation, and implementation: Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya are nascent, while Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia are waking up (Figure 47).
But there are expectations that AI can be a significant contributor to the region’s digital transformation and economic growth. The AI industry is growing across Africa – with over 2,400 companies specialising in AI, 41% of which are startups (Figure 48) – and estimates indicate that the technology could contribute US$1.5 billion to the continent’s GDP by 2030.2Ngila, F. (2022, June 23). Africa is joining the global AI revolution. Quartz Africa.
Figure 48. Number of companies specialised in AI, by country.3Based on Ngila, F. (2022, June 23). Africa is joining the global AI revolution. Quartz Africa.
More and more governments around the world are publishing national AI strategies outlining goals and action lines for ensuring that the countries can take advantage of the opportunities offered by the technology while mitigating the associated challenges (Figure 49). Some of these strategies also outline a desire for AI leadership, from China’s goal of becoming a world leader in AI theories, technologies, and applications by 2030,4Webster, G., Creemers, R., Triolo, P., & Kania, E. (2017, August 1). Full translation: China’s ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’. New America blog. to Germany’s intention of achieving and maintaining leading global excellence in the research, development, and application of AI.5German Federal Government. (2018). Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
Three African countries have made efforts to advance policy documents dedicated specifically to AI: Mauritius, Egypt, and Kenya.
Mauritius’s AI strategy, published in 2018, describes AI and other emerging technologies as having the potential to address, in part, the country’s social and financial issues and as ‘an important vector of revival of the traditional sectors of the economy as well as for creating a new pillar for the development of our nation in the next decade and beyond’. Areas of focus suggested in the strategy include manufacturing, healthcare, fintech, agriculture, and smart ports and maritime traffic management.7Working Group on Artificial Intelligence, Mauritius. (2018). Mauritius Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
Egypt has a national AI strategy (2021) built around a two-fold vision: exploiting AI technologies to support the achievement of SDGs, and establishing Egypt both as a key actor in facilitating regional cooperation on AI and as an active international player. The strategy focuses on four pillars: AI for government, AI for development, capacity building, and international activities. Egypt’s goal to foster bilateral, regional, and international cooperation on AI is to be achieved through activities such as active participation in relevant international initiatives and forums, launching regional initiatives to unify voices and promote cooperation, promoting AI for development as a priority across regional and international forums, and initiating projects with partner countries.8National Council for Artificial Intelligence, Egypt. (2021). Egypt National Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
Kenya’s government started exploring the potential of AI in 2018 when it created the Distributed Ledgers Technology and AI Task Force to develop a roadmap for how the country can take full advantage of these technologies. The report the task force published in 2019 notes that AI and other frontier technologies can increase national competitiveness and accelerate the rate of innovation, ‘propelling the country forward and positioning [it] as a regional and international leader in the ICT domain’. As actions that could help achieve this goal, the report recommends investments in infrastructure and skills development and the development of ‘effective regulations to balance citizen protection and private sector innovation’.9Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, Kenya. (2019). Emerging Digital Technologies for Kenya.
The 2022–2032 Digital Master Plan contains extensive references to AI. It starts from acknowledging that ‘AI technologies and capabilities will be the in thing in the next 5–10 years and Kenya cannot afford to be left behind or to be the late laggards’ and sets as an objective the development of an AI master plan to encourage the research, development, and deployment of AI solutions ‘to solve local problems while exporting the same capabilities to other countries’. The plan also envisioned strengthened international partnerships with leading R&D actors in the emerging technologies space, to facilitate technology transfers and attract foreign direct investments.
Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda are also taking steps towards defining AI policies. Ghana and Uganda have been part of the Ethical Policy Frameworks for Artificial Intelligence in the Global South, a pilot project conducted in 2019 by UN Global Pulse and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and dedicated to supporting the development of local policy frameworks for AI.10German Agency for International Cooperation [GIZ]. (2019). Background paper on Open Forum to present Ethical Policy Frameworks for Artificial Intelligence in the Global South. Ghana continues to work with UN Global Pulse to conduct a mapping of its AI ecosystem and to complete a blueprint for its national AI strategy.
Rwanda intends to develop a national AI policy focused on the ethical use of AI in support of social and economic development.11Smart Africa. (2021). Blueprint: Artificial Intelligence for Africa. Ethiopia has set up an AI institute – the Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute – which has among its tasks the formulation of national AI-related policies, legislation, and regulatory frameworks.12Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute. (n.d.). Powers and duties.
In South Africa, a report issued in 2020 by the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution acknowledged that AI is one of the high-technology industries in which the country is ‘seriously underperforming’, but notes that it also has ‘a unique opportunity to take stock of [its] vast potential in the form of human capacity, identify opportunities consistent with promoting a human centred, Africa-centric strategy for the future’.13South Africa Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (2020). Summary Report and Recommendations.
Overall, AI is discussed in African countries in the context of public sector reform, education and research, national competitiveness, and partnerships with tech companies. Countries with the relevant capacities focus on skills, talent, and capacity development to build local and regional expertise. Kenya, for example, has adjusted its national curriculum to this effect: In 2022 the government approved the introduction of coding in curricula for primary and secondary schools. In South Africa, private associations host conferences and other events – such as the Deep Learning Indaba conference – to support the development of local capacities in AI and related technologies. Similar private-sector-led initiatives that focus on the development of AI skills at the local level are encouraged by the government of Ghana, in the context of the National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan.15World Bank. (2021). Harnessing artificial intelligence for development in the post-Covid-19 era: A review of national AI strategies and policies.
In Nigeria, a National Centre for AI and Robotics (NCAIR) – established under the National Information Technology Development Agency – works to promote R&D in AI, robotics, drones, and related technologies and create ‘a thriving ecosystem for innovation-driven entrepreneurship, job creation and national development’.16Nigeria’s National Information Technology Development Agency. (n.d.). National Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. In Egypt, an AI Centre of Excellence works to educate AI professionals, accelerate the deployment of AI, and produce standards and guidelines on the safe and responsible use of AI.
A pan-African programme is the African Master’s in Machine Intelligence (AMMI), supported by Meta and Google,17African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. (n.d.). About AMMI. while several South African Universities offer programmes in the area of AI.
South Africa hosts the Centre for AI Research (CAIR) – a research network, as well as a Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR South Africa) – an initiative of the Department of Science and Innovation, connected with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) networks of centres for the 4IR. One of C4IR’s goals is to transition South Africa towards a data-based digital economy to improve its competitiveness and become a relevant global player. Rwanda too has opened a Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR Rwanda) in cooperation with the WEF. And the Republic of the Congo is hosting the African Centre for Research on AI, an initiative launched in February 2022 with the support of UN ECA and dedicated to advancing AI-related capacity development and research across the continent.
Multinational tech companies are also becoming more and more active within the African AI ecosystem. IBM, for example, supports research labs in Kenya and South Africa. Google does the same in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.18Saslow, K. (2019). Foreign Policy Engagement with African Artificial Intelligence. Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. In Ghana, the company has a dedicated African AI research centre (opened in 2018), while Kenya is hosting a product development centre (announced in 2022).
Besides these developments, growing concerns about data and AI neocolonialism are being raised, in particular among civil society and academia. The overall argument is that ‘the AI invasion of Africa echoes colonial era exploitation’.19Birhane, A. (2020). Algorithmic colonization of Africa. Scripted, Volume 17, Issues 2, August 2020. AI solutions developed in the West – in accordance with Western perspectives, values, and interests – are being imported into Africa without truly reflecting the needs and interests of the local communities. This also leaves little room for the development of local AI solutions. Another criticism is that the AI industry is both exploiting cheap labour and harvesting data from consumers in Africa while giving little (if anything) back to these communities.20Hao, K. (2022, April 19). Artificial intelligence is creating a new colonial world order. MIT Technology Review. Initiatives such as Masakhane – an academia-led organisation working to build a natural language processing corpus in African languages, for Africans – are taking off across the continent in reaction to such concerns.