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Africa should fully embrace emerging technology for a brighter future

Monday December 24 2018

By BITANGE NDEMO
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At the invitation of Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, and IMF Managing Director Madam Christine Lagarde, I travelled to Accra to speak at the Future of Work Conference on Infrastructure and Driven Technology World. The following were my remarks:

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to share with you my thoughts on Infrastructure and Technology Driven World. Before I get into the details of my speech, allow me to briefly contextualise the importance of emerging technologies that will define our future.

During the 1st Industrial revolution, Africans largely provided slave labour. This continued into the 2nd Industrial revolution until the unions stepped in to fight for their social protection. 

During the 3rd industrial revolution underpinned by Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), Africa immensely benefited from especially mobile technology. 

As the 4th industrial revolution beckons, we have a chance to leapfrog the rest of the world. 

This is not farfetched considering the fact that during the third industrial revolution we have had more people move out of poverty than any other era. 

Mobile Money has enabled greater inclusivity. In Kenya, for example, less than five percent of the people had bank accounts barely 10 years ago compared to 95 percent today.

The 4th industrial revolution will be driven by largely two emerging technologies, namely, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI).

Let me begin with real life cases that underscore the need for infrastructure in Africa today.

HUMANITARIAN AID

Just four weeks ago in Nairobi, the Kenya Red Cross presented findings from a pilot project on use of blockchain for humanitarian aid in the northern part of Kenya. 

This semi-arid region, occupied by mostly pastoralist communities, is prone to drought and whenever it rains it floods much of the areas where the people live. 

In the past, whenever the government and relief agencies responded to a crisis, they are often criticised for having intervened too late or supplied food that is incompatible to the diet of residents. 

Mobilising resources and feeding the affected often cost millions of dollars.

The pilot project registered households and provided them with mobile phones in most of the affected areas. 

When drought struck in 2016, Red Cross simply sent mobile money to affected households. Local businessmen saw the opportunity to supply foods, mostly protein rich meats and milk that form the diet of the people. Residents were happy and there was less criticism from the media. 

In total, what Red Cross spent amounted to a fraction of what they previously spent on humanitarian activities in the area.

The challenges they encountered were lack of connectivity in some areas. Residents had to travel far to cash in on the funds.  Although the area is a boon for solar energy, residents had no energy to recharge their phones.

AGRICULTURE, EDUCATION AND HEALTH

My second case is in agriculture. Working with Twiga Foods, a Kenyan fast-moving consumer goods start-up, IBM has managed to fuse blockchain, AI and big data to develop credit profiles for hundreds of small-to-medium businesses to access non-collateralised loans. Many of these businesses are owned by female vegetable vendors.

Under normal circumstances, these businesses would not be issued credit from any banking institution due to lack of a credit history and inadequate documentation for KYC purposes.

Without the use of blockchain and AI to digitise, process non-traditional data, such an inclusive solution would not have been possible.

My third case is in education. M-Shule, a start-up in Kenya, leverages AI to provide an adaptive learning engine that continuously analyses each learner’s abilities to track and build skills, and generate personalised learning.

M-Shule solves a major problem that normal schooling has not been able to address. Educators understand that different students possess different abilities and, consequently, exhibit different requirements, strengths and objectives. The AI systems can be employed to identify each individual child’s competency and deliver the right lesson at the right time.

My fourth case is in Health. The ratio of doctors to patients in especially Sub-Saharan Africa remains high. 

Recent pilot programmes on AI applications at Kenyatta National Hospital show promise of alleviating the problem of shortage of medical workers.

Whilst many hospitals have radiology technicians to take X-rays and scans, there are no doctors (radiologists) to interpret the scans and offer the patient the treatment plan. If broadband and energy infrastructure were available, it would not matter whether the doctor is in New York or in Mumbai. 

It has been demonstrated that AI can provide a comprehensive assessment to guide and help doctors evaluate the patient and give the required prognosis.

EMBRACE EMERGING TECHNOLOGY

I am sure that you all agree with me that the emerging technologies favour Africa. Africa, however, must deal with the problem of infrastructure. 

Broadband infrastructure must be elevated to become a human rights issue that every human being must have access to it. It follows therefore, that access to energy that is abundant in Africa must become one of the priority infrastructures. 

As technology streamlines supply chains and so governments must develop access roads to rural farmlands such that produce can move to urban centres where the markets are. It defeats logic when Africa’s food import continues to rise because we lack among other things infrastructure. 

Lastly, we need to identity infrastructure. In my first case, Red Cross had to register beneficiaries by itself. We need to learn from India and register every citizen biometrically.

In addition to infrastructure, we need to develop human resource capacity by seeking to collaborate with multinationals such as Google, which has set up a research lab here in Accra. 

I played a key role in bringing IBM Research Lab to Kenya and the original deal we had was that we share funding of research as well as the intellectual property rights on a 50/50 basis.

The deal also included developing human resource capacity for at least five PhDs every year. The lab has had more than 50 patents since its inception and was instrumental in developing the credit scoring mechanisms I reported earlier.

Sub-Saharan Africa has one more chance to leverage technology and leapfrog into the emerging 4th Industrial Revolution. 

To do so, we need infrastructure and collaborate to develop the necessary human resource capacity.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito