Get ready with skills and local visionaries

Thursday October 4 2018

Artificial Intelligence

National Task Force on Block Chain and Artificial Intelligence member John Walubengo (left) and Kenya Bankers Association director of research and policy Jared Osoro during a discussion to examine the regulatory environment for cryptocurrencies in Kenya Frontier technologies — from AI to virtual reality — could be a huge opportunity for Africa. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 


The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation has created anxiety about jobs being lost to robots; the Doomsday predictions are that developing countries such as Kenya will miss the development benefits of a manufacturing sector.

As a new Pathways for Prosperity Commission report shows, these technologies, while disruptive, could create huge opportunities for growth.

But we need to learn from previous disruptions and identify the areas of the economy where AI and other emerging technologies can drive growth. Most importantly, we need to prepare the workforce with skills and knowledge.

Kenya is unlikely to make advances in state-of-the-art AI or data science.

There are neither enough African institutions to teach and inspire people in these cutting-edge sectors nor jobs to attract them.

We do have, however, a deep understanding of the complexity of our local context and that knowledge is a crucial, and under-appreciated, element of innovation. Innovation must be applied to real world problems.


We need to focus less on identifying current skills — although they are important — and more on seeking out potential in people steeped in the local context.

I have seen very skilled people from overseas struggle to adjust in emerging markets while local innovators with lesser skills would better tune into the context.

But the skills gap can be addressed.

True innovators thrive on freedom of thought; they learn and then deliver what it takes to succeed.

Yet, we need to be honest and pragmatic in assessing the current skills base. We cannot say we have data scientists just because we have people who can make graphs in Excel. And high school machine learning skills don’t equate AI.


Innovative countries are always driven by a mixture of local and international talent; we need to balance between imported skills and space for local potential.

Unlike elsewhere, Africa has not seen the ‘reverse brain drain’ of skilled workers returning from technology jobs overseas nor had an influx of outsourcing centres that create large pools of skilled IT roles. We also do not have the same academic and venture capital ecosystems as in Silicon Valley.

We have to address this now.

Frontier technologies — from AI to virtual reality — could be a huge opportunity for Africa.

However, we need to adapt them to the local context and use them to spark scalable innovation on the ground.

It will take intensive national dialogues to lay the right foundations.

Governments have a big role in making this happen — in how they regulate and tax tech-based enterprises and foster skills and innovation.

There are insufficient incentives for companies to invest in research and development.

Local companies will have to step up.

We need to be future-proofing ourselves, creating a culture of innovation, experimentation and engagement so that Africa can thrive in a changing world.

Mr Bhattacharya, a former CIO of Safaricom’s Innovation Hub and CEO of Nairobi’s iHub, runs a global edtech start-up and is a commissioner for the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development. [email protected]