AI For Good – Why the Time for Kenya to Invest in AI is Right Now

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Last week I attended an event organized by Microsoft in partnership with Strathmore University where they were launching their “AI for Good” event series at the Microsoft Policy Innovation Centre, at Strathmore University Law School. The event explored different ways that AI can used in positive ways to benefit the country and Africa as a whole. So the main discussion about the AI for Good was to see how to remove the biases that already exist within the local societies and internationally. Microsoft also released an AI white paper titled “Artificial Intelligence for Africa”, looking broadly at the opportunities for growth, development and democratisation.

 

But before we go far it is important to understand what is AI. At the event it was obvious that there is confusion between the normal automation or existing technology and AI. AI also known as Artificial Intelligence in full, is an area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans. Some of the activities computers with artificial intelligence are designed for include:

  • Speech recognition
  • Learning
  • Planning
  • Problem solving

Because the computers have to keep learning like humans, you might come across AI being referred to as Machine learning.

Most people confuse automation and AI, and it possible to hear people using the terms interchangeably. However, while these applications complement one another, they are different and the white paper spelled this out clearly:

  • Automation allows systems to be programmed to perform specific repetitive tasks.
  • AI is designed to seek patterns, learn from experiences, and make appropriate decisions — it does not require an explicit programmed path to determine how it will respond to the situations it encounters.
  • Automated machines collate data — AI systems ‘understand’ it.

According to the white paper, some of the areas that the AI has the potential to improve in Sub-Saharan Africa are

  • Agriculture – which is expected to be done more efficiently and effectively hence raising the yields.
  • Healthcare – better tailored, higher quality, and more accessible, improving outcomes.
  • Public services – increase the efficiency and become more responsive to citizens, enhancing impact.
  • Financial services – enhance the security and expand the access.

The bigger question for me in such event is, what the Kenyans are doing. It is great to talk about the other countries and the multinationals but what give me joy is the work of Kenyan start-ups. The first question that came up is about the talent gap in Africa when comes to AI. Many people are apparently walking around as AI experts, they speak in conferences but do not go deep enough to understand AI. So they are experts by name only, but when one is looking for AI gurus, then there are not many around. That is one of the answers given by Dr Isaac Rutenberg when I had asked him whether as academia they are seeing more Kenyans taking the AI courses and also about the statement by Jumia CEO that that there is shortage of quality developers in Africa.  Despite that there are some progress by Kenyans when comes to AI based on the white paper by Microsoft.

Education

 Since we are already talking about talents gap, let me start with Education, two universities are mentioned on the report, Strathmore and Deden Kimathi:

Strathmore University has established the @iLabAfrica Research Centre, which seeks to promote cutting-edge research on emerging technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain Technology, Cyber Security, Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud Services to achieve development goals. It aims to provide direction for academic researchers and technology experts in Kenya to collectively innovate and develop applications in areas such as energy, banking, healthcare, education, and transport among other sectors as well as champion development of local technology ecosystem. @iLabAfrica has formed a research group devoted to machine learning and intelligent systems. The group focuses on exploring high-impact areas of bioinformatics, natural language processing, and e-learning.

Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, focuses on research, innovation, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, and quality education to contribute to the attainment of national development goals. The DeKUT recently won a grant for a project titled “Developing Entrepreneurial Universities in Kenya”. The project involves the development of a Science and Technology Park (STP), which will be a key engine for development, incubation and commercialisation of technology developed in DeKUT. Further, DeKUT aims to leverage research and innovation to create intellectual property (IP) rights, spin-off companies and stimulate entrepreneurship and job creation to promote sustainable economic growth.

Agriculture

Apart from the talent development, Agriculture is the core of the Kenyan economy and any piece of technology or process that can help it move forward should be welcomed by all. At the moment the sector is burdened with many limitations:

  • degradation of land;
  • reduction in soil fertility;
  • increased dependence on inorganic fertilisers;
  • dropping water tables;
  • emerging pest resistance; and
  • increased vulnerability and unpredictability of the climate

Unfortunately, the white paper mentioned only one Kenyan start up working on this sector though there are many others from other countries in Africa

FarmDrive The Kenyan data analysis startup is an alternative credit scoring platform for smallholder farmers. It uses mobile phones, alternative data, and machine learning to close the critical data gap that prevents financial institutions from lending to creditworthy smallholder farmers.

Health

The health Sector is another very important sector that Kenyans are crying for urgent improvement on. There are many AI based solutions being worked on around the world and in Africa, but just like Agriculture there is only Kenyan AI start up mentioned

Sophie Bot — Developed by a Kenyan startup, this free chatbots provides a platform for questions on sexual and reproductive health. In a society where talking about sexual health is often a taboo, Sophie Bot provides anonymity, credible answers, platform independence and a user-friendly conversational interface. This service is available on several popular messaging apps, including Messenger and Twitter.

It is possible that in the next five years or so, AI will be everything in the world of computing and as a country the time to invest on AI and the talents development is now. Also it is important to take advantage of the solutions and resources provided by Multinationals like Microsoft. Talking of which the partnership of Microsoft and Strathmore University is one such example. Mr. Ahmed El Essawi, Government Affairs Manager, Microsoft Middle East and Africa – who is managing the series of events at the Microsoft Policy Innovation Centres across the region highlighted the importance of the partnership saying, “We are thrilled to be working with Strathmore and Access Partnership in creating awareness around the new frontier that AI will bring to Kenya. Showcasing Microsoft’s role as an ally for stakeholders within the Kenyan corporate sphere and ensuring its citizens can benefit from the full potential that AI technologies bring with it will only mean that ultimately, some of the region’s most pervasive problems will be addressed head on.”

 

What is your opinion on the topic?
Kennedy Kachwanya
Lead Blogger at Kachwanya.com
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Kennedy Kachwanya is a technology blogger interested in mobile phones both smart and dumb, mobile apps, mobile money, social media, startups ecosystem and digital Savannah. New media must not forget the strength of old tech.
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