Africa and the world are on the verge of enhanced technological capabilities and empowerment. Artificial intelligence will transform organizations, societies, and economies fundamentally. That’s what Sebuh Haileleul, Country General Manager of Microsoft East Africa believes.

Soon, Africa will have the world’s second largest population. Yet, African economies are still the world’s poorest and least developed economies in the world. One could see this as a bad thing, however there is a positive side to it. It actually provides an important opportunity that every other high-income economy lacks: the collective choice to embrace emerging technologies. African systems haven’t been established for very long and are thus in their formative period. Today, they stand on the cross section of defining how the continent will develop. That’s why the continent should take the leap and integrate and embrace the culture of AI.

What is digital transformation and what does it have to do with AI? Digital transformation is defined the adoption of advanced technologies and the rise of innovations as companies and individuals reorganize their operations to be digital, multimodal, and intelligence-driven. According to Haileleul, it is a catalyst for e­­ngendering agility, and has become crucial for organizations to stay competitive, achieve successes, and even survive.

Labeled as the ‘great transformer’, AI is considered to be a key enabler of this transformation. Artificial intelligence is meant to change systems, behaviors and work patterns within organizations. These systems use things like aggregated data, usage analysis, pattern recognition, and predictive analytics to deliver intuitive insights or make choices, improving efficiency and even shifting business models across all sectors. It is also expected to ultimately boost overall economic growth, and create jobs not yet imagined.

In Africa, AI can help with some of the region’s most pervasive problems: from reducing poverty and improving education, to delivering healthcare and eradicating diseases to addressing sustainability challenges and from meeting the growing demand for food from fast-growing population to advancing inclusion in societies. AI democratizes access to innovative and productivity-boosting technology to fuel the growth the continent needs.

At the level of the health sector, AI can:

  • Offer vast opportunities to transform how we understand disease and improve health.
  • Speed up initial processing, diagnosis, and post-care follow up, thereby making time to serve more patients.
  • Extend access to millions of people and remotely diagnose various health conditions using images from smartphone cameras with the help of AI tools such as online conversation agents and machine visions.

In transportation, it can:

  • Provide safe and efficient transportation.
  • Expand the capacity of existing road infrastructure and improve traffic flow.
  • Reduce carbon emissions and facilitate greater inclusiveness.
  • Prevent road accident: AI technology from Microsoft, for example, is enabling accident prevention through computer vision – scanning video inputs for potential risk

In education, it is able to:

  • Develop models for engagement and comprehension.
  • Develop new approaches to education that may revolutionize how people learn.
  • Provide intelligent tutoring systems.

In the development of public services, AI can help:

  • Improve how governments interact with their citizens and deliver services.
  • Create efficiencies, reduce burdens, and eliminate redundancies.
  • Ease paperwork and speed delivery of public services.

Concerning food production and agriculture, AI can:

  • Offer significant opportunities to increase food production by improving agricultural yield and reducing waste.
  • Empower small-holder farmers to increase their income through higher crop yield and greater price control.
  • Help identify diseases, enable soil health monitoring without the need of laboratory testing infrastructure.
  • Facilitate the creation of virtual cooperatives to aggregate crop yields and broker better prices with suppliers.

Haileleul expects that by 2050, the need to produce food globally will become crucial since water levels are receding and arable land are already limited. “The agriculture sector has no option but to adopt innovative technologies crucial to long-term survival.” At a time when resources and crops need to be tracked, AI-enabled data-driven insights are able to boost agricultural productivity through increasing yields and reducing losses.

From an industrial and organizational perspective, AI, machine learning, and automation are expected to provide organizations with:

  • New means to overcome typical challenges like time constraints.
  • Limited skilled resources, and bottlenecks to overall business processes.
  • Support security and safety systems.
  • Spot anomalies and patterns.

That’s why it is crucial to see Africa embrace AI, bringing this technology to every application, business process, and every employee. While many developing economies have made big progress in incorporating technology into their day to day lives, emerging and frontier markets like those that exist throughout Africa possess the unique potential to move forward further than their Western peers. Africans, again, have the unique ability to innovate as they are not restricted by barometers regarding the status quo and “how things should be done.”

Clearly the potential inherent in AI is huge, but the emergence of AI in combination with automation has also prompted fears – specifically about its long-term impact on employment. Opponents caution that many people may stand to lose their jobs to machines fitted with AI capabilities, particularly at the lower-skill end of the spectrum.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that new or refreshed industries will benefit from AI, which according to research will actually create more jobs than it makes obsolete. Additionally, Gartner reports that AI augmentation will generate about $2.9 trillion in business value and recover about $6.2 billion in worker productivity by 2021. Others argue that AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030 - more than the current output of China and India combined.

AI will generate new, high-value jobs requiring technical skills, such as network engineers in the banking sector or web programmers in the retail industry. Demand for data scientists, robotics experts, and AI engineers will increase significantly.

With an understanding and appreciation for AI, along with strong investment in the African region, the continent can ensure that it will have a bright future and that all stand to gain both economically and socially from these technologies. Add to this the right education and development of skills, and the African youth can be the pioneers of the digital revolution. Moreover, if governments can successfully navigate the challenges, AI can be a driver of growth and development.

Success will depend on the ability of governments to foster collaboration among all stakeholders — state and civil society, academia, industry, and national and international stakeholders. If these groups jointly embrace the challenges and opportunities of AI, Africa will reap the benefits of a vibrant AI ecosystem.

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