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From South Juba to Entebbe, from Marrakesh to Accra, on the cusp of technology in Africa, the need for responsible AI development and ethical data practices has never been more pressing. As technology continues to advance and shape the global economy, Africa is taking steps toward positioning itself as a leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Investments and innovations in AI are on the rise across the continent, with a growing number of countries beginning to develop policies and strategies to harness the power of this transformative technology. Although only a few countries have officially adopted AI strategies and policies, many more are actively working towards defining their AI policies. As philosopher and economist Amartya Sen noted, ‘Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.’ By creating policies and fostering innovation in AI, African countries can empower their citizens to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this innovative technology and make meaningful contributions to their communities and the world at large.

Current state and trend of AI policy framework on the continent

Africa has been slower to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) technologies compared to other regions of the world because of a range of factors, such as infrastructure challenges and limited financial resources. According to the Global AI Index, African countries are generally classified as “nascent” or “waking up” in terms of AI investment, innovation, and implementation, with countries like Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya being nascent and Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia as waking up. Notwithstanding the challenges, the AI industry is rapidly expanding on the continent, with over 2,400 companies specializing in AI, 41% of which are startups. These companies are poised to tap into the immense potential of AI to transform industries, create jobs, and drive economic development. As a renowned computer scientist, Alan Turing, aptly puts “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” This statement underscores the potential economic impact of AI. Experts suggest that the technology could contribute up to US$1.5 billion to the continent’s GDP by 2030. A recent study conducted by McKinsey, a leading global consultancy firm, found that, by analyzing approximately 160 cases of AI’s social impact, they could identify ten areas where incorporating AI into solutions could cause a significant positive impact on society. These areas align with all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and have the potential to positively affect millions of people globally.

A few African countries have taken the steps to develop policies, strategies specifically focused on advancing the use of AI in their countries. Three notable examples include Mauritius, Egypt, and Kenya.

Mauritius’ AI strategy was published in 2018. This policy document recognized the potential of AI and other emerging technologies to address a range of social and economic issues and as a key driver of economic growth. The strategy lays out areas of focus, such as manufacturing, healthcare, FinTech, agriculture, smart ports and maritime traffic management.

Kenya, in 2018, created the Distributed Ledgers Technology and AI Task Force to develop a roadmap of how the country can fully leverage these technologies. The task force’s report published in 2019 notes that AI and other frontier technologies can increase national competitiveness and accelerate innovation, positioning Kenya as a regional and international leader in information and communication technology. The report recommends investments in infrastructure and skills development, as well as the development of effective regulations to balance citizen protection and private sector innovation.

Egypt, in 2021, introduced a national AI strategy with a two-fold vision of utilizing AI to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and positioning Egypt as a key regional and international player in AI. The strategy is built on four pillars: AI for government, AI for development, capacity building, and international activities. The country aims to foster cooperation on AI through active participation in relevant international initiatives and forums, launching regional initiatives, promoting AI for development as a priority, and initiating projects with partner countries.

Besides the African countries that have already developed AI strategies, there are many more that are taking steps toward defining AI policies. Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda are all exploring ways to harness the potential of AI to drive economic growth and development. For example, Ghana and Uganda participated in the Ethical Policy Frameworks for Artificial Intelligence in the Global South, a 2019 pilot project led by UN Global Pulse and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, which aimed to support the development of local policy frameworks for AI. Ghana continues to work with UN Global Pulse to map its AI ecosystem and develop a blueprint for its national AI strategy. Similarly, Rwanda is working to develop a national AI policy that focuses on the ethical use of AI to support social and economic development. Ethiopia has established the Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute, which is tasked with formulating national policies, legislation, and regulatory frameworks related to AI.

Several prominent technology companies have been increasing their presence in the African AI market in recent years. For instance, IBM has established research facilities in Kenya and South Africa, and Google has set up similar centers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Google has a dedicated African AI research center in Ghana that was opened in 2018, and in 2022, the company announced a product development center in Kenya.

To add, in February 2023, AIDEC Consultancies International Ltd (AIDEC Digital), and its Consortium Partners, launched an AI Centre of Excellence with co-location at Academic City University College, Accra, Ghana. The two AI Centers of Excellence results from a Consortium Partnership between them, the Institute of ICT Professionals (IIPGH), Ghana, and their International Partners, 7W Artificial Intelligence company Ltd of Slovenia. The Centre will provide both in-person and virtual training, educational programs, and consulting services to organizations, Institutions in the private, public, and third sectors, giving practical knowledge in areas of AI and its application for Agriculture, Health, Education, FinTech, Mechanical Engineering, etc.

These multinational and local companies are helping to drive innovation and investment in the African AI ecosystem, and their presence will have a significant impact on the growth and development of the sector.

Concerns

The proliferation of AI technologies in Africa is not without its challenges, as foreign companies and governments have been known to introduce technologies that have questionable benefits for local communities. China has been at the forefront of exporting AI-driven technologies to Africa, with its Belt and Road Initiative and Digital Silk Road Initiative paving the way for introducing smart city infrastructure, 5G networks, surveillance cameras, cloud computing, and e-commerce in many African cities.

The impact of AI technologies developed elsewhere without meaningful testing, impact assessment, or local skills development can be detrimental to fundamental human rights and political stability. A few multinational monopolies, which can undermine local businesses and domestic growth potential, typically develop, and offer AI technologies. Huawei and AWS are among the companies that dominate the market, with the latter offering cloud services that are essential for AI systems and the storage of large datasets. However, establishing highly technical cloud services and the massive data centres needed to house and power these data-driven services requires substantial resources that are often only accessible to Big Tech.

In South Africa, AWS is currently constructing a new data storage centre in Cape Town as part of its regional headquarters strategy. Unfortunately, the 150,000m2 development is on contested indigenous land of South Africa’s first peoples, the Khoi and San, who were dispossessed of the area by Dutch colonizers in the 17th century. Despite campaigns against the development and an ongoing court case, the promise of generating 8,000 direct and 13,000 indirect jobs is a compelling counterargument in a country where the official unemployment rate is 46.6%, according to the expanded definition of unemployment following the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the world becomes increasingly digitized and data-driven, artificial intelligence is transforming the global job market. This shift is notable in Africa, where historically, multinational corporations have sought cheaper labour. Today, the rise of AI has created a new form of insecure and precarious employment, which is often extracted from impoverished communities. This type of work is referred to as micro digital labour or “click work’’.

Click work typically involves labelling vast amounts of data and requires workers to have access to a computer. Workers often must bid for such work and are paid a fraction of a penny per unit of work. Many click work assignments involve emotionally distressing content, such as labelling violent and disturbing images or videos. Recently, there have been investigations into the use of refugee camps as a source of cheap digital labour. For example, in Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya, hundreds of computers and yards of wires have been set up to facilitate click work for camp residents.

It is important to recognize that the demand for click work is driven by the global AI economy, which requires vast amounts of labelled data to improve machine learning algorithms. Unfortunately, this demand has led to a situation where vulnerable populations are exploited for cheap labour, without proper protections or benefits. There is a pressing need to address the ethical and social implications of the AI-driven labour market, particularly in regions where poverty and inequality are widespread.

Digital ID systems, which often incorporate biometric technologies like facial recognition, fingerprints, and iris scans, are becoming increasingly popular in Africa. Governments and businesses are adopting these technologies to centralize and streamline government services to prevent fraudulent claims, as well as to protect consumers from identity theft. However, there are concerns regarding the collection and protection of personal data, and the potential for misuse and abuse of this data.

MTC, Namibia’s leading internet services and telecommunications company, is implementing an AI-driven digital ID verification system to improve customer access to its services. This system will collect and store vast amounts of personal data, including facial images and fingerprints, which may be linked to other sensitive data like geolocation. But there is little information available about how this data will be protected or who may have access to it.

In South Africa, an AI-driven digital ID system was used to provide access to social grants for grant recipients. This system was problematic, as the company responsible for distributing the grants, Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), had access to the personal data of all 18 million beneficiaries. CPS used this data to offer predatory financial services to these vulnerable individuals, resulting in many of them receiving little to no grant payment each month. This case highlights the unethical sharing of personal data and the lack of awareness of digital and information rights in South African communities.

Facial recognition technologies, another form of biometric AI, are also being used within digital ID and biometric systems in Africa. Despite this, these technologies are controversial due to inaccuracies, particularly for women, gender minorities, and non-white populations. Facial recognition systems developed elsewhere may also misread African faces and limit human rights, such as freedom of movement, association, and the right to equality and fair treatment. For example, in South Africa, Vumacam has established a network of surveillance cameras using a Danish-built facial recognition system to profile suspicious behaviour. These technologies may be at odds with the country’s democratic vision of an equal society. In Uganda, for instance, Huawei’s AI-powered facial recognition system was used in the 2020 elections to identify, track, and arrest supporters of the opposition wing, which raises concerns about privacy and fundamental human rights violations.

The above analysis suggests several key policy areas for African policymakers and technologists to focus on. To kick start, it is essential to prioritize the development of safe and inclusive infrastructure to support the local development of technology. This includes policies to improve internet access and prevent internet shutdowns, as well as policies to support good governance and availability of data for development. African Union Data Policy Framework and Africa-EU Global Gateway should promote uniformity in data governance standards across the continent and establish equal access to basic and advanced digital infrastructure.

Besides that, policymakers should consider the benefits of regional cooperation for developing common regulatory responses to multinational and foreign tech companies operating in the region. Cooperation between countries could also extend to developing taxation provisions for multinational social media platforms and data-sharing agreements to provide access to a broader range of public sector data. The African Continental Free Trade Area Protocol on E-Commerce may present an important opportunity for integrating a provision to support inter-regional data sharing, supporting regional development goals, and economic growth.

To conclude, policymakers should prioritize the development of local capacity and skills in technology-related fields, such as AI and data science. We need capacity development policies to promote understanding of AI at all levels, with specific measures to advance women in STEM and AI-related decision-making positions. Policies may also include measures to attract diverse AI talent by lifting entry barriers between countries for Africans with data science and computing skills. By focusing on these key policy areas, African governments can ensure that AI adoption is inclusive and does not perpetuate social inequality while promoting sustainable development and growth across the continent.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Osei Manu Kagyah

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