AI and the Future of the African Innovation Ecosystem

Oti Egwu, Account Manager, Djembe Consultants

PRESS OFFICE: Djembe Consultants

By Oti Egwu, Account Manager, Djembe Consultants

Development in the African innovation ecosystem is still at the take-off stage. The level of growth witnessed in the space is still a country mile away from those achieved in America’s Silicon Valley and across technological hubs in the Far East.

With the increasing popularity of AI, observers affirm that innovative progress in Africa could well match up with the rest of the world sooner rather than later. But with varied peculiarities scattered around the continent, there is a greater need to interrogate what the future holds.

A New World Order

There are a few things that have been presciently analysed since the demise of the Covid-19 pandemic than the transformative power of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Economic Times in 2023 reports that about 65% of jobs in the world of work will be AI-related by 2030, and the larger gamut of human lives will be progressively defined by the revolution.

Disruptions with AI have already begun in key industries such as healthcare, communications, education, financial services, and agriculture. Over a year ago, the launch of ChatGPT – an AI chatbot, developed by OpenAI, gave the world a hint on how AI will influence mankind. The development of Homo Novus – a genetically constructed human being with artificial intelligence is speculated to be underway. Concerns are being raised that these new developments could relegate human beings to the background, as robots may replace man in the workplace. Ethical concerns about the operational frameworks of these machines have also been voiced.

However, commentaries on the advantages of AI appear to have outweighed every opposing view muttered by contrarians. From a vantage point of view, it is a fait accompli that AI is the new world order.

Africa Rising

When Kenya’s capital – Nairobi was ranked Africa’s smartest city for the second year in a row in 2015 by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), there was a sense that several major African cities would be in the running to win the gong in the following years. The recognition was off the back of Nairobi’s strong foundation in enhancing pro-growth government policies and nurturing innovation ecosystems of startups, among other things.

Since then, innovation has sped off on the continent. Nigeria’s foremost economic nerve center – Lagos, and South Africa’s oldest metropolis, Cape Town have become stomping grounds for leading African innovators. Egypt’s capital, Cairo; Rwanda’s Kigali and Ghana’s, Accra are some of the other African cities redefining the continent’s landscape with innovative strides.

Though the African innovation ecosystem is still evolving, its growth parameter shows that startups, scale-ups, and accelerator programs have continued to sprout in major cities of the continent. Africa’s brightest sweet spots are embedded in its human capital and vast natural resources. In over a decade, stakeholders in the continent have been leveraging these resources to create new markets and have sparked up a revolution that keeps attracting venture capitalists and angel investors from around the world.

A Bright Future?

The AI ecosystem has already begun to gain ground in Africa. In 2019, Tunisia disclosed that it was developing a national AI strategy. Egypt, South Africa, Mauritius, and Nigeria are other African nations raring to go in a similar direction. Analysts point out that the new era will mark a watershed moment in the African Innovation space as the internet bubble did with a myriad of American startups in the 1990s.

While the projection offers rays of hope, the continent is still fraught with a series of debilities that need to be tackled. The scarcity of quality data across African cities could hamper AI-driven solutions across industries. Government policies in Africa, mostly considered unfounded and less favorable, are challenges to look out for. As shown in the past, African stakeholders and founders, despite their novel ideas, may grapple to take the market by storm with AI resources. We have seen cases where innovators overpromise with their offerings, yet under-deliver on the market fronts.

The success of AI in the African tech ecosystem would require much more than a textbook assessment of the matter. Given the reality on the ground, the timing is right for the continent. Like Lee Kuan Yew repeatedly echoed decades ago about Singapore’s human resources being the inspiration behind the country’s transformation from a developing nation to a first-world country – Africa needs to utilise the gift of its human capital development in the age of AI more than ever. The continent’s growing and young population is in concert with an imminent, full-blown AI revolution. Whether through the adaptation of machine learning (ML) processes, or the invention of AI-driven products, Africans ought not be left behind.

If the ingenious exploits from the brick-and-mortar operations in Alaba International Market – the largest electronic hub in Nigeria, create a yearly turnover of $4 billion, then key players within the African innovation ecosystem, through sheer grit and resilience, can utilise the gains of AI to make the continent a global economic powerhouse.