Delegates during the Eastern Africa Sub-regional forum on artificial intelligence (AI).

As global leaders gather in Nairobi for the groundbreaking Eastern Africa Sub-regional forum on artificial intelligence (AI) , the region finds itself at a pivotal juncture in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This landmark event brings together policymakers, tech industry leaders, and international experts to address the unique opportunities and challenges presented by AI technologies in East Africa’s distinct context.

While Africa accounts for only 0.5% of global AI patent applications, East African nations like Kenya and Tanzania are emerging as regional tech hubs, with a growing number of AI startups and initiatives. This burgeoning AI ecosystem is reshaping critical sectors across the region.

Transformative technology

In the fields of Kenya, AI is revolutionizing agriculture. Farmers, armed with nothing more than their smartphones, can now access crucial information about crop health, potentially averting disasters that once seemed inevitable. The AI-powered app Nuru, for instance, without requiring internet connectivity, helps farmers identify crop diseases by simply taking a photo, significantly reducing crop losses and improving food security for thousands of small-scale farmers.

It’s a far cry from Snapchat’s playful dog ears, yet both applications stem from the same transformative technology. However, this same AI that promises agricultural abundance also harbours a darker potential. Deep-fake technology, with its ability to create convincingly real but entirely fabricated videos, poses a threat to the very fabric of democracy in the region.

Sobering reality

The duality of AI’s impact is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the realm of drone technology. In Rwanda, drones serve as lifelines, ferrying blood and medical supplies to remote areas with unprecedented speed and efficiency – a veritable ‘Uber for blood’. Yet, we cannot ignore the sobering reality that in other parts of the world, similar technology brings not life, but death from above. Recent events in Somalia highlight this stark contrast, where military strikes using Turkish drones resulted in civilian casualties, potentially amounting to war crimes.

In the education sector, Tanzania has seen a transformation through AI-powered personalized learning platforms. Apps like Shule Direct use machine learning algorithms to adapt to each student’s learning pace and style, making quality education more accessible in rural areas.

As East African nations embrace these technological advancements, they must grapple with fundamental questions of trust. Can we trust that the AI systems we implement will serve the greater good? That they won’t be co-opted by those seeking to manipulate or surveil? These questions are at the heart of discussions at the ongoing forum in Nairobi. UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences, Ms. Gabriela Ramos, emphasized this point in her opening remarks: “As we embrace AI, we must ensure it respects human rights, cultural diversity, and promotes inclusive growth.” She highlighted UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence as a guiding framework for the region.

Road ahead

The challenge facing East African policymakers is monumental. How do we create regulatory frameworks agile enough to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology? How do we ensure that the Internet of Things enhances rather than endangers our lives? The EU’s GDPR provides a potential roadmap, but East Africa must forge its own path, one that reflects its unique challenges and opportunities.

Mr. Essa Mohamedali, the co-founder of the Tanzania AI Community, speaking at the forum, underscored a critical point: “We need to invest in foundational research that will allow us to build models that are contextually relevant for the African population, which until very recently has not been represented anywhere in AI development.” This call for local solutions is echoed across the region, as East Africa seeks to harness AI’s potential while avoiding the pitfalls of technological colonialism.

However, the rise of AI also brings concerns. Facial recognition technology, while useful for security purposes, has raised privacy issues in countries like Uganda, where it has been used to monitor public gatherings. There are also worries about AI perpetuating biases, as highlighted by a 2019 study showing that some AI systems struggle to accurately recognize darker skin tones.

Factors impeding AI growth in the region include  : limited infrastructure, lack of skilled personnel, and inadequate data protection laws. Many East African countries are still working on comprehensive AI policies and ethical guidelines. These challenges are being actively addressed at the Nairobi forum, with stakeholders collaborating on strategies to overcome these hurdles.

As we navigate this brave new world, we must remember that at its core, this is not just about technology – it’s about humanity. It’s about preserving our essence, our soul, in the face of rapid change. We must strive to create an AI-enabled future that reflects our shared values and aspirations. Dr. Mary Karema, Secretary of the ICT Authority in Kenya, captured this sentiment perfectly in her address to the forum: “As we embrace AI, let’s not leave the human out of the equation. Let’s give the data owners the opportunity to decide how they want their data to be used. Technology is supposed to benefit us. The global north should only give us solutions that benefit us.”

The path ahead is fraught with challenges, but also brimming with potential. As East Africa takes its place on the global AI stage, it has the opportunity to chart a course that balances innovation with ethics, progress with humanity. The decisions made  at the Eastern Africa Sub-regional Forum on Artificial Intelligence will shape not just the region’s technological landscape, but the very nature of its society for generations to come.

In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, East Africa stands at the threshold of a new era – one that it has the power to define. As we move forward, we must ensure that our technological advancements serve to enhance our humanity, not diminish it. Our commitment to ethical, human-centered AI must remain steadfast.



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