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Why Africa’s leaders need to prioritise AI

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Why Africa’s leaders need to prioritise AI

The emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for societal improvement marks a transformative era, comparable to the Industrial Revolution in its scope and impact. With its ability to mimic – and occasionally surpass – human cognition, AI is transforming industries, economies and societies at an unprecedented pace. It is reshaping government operations and innovation, compelling leaders worldwide to harness its potential for the wellbeing and prosperity of their citizens.

Africa needs to contribute to this technological revolution, and African leaders must act decisively to seize the opportunities AI presents for transformative governance, economic prosperity, government efficiency, citizen engagement, and human development.  

Harnessing AI for Africa’s growth

There are already bright spots on the continent where governments’ innovative use of AI has yielded impressive results. For instance, Kenya and Mozambique have enhanced food security through AI-driven crop health monitoring. Rwanda and Ghana have used AI-enabled drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas and Togo’s NOVISSI program employed machine learning to efficiently distribute cash transfers during the Covid-19 pandemic. These examples have been successful because they speak to needs which these respective governments face.

Yet despite these successes, Africa hasn’t captured a big enough share of the global AI market to achieve the $1.5 trillion opportunity for economic expansion forecasted by the United Nations for 2030. African governments face significant challenges in adopting AI, including the need for robust digital infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and an innovation-friendly policy and regulatory environment. Failure to bridge Africa’s AI adoption gap could result in slower technological advancement, undermining the continent’s reputation for leveraging emerging technologies to overcome challenges. Africa’s tech landscape has fostered a tradition of leapfrogging, particularly in digital payments, showcasing its ingenuity in navigating technological hurdles. Another significant risk is that private sector demand for AI will outpace governments’ understanding of the technology’s rapid evolution, and the natural response might be overregulation.

Challenges to AI integration

Most African governments recognize AI’s potential to foster more inclusive societies and improve service delivery. But to leverage AI effectively, African leaders must scale beyond one-off successes and develop overarching strategies that drive sustainable innovation across healthcare, agriculture, education, and governance. This requires balancing policies that allow experimentation and innovation while ensuring data protection, ethical use of AI and equitable access.

Integrating emerging technology into national development plans and strategies remains a significant hurdle. While some governments, like Mauritius, Rwanda, Egypt and Senegal have released AI strategies, many African countries struggle to execute those plans due to limited infrastructural, financial, and human capital resources. They also face the challenge of applying more AI technologies to their specific contexts. These resource-constrained governments often face a “build or buy” dilemma: whether to invest in developing AI capabilities internally or to form sustainable partnerships for immediate access to AI technology while gradually building their own capacities.

What we do know is that the cost of inaction is likely to be steep.

A strategic path forward

So, where to begin? Above all, African governments should adopt an “all-of-government” approach to AI policy, led by the executive political authority—the head of state—and anchored in the centre of government. Leaders must conduct comprehensive self-assessments of their countries’ current capabilities and future goals, including infrastructure, human capital, computational resources for AI, and an enabling environment to determine the choices that will swiftly and sustainably enhance AI capabilities.

To ensure timely access and deployment of AI capabilities, African leaders must take charge in steering strategic “build or buy” decisions, reform data sovereignty laws, prioritise sustainable private-sector partnerships, strengthen international cooperation on AI, and invest in a 21st-century talent pool.

There is no alternative and no more time to waste. African political leaders must urgently prioritize investing in AI capabilities today to ensure their nations remain competitive, innovative, and prepared to address the challenges of tomorrow by fostering the dynamic AI ecosystems that will design African solutions and drive progress on the continent.

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