AI4D Africa Launch : Driving Inclusive AI Innovation in Africa

July 30, 2021

In the last twenty years, AI has transformed from narrow, academic applications mostly found in the west to an almost ubiquitous tool that will make day to day activities like farming, urban planning, health care delivery, and learning more efficient, inclusive and innovative around the world.

With its unprecedented potential use in development, AI is an opportunity. An opportunity to contribute to developing countries achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs). The question, then, is not if, but how best to harness the power of responsible AI to improve quality of life, and ensure that those that would benefit most from this technology do so. 

Seeking to answer this question, the Artificial Intelligence for Development Africa (AI4D) program was launched late 2020.  With a strong focus on strengthening capacity, advancing innovation and supporting the development of policies and regulations for responsible AI development in Africa, this four year program has been designed and co-developed by AI leaders across the continent. With a budget of CAD 20M, AI4D Africa is one of the biggest initiatives of this kind working with existing and new AI communities, as they work on solving some of Africa’s developmental challenges using AI as the driving force. 

Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Swedish International Development  Cooperation Agency (Sida) have come together to support this initiative. During his opening remarks at the launch, Dr Jean Lebel, President of IDRC pointed out that as an organization, IDRC have had a long history in investing in digital inclusion in the global south, including a wide range of innovative programs that serve as the building blocks to support the transformative potential of AI. When asked what motivated Sida to partner in this initiative, Carin Jämtin, Director-General of Sida simply stated that many young innovators voiced their need for support in order to pursue work in AI. She also added that equal demand exists from governments and businesses to support AI innovations that contribute to solving persistent development challenges.

Panelists Kathleen Siminyu, Neema Iyer, Renata Avila, Dr Joyce Nakatumba- Nabende and Araba Sey

The online launch event invited expert panelists from the African AI community to share ideas on how we can collectively drive inclusive innovation using AI in Africa. In their presentations, the speakers brought out the importance of leaning on Feminist AI to remove the bias that is present in existing AI algorithms.

In her presentation, Community Driven AI as a Feminist Research Methodology for Ethical and Inclusive Systems, Kathleen Siminyu, the then Regional Coordinator of AI4D Africa talks about how this program follows the Feminist Research Methodology, as feminist research seeks to address the growing distance between those who are designing and deploying AI systems and those who are affected by these systems. Neema Iyer, founder & director of Pollicy, Uganda presented on using (Afro) feminist AI to build governance structures and alternative models of economic power, cooperation and solidarity to bridge the existing gap that biased AI systems create.

International Human Rights Lawyer, Renata Avila and co founder of Fair Alliance was keen to share that the problem of the AI industry now is that it is a space of competition, not one of collaboration and shared practices, which ends up serving the needs of the rich nations and discriminates against less developed ones. It therefore shows that there is a need for Africa to not just directly import this technology, but to instead adapt it to really benefit those who need it. In her presentation, Dr Joyce Nakatumba- Nabende said that developing nations are slowly driving the feminist AI agenda that drives the focus to more important aspects around the data, technology and the people to support diversity, inclusiveness in society in using the ML models from the “ground up”.

Lastly, Araba Sey, Principle Researcher at RIA posed the question on whether Smart Townships can foster more equitable allocation of digital resources to towns and informal settlements where the need is great, showing how current AI innovations might not really serve the population that need it and that we are still far away from making this a reality. 

It is conversations like these that show the need for a program like AI4D Africa that seeks to see a continent that harnesses the potential of technology, leveraging its local resources and know-how, for the public good.