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Africa Needs Effective AI Policies, Experts say

African countries need to develop effective Artificial Intelligence policies along with the necessary infrastructure to tap the economic potential of the technology.

This is according to experts who discussed the technology’s impact on the sidelines of the Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (COM).

Globally, governments are not only developing regulatory frameworks but also striving to integrate this technology into public services. However, understanding how to ensure that AI is adopted effectively for the public good remains a challenge.

The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) hosted a panel discussion on ‘Fostering prosperity through policies on AI in Africa’ during which experts said AI presented massive development opportunities for Africa if the right policies and infrastructure were in place.

Gambia’s Communications and Digital Economy Minister Ousman Bah said it was important to have the right policies to regulate the use of AI and also avert its risks, but Africa should not wait to have the regulations in place to embrace the technology.

Artificial intelligence, a fast-evolving technology that taps the intelligence of machines or software, is transforming all social spheres globally.

The ECA, citing recent studies, says the technology has the potential to contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, of which $1.2 trillion could be generated in Africa, representing a 5.6 percent increase in its gross domestic product by 2030.

Fayaz King, Deputy Executive Director of Field Results and Innovation for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said necessary strategies were important to ensure that all approaches to AI from development, and deployment to use are in the public interest.

“In the effervescent realm of AI the known, the unknown and the unknowable is best addressed through governance with humanity at its center, for what AI giveth, AI also taketh,” Kiing said.

Baratang Miya, Chief Executive of Girlhype Coders Academy, said governments should regulate and incentivise stakeholders across AI value chains with focus on Small Medium Scale Enterprises to foster innovation and equitable access to AI technologies.

Naratang said there should be a balance in policy development and humanity to ensure that the AI technology does take over.

Governments need to establish ethical frameworks on the development and deployment of AI through data privacy, security, transparency and accountability in AI systems, per ECA. It says Africa needs to collect more data to have access to its own data and governments need to facilitate data democratization policies.

“We really need data that speaks to Africa itself and that case for open data means we are empowering citizens and at the same time encouraging innovation and efficiency and not using data that is inaccurate,” said Miya, emphasizing that to host proper data for countries, good cloud infrastructure, including reliable electricity access are important.

Sandra Makumbirofa, Senior economist at Research ICT Africa, said AI has transformative potential to boost African economies through effective financial inclusion, employment creation and enhanced public service delivery.

However, most of the market value of AI was released in the United States and China, she said, citing research by UNCTAD. It was therefore important for African countries to actively participate in global fora to ensure their interests were represented.

“Our database is inadequate for global policy making,” Makumbirofa noted. “The data that we have as African countries is not represented in the training of AI models. This means that the AI that we are using in Africa from foreign countries does not necessarily have the African context and therefore we are not able to use them efficiently as we can,” the economist indicated.

Contributing to the discussion, ECA’s Executive Secretary Claver Gatete highlighted that most people were not aware of AI and a drawback of AI was its dependence on data which has to be accurate.

Gatete said the development of infrastructure such as internet connectivity was key to tapping the benefits of AI and that the technology must be shared among countries to avoid inventing the wheel.

“Out of the 1.6 billion people who are not connected, Africa really is one of the biggest places where we are not connected. If you are not connected you cannot even talk about AI. We need infrastructure, we need energy investment going hand in hand with the IT infrastructure,” said Gatete.