Artificial intelligence (AI) is grabbing headlines across world news. What isn’t getting much attention is how AI in Africa can and already is helping to alleviate poverty. These progressive trends, however, are not without potential risks. The following is a look into some of the pros and cons of AI reliance in Africa.
Some Stanford scholars have pioneered a method to identify poverty by using AI to examine readily-available satellite imagery of African regions to estimate current poverty levels and development over time. The tool examines both daytime and nighttime imagery and human infrastructure such as roads or housing. It also uses light at night in tandem to assess levels of development in a region. This application of AI in Africa could help governments and organizations understand where poverty is concentrated regionally and thus direct effort and resources to these areas in efforts to alleviate poverty.
Several instances indicate the utility of AI in African agriculture. AI-supported phone apps such as Agrix Tech has supported crop farming in Cameroon. The app allows farmers to upload pictures of crops for assessment. The app then assesses the crop’s health, diagnosing any issues and suggesting remedies. Due to high levels of illiteracy, the app also reads the diagnosis aloud in local languages.
The U.N. has also launched several AI-based apps that provide information about weather patterns, production techniques, fertilizers and so on. These advancements carry the potential to help African farmers make more informed decisions, thereby boosting agricultural yield.
The popular app Hello Tractor is also in use across the continent. The app helps connect small farmers with local tractor owners to provide these farms with farming machinery that can dramatically increase the speed, efficiency and productivity of their operations.
There have been significant examples of AI’s potential in aiding African finance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Togo government quickly built a mobile payment platform called Novissi which leveraged AI to identify the most vulnerable people and distribute financial support. This initiative resulted in financial aid reaching more than 500,000 people. This result suggests that AI can transform the process of aid provision for those living in poverty for the better.
Taking Jobs and Widening Inequality
Alongside its positive sides, AI has some potential cons. Goldman Sachs recently claimed that AI and automation could make 300 million jobs worldwide obsolete. This danger poses a risk in Africa, potentially threatening millions of jobs.
Furthermore, much of the most cutting-edge work in AI is taking place in other continents, such as Europe and Asia and Africans worry that it is experiencing a brain drain, with talented Africans continuing to seek work abroad. Not only does this mean that Africa’s workforce could shrink, but the development of AI in Africa and its potential benefits could be hindered.
The potential benefits of AI to alleviate African poverty are huge, but regulation and adherence to ethical guidelines such as those agreed upon by the OECD or UNESCO will be necessary to ensure that the technology doesn’t cause more harm than good. Overall, the technology has shown the potential to empower farmers, connect communities and provide targeted assistance to vulnerable populations.
– Saul Gunn