Victor Famubode : Is Africa ready for artificial intelligence? (Pt. 1)

by Victor Famubode

From driverless cars to online financial infrastructure payments, Artificial Intelligence obviously will be the heart of the next industrial revolution. The wave of globalisation and democracy cannot be overlooked regarding its contribution steering policy integration. Both concepts will play vital roles towards integrating the African continent under an umbrella perceived to end humanity (Artificial Intelligence). The rise of machines and robotics in high-income economies have been a contested discourse by philosophers, economists, tech geeks and policy makers. There is a rising belief it would steal jobs and render humanity useless and even economists seem not to be certain about the relevance of labour in this period.

Immediately Japan was announced as the host of 2020 Olympics, what would strike one’s mind is the presence of robotics during the famous sporting event. Western economies are leveraging on AI to foster growth and development in multi-sectors even though it is a work in progress, and many will question the relevance of this in relation to the effects on the African continent. It has been debated that AI could take 7-10 years less or more, before it has an impact on Africa but just like the innovations of smartphones and recent technologies, are we ready?



I question doubters concerning their perceptions on the speed of welcoming AI into Africa, some have proved a point especially the stress on huge infrastructure deficits in Africa and other challenges such as culture. Their points have been made but there is a more impeding barrier relating to regulations and policy actions of governments in Africa. Most African governments still have a problem trying to understand the uniqueness of technology, but this is also a universal problem. Governments have found it difficult keeping up with technology in terms of regulation, its nexus to development of economies should be stressed which has birthed AI and must ultimately be taken serious if African societies do not want to be left behind.

(Source: World Economic Forum)


Uber, the most valuable startup in the world has been very creative in managing these complexities, from the hurdles it crossed in India to the Chinese government protecting Didi which resulted to freeing the most valued startup to expand in other markets. Many assume it was only a win for Didi but from the deal, it was a win-win for both ride hailing apps. Startups have been questioned often for its continuous reliance on spontaneous deregulation either consciously or unconsciously. They are guilty of this practice which makes it very difficult for governments to capture their practices. Some of these startups believe the tech space only rests on coding and programming but there is more to it, especially understanding the business, political and economic climate of every society. There is a need for startups to invest massively in policy wonks and researchers as they expand. Imagine Basket Savings a grocery shopping app investing in Harare, it might encounter low traffic based on the poor internet infrastructure and endearing love for patronizing groceries from street traders likewise the political side of an authoritarian rule compared to Ouagadougou wherein the capital city of Burkina Faso has received a boost in terms of ease of doing business and the increase in middle income earners with an effort by the government to enhance internet infrastructure.

Apparently, the drive for profit maximisation of these startups get carried away by the demography in the cities and forget there is a need to understand the regulatory patterns for floating the business. Numbers are important components for making huge investments in African countries but it is advisable to understand the system and frequently interact with these governments. Recently, the Lagos state government came up with a license fee to regulate Uber’s practices and likewise increase the government coffers but it would have been expected of the government to leverage on the technologies of Uber to understand the dynamics of regulating their businesses.


In a bid to understand the flow of the political economy of these societies, it is germane to review governments understanding of tech businesses. There has been an appreciable success by Asian countries handling of tech giants and startups but it is important African economies need to sync into designing and implementing sound policies to protect both local and foreign investors in the tech space. As earlier written, technology is a leverage for development in African societies. Recently, the Rwandan government developed a method of transporting blood through drones to reduce maternal mortality. Governments in African societies still undermine the relevance of technology and with such governments still in oblivion on AI’s relevance, weak policy thrust would be likely churned out from them, an example is  Yaba in Lagos which has been the focus of investors and perceived as the next Silicon Valley, little wonder why Zuckerberg paid a visit to the environment, honestly the government has given little or no support to grow that space.

Modern populism from the ideological basis could affect tech investments and can also be a barrier regarding the obsession of believing in higher walls by political leaders in Africa. To an extent, it limits creative ideas and innovations in this space and the arrival of AI could signal the spread of superstitious beliefs of AI disrupting the relevance of humans.

Nevertheless, policymakers in Africa needs to understand that tech geeks are friends of the economy not foes and their investments are likewise important, so therefore, regulate their activities and don’t crash their businesses. The relationship should be symbiotic, with the government carrying every stakeholder along. Slamming regulations without proper consultation from their end needs to be critically addressed. East African countries have served as trailblazers for other African nations to follow, not insisting on East African countries perfection but stating the speedy moves in transitioning into a technology destination. Information asymmetry is an important aspect on understanding the communication process for both policymakers and tech geeks especially from the political economy approach which would be discussed extensively in part two of this series.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Victor Famubode tweets @BishopTopsy

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