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Investment holds the key to unlocking the transformative potential of AI and data in Africa.

Updated: Jun 29

According to the vice president, Ghana possesses a talented pool of young experts who have the ability to unleash the forthcoming industrial revolution as technology continues to reshape the world.

Agricultural drones are taking off in Africa. One project in Ghana helps cashew farmers detect pests and diseases before they seriously damage crops. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty

As the global AI frenzy sweeps across continents, it becomes evident that Africans possess an untapped goldmine within their grasp. With a rapidly expanding population of 1.4 billion people, 70% of whom are under the age of 30, coupled with significant investments in AI, Africa emerges as a potent force. Rather than passively awaiting the world to reap the benefits, we refuse to sit back.

Notably, Africa and the Middle East are projected to experience the most rapid growth in AI expenditure worldwide, estimated to reach $3 billion (£2.4 billion) this year and a staggering $6.4 billion by 2026.

Despite missing out on the opportunities presented by the first, second, and third industrial revolutions, I am resolute in ensuring that our continent does not miss out on the fourth and fifth.

To bring this vision to fruition, data emerges as the crucial piece of the puzzle, propelled by highly skilled domestic technology expertise and private-sector investments. The potential is immense, as for every dollar invested in data systems, there is an average return of $32. Data serves as the lifeblood for informed decision-making, acting as the key to unlocking an independent and prosperous future for Africa. It ensures that new economic opportunities are shared among all.

Significant progress has already been witnessed since the establishment of Google's first AI research center in Accra in 2019, with advancements observed in various sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, and education.

Farmers, in particular, stand to benefit greatly. One noteworthy project involves aiding Ghanaian cashew farmers through an AI-driven innovation that utilizes unmanned aerial vehicles. These flying robots gather data from cashew trees' leaves, stems, and trunks, enabling farmers to identify symptoms of pests and diseases before they become visible and cause severe damage to crops.

Workers work on saplings at the Cashew Research Station in Wenchi. AI is helping small farmers in Ghana predict post-harvest shortages and gluts. Photograph: Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty

This particular initiative, supported by funding from the German development agency GIZ, holds significant value as Africa accounts for half of the world's cashew nut production.

Another noteworthy project utilizes AI to assist smallholder farmers in Ghana by predicting post-harvest shortages and surpluses. By developing more accurate prediction models for crop yields, this technology aims to enhance food security not only in Ghana but also in the broader region.

Given the challenges faced in managing smallholder farms, this project, led by the Ghanaian non-profit organization AGRI-WEB, will contribute to securing a more stable and sustainable income for farmers.

Considering that the 33 million smallholder farms in Africa contribute up to 70% of the food supply, the potential transformative impact of data-driven technology on livelihoods and food security across the region is immense.

Through a collaboration with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Vodafone Ghana, and other stakeholders, African scientists collected anonymized mobile phone data from various districts in Ghana. By analyzing changes in the number of active users, we gained insights into the effectiveness of lockdown measures in restricting people's movement. This information was vital in determining when to ease or reinstate measures. Having local experts who collect and analyze data holds tremendous potential for African decision-makers.

With the increasing number of young individuals being trained in data and AI in Ghana, there is a workforce ready to embrace the technological revolution and drive progress and economic transformation across the continent. In 2021, Ghana's Academic City University College in Accra proudly became the first African higher education institution to launch a degree program in artificial intelligence.

A farmer inspects cocoa pods on a plantation in Ghana’s Western Region. Data and AI can help boost food security in Africa.

Photograph: Muntaka Chasant/Shutterstock

Indeed, the urgency of the matter requires us, as well as the rest of the world, to take proactive measures rather than passively waiting. It is crucial that we maintain our focus on the growth and development of a skilled workforce of data experts.

As the acceleration of AI fundamentally alters the landscape of work, we must prioritize preparing the younger generation to be at the forefront of this revolution, positioning Africa as a leader in this new era. By equipping our youth with the necessary knowledge and skills, we can ensure that they are well-prepared to navigate and contribute to the transformative power of AI, propelling Africa toward a prosperous future.

Context and Continent

The global summits taking place this year, spanning from New Delhi to New York, present an unprecedented opportunity for a new approach to development. In Ghana, we were pleased to witness the Indian government's commitment to prioritizing data for development at this year's G20 meeting.

The Muhanga drone center in Rwanda exemplifies the potential of innovative solutions. With 14 drones serving 21 hospitals in western Rwanda, this center has already delivered over 20,000 units of blood, saving countless lives. Flight operators Prosper Uruvugundi and Eliane Nirere prepare for another mission, highlighting the life-saving impact of healthcare by air.

However, it is imperative that world leaders demonstrate their commitment to this agenda at the UN Sustainable Development Goal Summit in New York in September. The focus must be on securing funding, fostering capacity development, enhancing skills, and forging partnerships.

Data plays a critical role in achieving sustainable development goals, both for Africa and the world. Yet, decisions are still being made in the absence of sufficient data. For eight out of the 17 goals, fewer than half of all countries have the necessary data for reporting.

There is no time to waste. I firmly believe that investing in the workforces of the private and public sectors, as well as establishing integrated data systems, will unlock the immense opportunities presented by AI. This approach will bridge the digital divide among nations, empowering Ghana, our African neighbors, and the entire continent to take control of our own success.

Crucially, this revolution must be driven by locally led solutions and intellect. By harnessing our own expertise and talent, we can ensure that the benefits of this transformative era are harnessed for the betterment of Africa and its people.

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