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Africa must commit to transformative digital technologies to accelerate growth – experts

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Africa provides investment opportunities for e-commerce and telemedicine that could be harnessed through transformative technology, including artificial intelligence, to accelerate economic growth, experts said at this year’s Africa Investment Forum Market Days in Marrakech, Morocco.

The experts made the point during a panel discussion on “Digital Disruptors and Transformative Technology”. The panellists included Samuel Alemayehu, investor and board member of business information hub Next Billion; Adnane Ben Halima, vice president in charge of public relations for the Mediterranean region of Huawei Northern Africa; Femi Adeagbo, CEO of Nigerian-based ICT advisory firm Comnavig; and Liz McAreavey, CEO of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, Scotland. Zaid Belbagi, CEO of Hardcastle and columnist for Arab News, moderated the discussions.

Adeagbo highlighted the significant progress made in Africa’s telecommunication space. “If you consider the last 30 years in Africa, the continent has moved from 30,000 landlines to millions of mobile phones, thereby creating thousands of jobs in this sector.” He cited Kenya’s M-Pesa, Africa’s leading mobile money service, saying it has “revolutionized” microfinance and money transfer. The emergence of Facebook has created many jobs and boosted trade, but at the same time, fake news has grown,” he said.

Still, it also has some negative implications, he warned.

“AI isn’t going to turn everything in the world upside down. It isn’t going to create jobs for everyone,” said Adeagbo. He added: “The social media excesses, fake news, the dark web and their intercultural implications, the misuse of AI to develop weapons — these are all negatives to be corrected and anticipated.”

He called for guidance to determine the areas in which AI will be used to curb the excesses, including job losses.

Panellists affirmed that Africa has the means to promote digital inclusion and leverage technology to address its socio-economic challenges. They stressed that whether in climate, medicine, education, training, job creation, agriculture, energy or food, there are many development sectors to be explored through digital technologies, including artificial intelligence.

The meeting identified the potential of digital technologies, especially AI, saying it will accelerate development and connect African businesses to global markets. They noted that while 800 000 jobs have been lost worldwide, 3.1 million others have been created thanks to new technologies and the digital economy. Such jobs now account for more than 45% of the global economy.

Halima drew a direct link between technological transformation and the economy. “In East Africa, M-Pesa accounts for 40% of Kenya’s GDP. This is huge, as are mobile transactions and payments. For now, the only tool capable of ensuring economic growth is the digitization of knowledge.”

Alemayehu proposed various sectors in which AI could be used in Africa: the manufacture of medicines based on the knowledge of local communities, the development of reactors to generate electricity, and palm oil and nitrogen production.

McAreavey cautioned that Africa must be ready to effectively utilize AI to drive inclusive transformation; otherwise, it will be left behind, adding that technology attracts direct investment, creates jobs and builds capacities. “Today, smart cities are a must-have. They can help warn citizens about natural disasters or an epidemic.”

She said adopting transformative technologies would unlock the potential of Africa’s small and medium-sized enterprises, which account for 95% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa. “If these companies use AI correctly, Africa will see huge progress,” she concluded.

Panellists also identified social and ethical dimensions of AI that governments and disruptors must address through appropriate regulations to mitigate the emerging risks associated with the technology.

They called on African countries to make smart choices to foster collaboration between the private and public sectors, build robust ecosystems and replicate best practices from one country to another. Women’s access to technology should also be facilitated, although they broke through the glass ceiling in the digital sector long ago.

Halima stressed that digital tools bring transparency and that people must leave their comfort zones.

He gave the example of Huawei, which has set up a “talent bank” to create jobs and retain young talent in Africa, and the “Women in Africa” programme targeted at women. He also called for infrastructure to be developed to reduce disparities in connectivity between countries, regions and genders, saying that this was especially important for women, knowing that 40% of them are not connected to the internet.

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