Africa Could Be A Major Player On The Global AI Stage, But Only With The Right Skills

While African startups have shown that they’re capable of building world-class technology products, there’s also no doubt that technological advances have left behind many people and businesses across the continent. One need only look at something like mobile internet coverage gaps to see how many people are still being left behind today. Those gaps risk being replicated, perhaps to an even wider degree, with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). As things stand, there are serious global concerns about the concentration of AI resources amongst a handful of big technology companies.

Fortunately, there are individuals, businesses, and organisations working hard to ensure that Africa doesn’t get left behind by these transformative technologies. Their work will be critical in ensuring the continent can take its rightful place on the AI and ML world stage.

One such company is Zindi. Headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa, and backed by the likes of early-stage venture investor Founders Factory Africa (FFA), Zindi Africa is a professional social network that connects organisations with African data scientists, providing them with a place to learn, hone their skills, and find a job.

“The pause button cannot be pushed on AI and ML,” says Eunice Wambui, Investment Principle. “Knowing how important data science is to these fields, we believe that companies like Zindi will be essential for ensuring that Africa has the resources it needs to be truly competitive.”

Founded in 2018, Zindi is led by co-founder and CEO Celina Lee. A US native, Lee has lived and worked in South Africa for the past 8 years. Having studied applied mathematics and computer science, Lee spent a short period in corporate America before moving into international development.

Throughout this period, she worked on projects that aimed to use AI and machine learning to make products and services more accessible to all sectors of the population. It was one of these projects that led to her meeting Zindi co-founders Megan Yates and Ekow Duker. Once they got talking, they realised that a lot of African companies are sitting on incredibly valuable data but don’t know how to use it. Even those who know the value of that data, meanwhile, often look overseas for the requisite expertise.

“A lot of Africa-based companies have this assumption that they have to go outside of their country and the entire continent to get the help they need,” says Lee. “Coming from a nonprofit background, I was working with a lot of young people who were aspiring data scientists and were really interested in how they could get into it as a career path.”

According to Lee, Zindi’s founders felt that it was a no-brainer to connect companies with these young African data scientists. She also feels that the rapid advancements in AI and ML in recent years have made Zindi’s work even more urgent.

“The realities of 5 years ago, when we launched Zindi Africa, are totally different from today,” she says. “It’s accelerating incredibly fast.”

That rapid acceleration poses risks for economies which aren’t able to adapt and keep up.

“With the rise of generative AI in particular,” she says, “there’s the risk of entire economies being left behind if they’re not able to keep up in terms of being able to really adopt, fully take advantage of, and integrate these technologies into the work that they’re doing.”

As Lee points out, AI and ML will also bring massive disruption to the job market, further adding to the urgency of the work done by companies such as Zindi.

“The idea of artificial intelligence taking people’s jobs, particularly ones that rely on repetitive actions, is a real one and I understand that risk,” she says. “There will, however, be new jobs that require highly skilled people to take them up. What Zindi’s trying to do is make sure that people are able to jump into that space.”

That said, the Zindi CEO also believes that should Africa build up the data science and other skills necessary for AI and ML, it could become a global AI powerhouse. In part, that’s because it already contains many of the right ingredients to do so.

“I think the exciting and real opportunity for Africa is that the field is wide open,” she says. “Africa has the fastest growing working-age population in the world. That’s a massive asset that no one else in the world can match. And you cannot require 10 years’ worth of experience for a generative AI job. You require six months to a year at most. So that’s what I tell all the people on Zindi: the field is wide open and the opportunities are there if you grab them.”

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