For many countries, the prospects of artificial intelligence (AI) are thrilling. They conjure up the kinds of innovations we see in science fiction. In Africa, however, the dawn of AI carries with it a fear of falling further behind more-developed economies, rather than the eager anticipation of new technology—the World Economic Forum predicts a net loss of five million jobs to AI worldwide by 2020.

But Africa need not dread the age of robotics and automation. Across the continent, from Ghana to Zimbabwe, this technology has the potential to bring myriad positive changes in sectors such as health care and finance, bridging the gap between physical infrastructure inadequacies and consumer demands, while freeing up more time for skilled labor and increased labor productivity. For Africans to reap these benefits, African governments, investors, and NGOs must prepare for the fourth industrial revolution’s transformation of the modern workplace by training workers for complex tasks, and reforming laws and education to meet the demands of tomorrow.       

The future of work in Africa

Factory and call-center jobs, and rote manufacturing work will all slow due to automation. These jobs are the ones many African youth seek, yet rapid urbanization, a “youth bulge,” and high unemployment rates indicate they are increasingly less likely to find opportunity. Put simply, job opportunities may not keep pace with Africa’s population growth, and robots and other technologies are a contributing factor.

In light of this, “the future of work” takes on new meaning for a continent where mass unemployment and underemployment hamper economies. Labor-intensive industries such as retail and car manufacturing are already automating in the name of efficiency, and the majority of young job seekers simply do not have the skills necessary to compete. McKinsey predicts that automation will displace nearly 13 percent of South Africa’s current work activities by 2020—this, in a country that had an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent in 2017. Ethiopia, long-touted as Africa’s next manufacturing hub, is vulnerable to automation in important employment sectors such as agriculture and textiles. In Botswana, robot workers have diminished the bargaining power of the labor union representing cashiers and shop assistants.

While these machines may increase worker productivity, they also put downward pressure on factory wages, as the population of low-skilled workers increases in rapidly growing emerging markets. Yet the rapid spread of AI is unavoidable: Accenture Nigeria predicts that within five years, more than half of consumers will select products and services “based on a company’s AI” capabilities, rather than its brand.

Leveraging AI to Africa’s advantage

But despite the pervasive narrative that AI spells doom for Africa’s development, thoughtful planning can leverage it as a tool to help grow the country’s economies. Economic development depends on increasing worker productivity. For too long, African markets have been stagnant in that capacity, but AI is well poised to change that. In countries like Nigeria and Kenya, where capital is scarce but ideas are abundant, process automation can enable businesses to run on leaner models. Moreover, rather than displacing employees, machines can empower low-skilled workers and equip them to take on more-complex responsibilities. This, in turn, can help meet an urgent need for countries lacking widespread access to education and skills training.

AI, web-based training programs, for example, could teach more complex skills to a low-skilled worker, and “respond” by adjusting its settings as the worker expresses understanding and knowledge. Volley for Enterprise is an example of this style of mobile learning hub that could benefit African companies. Volley, a San Francisco-based company, integrates its learning platform with corporate systems to engage workers in continuous training and close knowledge gaps. This type of technology is especially applicable in countries like South Africa, where unemployment remains high and employers cannot fill vacancies due to a dearth of skilled workers. In the services industry, for example, chatbots can do simple tasks that free up customer service reps to do more-complex ones. A Y Combinator-backed tool called Kudi.ai brings together AI and human agents to offer localized client care and professionalism for telecom and utilities providers. App users can securely send payments to friends, pay their bills, and add money to their cellphone plan, just via texting the mobile chat robot “Kudi” on social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Skype.

AI can also protect workers. Robots such as South Korea’s DRC-Hubo help safeguard employees by going into dangerous spaces in mines and nuclear plants, where they perform tasks such as scouting, operating drills, and capturing detailed information.

AI could also alleviate Nigeria’s 1:4,000 doctor-to-patient ratio. Aajoh, a Nigerian health tech company, uses AI for fast, remote medical diagnoses. Patients input their symptoms in the app using a range of communication options, and receive an instant diagnosis and, if prescribed, information about where to purchase medication. Technologies like this boost health care efficiency, freeing doctors to treat those who actually need in-person care and providing increased access for all. In cases like these, AI ultimately can help overcome a lack of physical infrastructure.

Finally, AI can help protect business financial security. AI programs such as Ayasdi can take massive data sets, discover discrepancies, and predict when financial hiccups will arise. As companies increasingly focus on improving their risk profiles in our interconnected world, AI security programs will become increasingly common. HSBC is already using Ayasdi to transform its approach to financial crime risk and protect against money laundering, fraud, and other threats.

How leaders can support Africa’s AI innovation

African leaders must drive the continent's digital revolution to ensure that people benefit from these technological advances.

To start, government leaders must fully understand the advantages and consequences of AI disruption in Africa, and then deliberately respond to AI integration. Two areas of focus should be encouraging a transparent and dynamic regulatory environment, and implementing extensive education reform from primary school through university.

Regulation around AI must be transparent to encourage innovation while simultaneously providing guidelines in line with international best practices. Local governments in particular must be careful not to reflexively block or overregulate AI. Some African countries like Rwanda, however, are already embracing AI. In 2016, the Rwandan government signed a deal with Zipline, a drone delivery service that delivers medicine and blood to otherwise difficult-to-reach areas and has put every Rwandan within 30 minutes of life-saving medical supplies. Local governments can also use AI to their advantage through services such as customer service chatbots, security camera footage analysis, and even self-driving public transportation.

In the area of education, government oversight must go hand in hand with reform to ensure that citizens reap AI benefits instead of shouldering its burdens. In Ghana, for example, school curricula still tends to focus on rote memorization, rather than honing the creative and analytical ability of young minds. Africa’s education systems must adapt to the needs of the near-future job market, focusing on the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from an early age. African state universities should also provide grants within the fields of STEM and information and communications to help bolster domestic research and application, as well as ensure equitable access to advanced technological studies for underprivileged students. The faculties developed in these areas of study are critical for developing the analytical and technical skills young people need to excel in a job market changed by AI.

Investors also have a role to play in ensuring that the AI revolution benefits everyday Africans. Investors must support the long-term growth of people as well as profits. They can do this through investing in companies that use AI for social and developmental good, such as Zipline, or by partnering with civil society groups. Investing in tech hubs is another way investors can ensure that AI permeates all segments of society and the economy to best serve Africans’ needs. Kenya’s iHub is an ideal of example of this phenomenon; it is Africa’s most successful technology hub and has received funding from partners like Omidyar Network. Founded in Silicon Valley, Omidyar now has African offices in Nairobi and Johannesburg, and regularly invests in emerging tech companies like Giraffe, a South African online marketplace connecting mid-skilled employees to employers.

While AI may be a cause for concern in some African markets, it could ultimately be a boon. Beyond the social innovation AI promises for Africa, intelligent machinery and processes present a rare opportunity for economic transformation. Given Africa’s successful leapfrogging with mobile telephony and banking, it is well-positioned to tackle the AI revolution with agility and innovation. The challenge for Africa lies not in maneuvering AI as a vehicle, but in ensuring that it has capable drivers in government, industry, and civil society.