As headlines continue to be dominated by AI policy discussions in the U.S. and Europe, it’s crucial to broaden our perspective to the global stage. This week, our focus turns to The African Union’s pivotal session on digital transformation, convening leaders from all 55 African nations for a four-day exploration of the continent’s digital future and AI strategy.
Taking place in Ethiopia, the summit initiated with three days of expert meetings, placing the Draft Conceptual Framework of the Continental Strategy on Artificial Intelligence at the forefront of discussions. Originating in August and still in progress, the framework aims to mold an ethical and economically prosperous AI strategy for the continent. It specifically targets key sectors such as education, health care, agriculture, and finance. The session provided a platform for continued deliberations on defining principles, strategic objectives, and considerations related to security and responsible AI use.
In a broader context, the members emphasized the pivotal role of AI in achieving the continent’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063—a 50-year development plan hailed as Africa’s “blueprint” for progress in economic development, political independence, democracy, gender equality, and the preservation of African cultural identity.
A press release from the African Union underscores the significance of AI, stating, “AI is important to Africa because of its economic, social, political, and geopolitical impact. AI technologies can stimulate economic growth by creating new industries, driving innovation, and generating employment opportunities. It can also support education and the preservation of African languages.”
The session concluded with member states committing to promoting digitalization efforts, addressing climate change, infrastructural development, and energy. The draft declaration also highlighted the urgency of issues surrounding data governance due to the proliferation of AI. It calls upon the African Union to support member states in developing national data governance systems and capabilities.
Despite a burgeoning scene of AI startups, groups, and conferences in Africa, global tech giants have largely shaped the narrative, reaping the benefits. Concerns arise from the overrepresentation of white, Western concepts in AI training data, leading to skewed outputs and potential harm to diverse populations. While the U.S., European nations, and groups like the G7 make critical decisions on global AI policy, Africa often finds itself underrepresented.
Additionally, Africa has witnessed a significant brain drain in AI, as talent is lured abroad by well-resourced and high-paying tech companies. A 2022 survey revealed that founders associated with the nonprofit Black in AI, born in sub-Saharan Africa, often pursue graduate studies in North America and remain there for work.
On the ground, data labelers in countries like Kenya and Uganda play a vital role in creating foundation models for tech giants. However, they grapple with minuscule pay and lack of participation in the benefits of AI technology.
In the closing remarks of the event, Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy of the African Union Commission, emphasized, “Digitalization is one of the greatest transformative opportunities of our time. Yet, too few people can truly access its benefits on our continent.” The challenges are evident, but the transformative potential of AI in Africa remains a beacon of opportunity for those who navigate them wisely.