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The rise of generative AI gives Africa another leapfrog opportunity

By , Group Chief Information and Technology Officer, Absa Group.
16 Feb 2024
Johnson Idesoh, Group Chief Information and Technology Officer at Absa Group.
Johnson Idesoh, Group Chief Information and Technology Officer at Absa Group.

Generative artificial intelligence (AI), which is capable of producing conversational text, code, images, video and audio, provides Africa with another opportunity to leapfrog older technologies and enhance its development – although a number of risks need to be managed along the way.

Africa has done this before with other technological revolutions. For instance, the continent largely skipped landline telephones and went straight to mobile, in the process developing a highly sophisticated fintech ecosystem – which has played a major role in plugging the financial inclusion gap and lifting economic growth rates. Look no further than MPesa in Kenya.

The next opportunity to bypass outdated technologies has arrived. Led by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, generative AI is breaking down language barriers and democratising AI tools, education, and the dissemination of information more broadly.

For Africa as a whole, the benefits could be immense, from productivity enhancements to advancing financial and digital inclusion.

On the productivity front, Absa Group is already seeing the benefits on a micro scale. Around 350 of our web developers have been using generative AI as a virtual assistant, and the consensus is that their productivity rates have improved by a substantial 40%.

Productivity gains of this magnitude would be a huge boost for Africa, whose growth is being at least partly curbed by a shortage of specialised skills, at least for the time being. Recognising that technology is the commodity, but having the right people with the right skills in place to take the tech forward in an ethical manner is critical.

At the same time, the technology can be harnessed to further advance financial and digital inclusion.

On the ‘back-end’, it can help financial service providers to develop products faster and, on the ‘front-end’, such as on a banking app, it can assist customers in a more conversational way. Customer and client interactions such as onboarding, account setup and servicing can be streamlined and made smarter. In so doing, generative AI can be leveraged to improve the understanding and therefore adoption of products such as insurance, which are critical financial safety nets that help households to recover from natural disasters or theft but remain vastly underutilised on the continent.

African entrepreneurs and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) can also use the technology to create innovative solutions to uniquely African challenges.

These endeavours previously required significant capital investment. However, in the era of generative AI, cloud computing and big data, human capital is the order of the day, and this clearly favours Africa.

The continent has a fast-growing and youthful population, rich in soft skills such as empathy, and has already produced highly innovative digital companies that are solving some of the continent’s challenges.

Moove, for example, developed a revenue-based vehicle financing model to assist mobility entrepreneurs in need of funding. The fintech started in Lagos but has since expanded across the continent.

It is not surprising then that global technology giants are expanding into Africa, which could start to position itself as a new hub of innovation.

Further, there are opportunities to build an industry around improving generative AI itself. For example, Africa could train a large cohort of “prompt engineers”, whose job is to craft queries in such a way that AI models are better able to understand local languages and nuances.

For now, most AI models are trained in the Chinese and English language, which means nuance is often lost in large parts of the world.

To make the most of these opportunities, Africa will need to accelerate efforts to bridge the digital divide and equip its youth with the necessary skills.

Here, large corporates, including financial services companies and telecommunications groups, have an important role to play. Absa is intent on playing its part by upskilling its workforce and constantly adapting its tech learnership programmes.

Mitigating risks

There is, of course, the other side to the AI boom. In particular, the technology risks exacerbating cybersecurity challenges while also strengthening our defences. And it causes concern, in many cases needlessly, about job displacement.

This makes it even more important for governments and companies to remain ahead of the curve, and requires proactive policymaking, education, and training initiatives, as well as collaboration between regulators, industries, schools, and universities.

Pushing back against this technological revolution would be futile. Instead, we must carefully manage its risks and ensure the continent is well placed to capitalise on it.

At Absa, we are actively exploring generative AI use cases and are building our skills in this area as we embark on the next phase of our digital transformation.

As a start, we plan to use this technology to make our chatbots more conversational so that we can better service our clients, and many of our employees are using it as a virtual assistant, often to summarise complex reports or to make sense of large data sets.

We do, however, understand that AI models are only as good as the data that feeds them, which is why all consequential decisions will continue to remain in the hands of our employees.

We believe that, when combined with deeply human qualities such as empathy and creativity, generative AI is fast becoming a competitive advantage for companies – as well as a major opportunity for Africa. 

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