When one thinks of artificial intelligence (AI), major corporations working out of leading tech hubs like Silicon Valley and – with a growing presence – London come to mind. Africa, on the other hand, hasn’t yet taken a seat at the solution-driven AI table, with little to no contribution in this space at present. With the application and development of AI technologies being as essential to our current age as the adoption of electricity was to preceding generations, can Africa catch up and join the revolution?
Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of Xineoh – highlights that the factors which make these tech hubs such constructive environments for growth and innovation in the AI space have not been prioritised by Africa, and South Africa as the economic powerhouse of the continent.
He says, “If you look at London and San Francisco, not only are they both frontier cities which breed a culture of mutual trust and risk taking, but they are home to some of the best universities in the world. With more people within the surrounding communities accessing high-quality education, the societies of both cities are highly specialised in skills required by the market.”
“What’s more, they have developed a clear, tried and tested approach to market entry for skilled workers and start-ups.”
Chinner explains that, apart from Xineoh’s innovative machine learning solution, the skills and policies required to develop a thriving African tech hub simply don’t exist. “There are only two options of doing so: bringing in skills from Silicon Valley to develop our industry, or putting the pieces in place to create our own. Regardless of which route is decided on, the plan needs to be clarified and implemented sooner rather than later if the continent is going to stand a chance of catching up to the established global players.”
So, what is needed for South Africa to put Africa on the AI map?
Chinner says, “There are two places which stand out as potential African tech hubs – Johannesburg and Cape Town. I think that Johannesburg is the most likely option due to the historic risk-taking culture of the city as well as the number of universities it holds. In our own experience at Xineoh, we have also definitely noticed that Johannesburg-based businesses are more open to, and interested in, implementing AI solutions.”
“However, according to Element-AI, there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0. So, the first thing that needs greater priority is developing the skills required.”
He suggests that young innovators look to gain practical experience as early on as they can and not to wait until after they complete their studies to begin applying the theory learnt at university.
“Getting an internship while you are studying will not only afford you much needed experience before officially entering the working world, but will also help you better grasp the theory in your coursework – there is no better way of learning than by actually doing. I’d also consider online courses from Stanford University and MIT.”
“For those who have the opportunity to do so, I’d recommend going to Silicon Valley for a period of time to get some experience on small projects and become familiar with the global standards,” says Chinner.
He adds that South African workplace and immigration policies are another factor which government leaders would need to review if the country is to attract skills from abroad, noting that foreign talent would find it really difficult to obtain leave to remain in South Africa as opposed to other destinations like Dubai. “Policy makers should also keep in mind that these professionals, while they have the knowledge and experience to upskill our local talent, may not fit current affirmative action requirements.”
Having built the first generalisable consumer behaviour algorithm in the world and taking its place as the first African AI start-up to be funded out of the US West Coast and acquired by a Silicon Valley company, Chinner adds that Xineoh is pioneering the South African AI industry. “We’re also doing our part in creating awareness of the opportunities presented by new innovations and machine learning solutions within the private sector.”
“Many South African organisations operating within our borders, and across the continent, are unaware of the kind of technology their global competitors are investing in and while big corporates may think that their current data science skills are cutting-edge, they do not even begin to compare to the global standard.”
“Businesses getting a taste of a standardised solution like Xineoh will undoubtedly come to realise the power of AI.” Chinner concludes that with a few additions to the list of national priorities, the door is open for Africa to join the AI revolution.