In recent years, artificial intelligence has had a significant impact on many industries and will continue to benefit even more as it progresses.
Unsurprisingly, the Coronavirus-induced acceleration of technology adoption has led many countries to reassess where they are in terms of AI development for their advantage and growth.
Africa has a unique opportunity to drive transformation across every sector through artificial intelligence (AI). According to PWC’s global artificial intelligence study, AI will contribute $15.7 trillion to the global GDP, with $6.6 trillion estimated to be from increased productivity and $9.1 trillion from consumption effects.
Aside from the staggering figures, Africa has a lot to benefit from fully adopting artificial intelligence. From agriculture and health to education, AI can help address some peculiar challenges bedeviling the continent.
Global artificial intelligence pioneer and thought leader, Lavina Ramkissoon is of the opinion that AI should be understood as a means to help bridge the gaps of humanity, rather than creating something that is exactly like us.
Lavina is an advocate for Africa in terms of AI, and emerging tech. As an African representative, she’s spoken on various forums on a few different continents going as far as the European Union.
In an interview with techbuild.africa, Lavina shared her views on how AI can unearth the limitless potential of Africa’s technology ecosystem.
As an AI strategist with 20 years of experience in the tech space, she sees the adoption of AI as a journey that humanity takes to unlock the best within it.
“Even though it’s just a tool, I am a firm believer that it would help us to definitely bridge the gaps,” Lavina said.
One key element that is needed to help the ecosystem is the courage to be able to localize the technology that currently exists. Although AI could be applied in various ways, Lavina cited the health sector as an example of how it provides access to cheaper technology.
“We’ve had instances of drones being used for the deployment of vaccines during this Covid-19 pandemic, just to expedite the process and ensure that the masses get access to vaccines,” she added.
While many perceive AI to be a hardcore, efficient, though emotionless technology marvel, she maintained that artificial intelligence has the ability to give us more insights into who we are and even help us understand ourselves from a physiological perspective. It can help to bridge the little boundaries that humans have created as a society.
Data privacy and the global conundrum
While technology is pretty much amazing, it’s also being very misused. In recent times, issues of privacy policies in relation to digital citizenry are not given much attention.
Lavina is a staunch believer that every individual owns their data. When it comes to data, citizens should be empowered and able to make a choice in whether or not they choose to share their data, whether or not they choose to earn money from their data, whatever the case may be.
Africa is facing a conundrum whereby the masses are not aware of their rights. By creating technology awareness, citizens’ data rights awareness, and advocating for that, consumers will not only be aware of alternatives but are able to make informed decisions.
She argued that consumers need to become a lot more vocal, in terms of what they want or choose to use. While many often complain that there aren’t alternatives to Facebook or Google Search, not many have done enough research to find better options.
From a technology perspective, Lavina added that a lot has happened in the last five years. There are a lot more organizations that are pro-privacy and are more focused on end-users.
Using technology to unlock the potential of African youths
Going by Lavina’s wealth of experience, she believes that the African continent has great potential in terms of skills. She recalled, “I’ve seen a 16-year-old, developing an app for farmers that they could use free of charge. It can help farmers with leaf analysis and crop yielding and predictions. I believe that the talent is definitely there.”
In her view, what can unlock the capacity of African youths include access to skills, affordability of and access to technology. In addition, leadership needs to be tenfold embraced.
According to her, about 26% of African women sit on boards, not particularly in the healthcare sector, or the technology sector but nonprofits. The more Africa embraces diversity, the better it can unleash its true potential as a continent.
Application of AI in business
When asked how women-owned businesses can apply AI to drive growth, Lavina explained that implementing the technology in everyday life can bring them great value. Women-owned businesses regardless of the sector have an opportunity to take advantage of AI.
She asserted that artificial intelligence is a lot more accessible ranging from free-range products to very highly paid products and services that can enable women to reinvent a hybrid of their own businesses or MSMEs.
Using a practical example, she demonstrated how an SME that operates a health store can leverage AI. In Lavina’s opinion, one way to do this is to get the store online, offer more goods and/or services such as online coaching and online homeopathy.
She also suggested that on the site, a chatbot could also be designed for the health store to offer more assistance to potential buyers.
“I believe that the value is there. It’s just a matter of how we actually start understanding and point it in our own business,” she noted.
Advocating more women representation in AI
Data from the World Economic Forum shows that globally, women fill just 22% of AI jobs while men account for 78%.
According to Lavina, a recent Gartner study was carried out in Africa to find out the number of skills of men versus women in AI. She revealed that women didn’t make an inch on the graph. “There are a few of us, but they aren’t enough of us to make a massive difference”, she said.
“While the perception of the world is that men are better in AI, the playing field is not level because they’ve been involved in it for a longer period of time, they’ve had access to it for a longer period of time. And possibly, because they’ve had a great amount of support in it for a longer period of time”, she continued.
To onboard more women specifically in AI and generally in the tech space, it is imperative to start empowering girls in their formative years.
For Lavina, a proud mother of twin girls, she is convinced that children need access early on. She disclosed that her girls started coding at the age of eight and got accepted into the USA apprenticeship program by the age of 11.
“I expose them to as many different aspects of STEM. What they like is what they gravitated to and got involved with,” she explained
She urged parents, teachers, and educational institutions to have the same flexibility and understand the importance of exposing young ones to technology, and letting them choose the areas that interest them.
Beyond her immediate environment, she belongs to several organizations where she supports other women through internships, bursaries, access to courses, and mentoring among other opportunities.
Currently, she’s working with an organization called ‘Thousand Eyes on Me’ where she creates leadership content, answering questions such as ‘What does it actually mean to be a leader in technology? ‘What are some of the toolsets that we actually need and actually require?’
Lavina’s journey in tech
Speaking candidly, Lavina revealed that technology can be “a tough sort of audience to please.” As a woman in tech who’s experienced her share of bias, she learned very quickly that she had to find her voice.
“I think that one of the most empowering things that we as women could do is find our voice within our working space. To be accepted into the boardrooms, not just because you’re a woman, and they want to fill a quota, but because of your actual thoughts and ability”, she said.
As a respected thought leader and academic, she’s worked with the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, the UNDP, the University of Berkeley, Linux Foundation, and currently, the German Institute of Technology.
In 2019, Lavinia received the top 20 African woman trailblazers award. In addition, she made the list of the top 100 women in leadership globally for her contributions to the field of artificial intelligence. The Asian African Chamber of Commerce named her among the top 20 women to look up to in 2021.
Lavina is a Director of Founder Institute, Africa, and also volunteers as a mentor in several organizations. She sits on the board of various tech foundations in Nigeria and South Africa.
Featured Image: Lavina Ramkissoon, AI Strategist
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