Globally, stakeholders are talking about the need to regulate Artificial Intelligence. African governments have developed regulations to drive the adoption of AI on the continent, but there is still a burning question of Africa’s place in the ongoing debate.
Like the rest of the world, Africa has caught the AI bug. For context, there are over 2,400 AI organisations operating across various industries on the continent. TechCabal has reported how AI is impacting the lives of Africans, from creating a music album in three days to revolutionising edtech startups, and even helping our English-speaking colleague navigate his way in a Francophone nation.
As AI continues to gain traction globally, concerns have been raised about privacy, bias, and safety, resulting in a growing consensus that Al needs to be regulated. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, creators of the smash-hit AI chatbot ChatGPT, recently appeared before a US Senate committee to talk about the risks and potential of AI language models.
According to the 2023 AI Index Report released by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, policymaker interest in AI is on the rise: an analysis of the legislative records of 127 countries shows that the number of bills containing “artificial intelligence” that were passed into law grew from just one in 2016 to 37 in 2022.
The European Union (EU) has proposed far-reaching legislation—known as the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act—to bolster regulations on the development and use of AI. At their recent meeting, leaders of the G7 countries stressed “the importance of international discussions on AI governance and interoperability between AI governance frameworks”. OpenAI leaders also proposed an international regulatory body to govern AI in a short note recently published on the company’s website.
Where is Africa in all of this?
In truth, Africa is very much a part of the AI conversation, and African governments have been quick to develop regulations to ramp up the adoption of the technology. The reasons aren’t far-fetched. AI could help combat poverty, unemployment, and a host of other social and economic challenges on the continent, according to experts. A recent report projects that AI could expand Africa’s economy by a staggering US$1.5 trillion—half of its current gross domestic product (GDP)—if the continent could only capture 10% of the fast-growing AI market.
Mauritius was the first country in Africa to publish a national AI strategy. In 2021, Egypt launched its national AI strategy to deepen the use of AI technologies and transform the economy. Kenya, on the other hand, has an AI task force that is creating guidance on how AI technologies can be used to further the country’s development. Tunisia has created an AI-focused industry association. In Botswana, the government encourages organisations to set up research labs in the country and gather AI talent.
In 2021, Rwanda established a technology centre of excellence focused on digitalisation and AI, and is working on an AI strategy. Nigeria currently doesn’t have a national policy on AI, but its National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy 2020-2030 [pdf] published in 2019 led to the creation of the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. The African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) is also working on “The African Union Artificial Intelligence Continental Strategy For Africa.”
A long way to go
It is clear that there is a growing concern for the responsible development and deployment of AI in Africa. While the regulations introduced by African countries differ, they all aim to address ethical considerations such as data privacy, bias, and transparency. As the use of AI continues to expand on the continent, it is likely that more countries will follow in introducing regulations to guide its development and deployment.
Rasheed Abass, a lecturer at the University of Lagos who specialises in AI, says AI adoption in Africa is still evolving, hence regulating the technology requires a more pragmatic approach. “For now, our level of adoption in Africa is low. I know there are several research centres and organisations focused on AI on the continent, but the impact of the existing regulations will not be felt until we ramp up adoption,” he told TechCabal over a call.
Africa isn’t ready for mature AI legislation
Regulating AI in Africa is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires careful consideration and collaboration. Kingsley Owadara, an AI researcher, noted that the pace of regulating AI on the continent is very slow. “Regulating AI could be seen from three perspectives. First from the point of a law enacted by a parliament, second in the form of strategies toward the adoption of AI, and finally policies. The question of regulation especially in the African context is that Africa isn’t mature to have full-blown regulation on AI because Africa lacks the level of technology advancement that exists in developed nations,” he said.
Owadara further stated that Africa isn’t ready to have an AI act like the EU because such legislation must be thoroughly formulated to reflect the modern realities and future aspirations of the continent. “What works best for Africa is to have policies and what policy does is to structure and guide how AI should be developed. Then in years to come, an Act can come up. It is important that African governments understand the technology first,” he added.
During his recent visit to Nigeria, Altman disclosed that the country is one of the biggest adopters of AI globally. This underscores Africa’s position as a hub for innovation and emerging technologies. But despite how popular ChatGPT is, some African countries—such as Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, and Sudan—don’t have access to the chatbot unless they use a virtual private network (VPN). On Wednesday, Open AI announced that the ChatGPT app for iOS is now available to users in 11 more countries—including Nigeria.
Regardless, Africa isn’t an afterthought in the global conversation on AI regulation. It remains an active participant, contributing to the development of ethical guidelines and regulations. With strategic planning, responsible regulations, and investments, the continent can position itself as a potential AI powerhouse.