To address his country’s barred access to OpenAI’s famous generative AI chatbot ChatGPT, Zimbabwean developer Kuda Musasiwa and his team have built alternatives—ZivAI and DanAI. These AI chatbots offer capabilities such as image and PDF generation, e-commerce, etc. Access to ChatGPT is barred in Zimbabwe as a result of the sanctions against the southern African nation by the US government and European Union.
Please tell us a bit more about ZivAI and the problem you are trying to solve through the chatbot
Kuda Musasiwa: Before building ZivAI, I was leading the biggest online retail store in Zimbabwe called Fresh In A Box. At Fresh In A Box we leveraged a lot of AI technologies, especially for our customer service side of things and one of these technologies, called Shamu and then renamed Lucille, eventually became ZivAI.
We built this bot because OpenAI had blocked Zimbabwe from accessing ChatGPT because of all the sanctions so we figured, using the open source API, we could build an alternative for our people. Leveraging our expertise in e-commerce, we were able to extend the chatbot’s functionalities beyond what ChatGPT has. For example, we have an image generator, PDF generator, news, and e-commerce capabilities, all baked into the chatbot.
We have also integrated a store into the platform which will be onboarding vendors in Zimbabwe and across the region this week. ZivAI is basically a co-pilot for Zimbabweans and we have another product, DanAI, which seeks to cover the rest of Africa and do its co-piloting role in a more relatable African context.
What was the motivation for building the chatbots?
KM: Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is a sanctioned state so companies like OpenAI do not bother trying to launch their products here. Additionally, we don’t have payment gateways like Stripe which work here so that’s another challenge for our people if they want to use these global products. So as entrepreneurs, it was a problem or challenge that we wanted to solve. We then set out to build our own payment gateways to facilitate transactions and we incorporated abroad to have access to some developer tools we need to build a really strong product.
In terms of challenges, which ones were most pressing when you were building the chatbots?
KM: Honestly, I wouldn’t say we had any challenges. Our development team is incredibly world class and we are really good at what we do as evidenced by our track record. As Zimbabweans, the only thing we need is access and unfortunately, as a result of the aforementioned sanctions, sometimes we do not get this access but we always try to find a way.
For example, a simple thing such as paying for a GitHub account or API access using a debit card is not as straightforward in Zimbabwe so we always have to find a way around that, but when it comes to expertise, I think we have that part well on lock.
What traction have the chatbots garnered so far?
KM: We have peaked at over 18,000 users on the platform at some point in the last few days. Additionally, we have authorised over 19,000 logins via Linkedin and Twitter. For the time being, we are not allowing Google and Facebook logins because we are trying to ensure that the traffic coming to the site via those platforms, which we anticipate will be a whole lot, does not throttle user experience. But we will be allowing access via those platforms very soon as we build up the resiliency of the platform.
We have also now uploaded the application onto the Apple and Android stores to make sure that people can have this on their phone, seeing that going to a website might not be as sticky when 90% of people access the internet via their mobile phones.
What are your thoughts on the advancement of generative AI chatbots in Africa?
KM: All the chatbots that we have right now in Africa and in the world are the worst that they can ever be right now because every single day, they get superior and they get better. So I want to be clear, this is the new way that computing is going to be done. This is the new way productivity is going to be done. And as Africans, we have a choice. Do we sit back and watch the world develop around us and not participate? Or do we jump in at this particular point, and make it a point that we are a part of the conversation?
Our biggest goal is to make sure that we have our own versions of these technologies that speak our languages and think like we do, hence representing us well in the international space.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length