Created by Zain Verjee, a former CNN correspondent, and Mathew Cullen, a Grammy-winning director, Ndoto uses artificial intelligence to depict the effect of climate change in Africa.  

Floods in Nigeria and Mali. The Sahara’s descent into the Sahel. Drought in the Horn of Africa. Combined, they have caused severe loss of life, money, and property in the last three years. The drought in the Horn of Africa alone has displaced 1.5 million people and killed 13 million livestock. Zain Verjee, a former CNN correspondent, and Mathew Miguel Cullen, a Grammy award-winning director, want to change how you visualise these effects of climate change in Africa. 

The pair created Ndoto, the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) film on climate change, to depict these effects in Africa in a way that is “not like standard stereotypes”. Africa contributes only 3% of greenhouse gas emissions, seven times less than China, but faces the most risk from climate change. “It is the most important topic of our generation and an existential threat to humanity,” Verjee told TechCabal. 

The film, which took a week to complete, combines a beautiful and devastating approach to showing the dangers of climate change. Images of children and scenery from Africa depict the gravity of climate change, but in a way that deviates from stereotypes about Africa. “I wanted to capture it in a way where we had fragility, beauty, and, most importantly, humanity central to the film,” Cullen said. 

An image from Ndoto

The film was made using Runway ML, an AI video creator, and an in-house tool built by Mirada Studios, the studio co-founded by Cullen and Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pacific Rim and The Shape of Water. These AI tools created thousands of images, although only a few made it to Ndoto. 

Verjee told TechCabal that AI was preferred over the traditional filmmaking method because it allows Africans to tell creative stories in an accessible way. “We can create something that can be beautiful,” she said.

With AI, Ndoto was created in minimal time and with almost no cost. “[Ndoto] felt almost like a proof of concept that you can do incredible work and overcome many challenges that typically exist with the precision of algorithms and the creativity of humans,” Verjee, who has visited more than two dozen African countries, said.

An image from Ndoto.

The choice to use artificial intelligence was influenced by the need to display the impact of climate change on Africa without approaching it from a doomsday angle, Verjee told TechCabal. 

Working on Ndoto is not the first time the pair has worked on a film to showcase Africa. They had earlier partnered on another film titled Unstoppable Africa, which was presented to the United Nations General Assembly and featured music from Grammy Award-winning musician, Angelique Kidjo, and Nigerian singer, Mr Eazi. 

Verjee is also working on Wanja, an AI chatbot built with data curated by The Rundown, a modern media academy cofounded by Verjee. Wanja was built using retrieval augmented generation, a technique introduced by Meta AI researchers, and can give users accurate information on Africa. Although the chatbot is not yet available for public use, tests by TechCabal show that Wanja is knowledgeable about climate, sports, and the creative industry in Africa. 

“It’s our attempt to shape Africa’s storytelling using powerful, authentic, credible, and curated datasets of expertise that we are allowing a large language model to access,” Verjee said about Wanja. 

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