Technological innovations that African states are so proud of are often based on Western technologies, and the world’s largest IT companies, such as Microsoft, IBM and Google, under the pretext of introducing and localising their innovative technical solutions into the IT sector of African countries strive to gain a strong foothold in the promising African market, writes Konstantin Pantserev.
Advanced technology has long been seen by African countries as a key tool that can provide new impetus to the development of their economies, making them more innovative.
However, today African countries do not have the appropriate financial, material or technological resources to develop local information infrastructure and transition to having an innovative economy. In order to catch up with Western countries in their development, they have to resort to the help of the same Western states, which, skilfully speculating on the financial dependence of their African partners, force them to carry out the necessary reforms to open the African information market for their telecommunications enterprises in order to strengthen their positions in region. Undoubtedly, this circumstance poses a serious threat to the technological sovereignty of African countries.
Let us note that initially, when information technology began to penetrate the African continent, African countries set a course for implementing the strict government regulation of the information and telecommunications sectors of the economy. However, under the pressure of leading world powers seeking to gain a foothold in the African information market and providing broad support for the creation of modern information and communication infrastructure in Africa, most African states were forced to completely liberalise this segment. As a result, the investors took almost complete control of the continent’s information and telecommunications industry. An example is the Kenyan telecommunications company Telkom Kenya, where a controlling stake was bought in the early 2000s by the French company France Telecom when the need arose to modernise its capacities.
In general, if we talk about the technological development of African countries, then we should highlight 2 key stages:
1. 2000-2010: the penetration of information technology into African countries and the creation of an information and communication infrastructure; a broadband communication system that connected African countries with the global communications chain.
2. 2010s – present: active implementation of developments based on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Today, there are over 150 different start-ups operating in sub-Saharan Africa that utilise AI technologies.
For example, Cameroon’s Agrix Technology offers an artificial intelligence platform that identifies plant diseases and suggests treatment options. A farmer can scan a sample of an affected plant directly with a smartphone and without the Internet. The app has text and voice recognition options in local African languages. In South Africa, financial and insurance companies are actively using chat bots to answer consumer questions about financial products. In the banking sector, AI now makes decisions about issuing a loan or insuring a vehicle.
Thus, we see that today AI technologies are beginning to be actively used by African countries in a variety of areas in order to reduce the gap with the leading world powers. However, despite the fact that over the past 10 years African countries have indeed made significant progress in this direction, they still face a number of serious problems:
1. Providing broadband high-speed Internet access to the population. Today, only 22% of the urban population and 10% of the rural population have high-speed Internet, and the effectiveness of the use of AI technologies, as is known, directly depends on the availability of high-quality high-speed Internet.
2. Training of highly qualified personnel in the IT field. Today, this problem is gradually beginning to be resolved, but nevertheless, only 25% of graduates of African higher education institutions specialise in applied mathematics and computer science. This is also due to the fact that there are not very many relevant educational centres throughout the continent. As a result, many promising young specialists are often forced to leave the continent to receive a high-quality technical education abroad. Not all of them come back.
3. Creation of AI laboratories equipped with sufficiently powerful computer equipment capable of developing and training hybrid intelligent systems.
4. Availability of an extensive network of data processing centres and data warehouses. There is currently an extreme imbalance in the distribution of data centres across the continent. Today there are about 60 of them in Africa. Most of them (about 40) are located in South Africa and belong not to African companies, but to foreign IT giants: Microsoft, IBM, Amazon.
5. Development of domestic software, which is an indispensable condition for ensuring technological sovereignty for any state. This is due to the fact that exclusively domestic software will be maximally adapted to local conditions. At present, we have to admit that the main software suppliers for African countries continue to be Microsoft and other Western corporations, whose licenses, as a rule, do not imply, or rather even directly prohibit making any changes to the code of computer programmes.
It is clear that in order to solve such problems as the creation of domestic software and AI laboratories themselves, equipped with the latest technology, a strong financial and technological base is required, which African countries, for obvious reasons, do not possess. As a result, any technological innovations that African states are so proud of are often based on Western technologies, and the world’s largest IT companies, such as Microsoft, IBM and Google, under the pretext of introducing and localising their innovative technical solutions into the IT sector of African countries strive to gain a strong foothold in the promising African market. The most famous example in this regard is the opening in 2018 by Google Corporation in Accra of the AI Research Center in Africa. On the one hand, such initiatives indeed stimulate the development of technology in Africa, but on the other hand, they threaten the technological sovereignty of African countries.
However, the question of how these problems should be solved remains open. Today, one thing is clear – the solution to these problems is complex and the governments of African countries must involve all parties in solving them: academia; business, civil society; politicians and regulators. But the most important thing is to attract local African investors to IT projects. In our opinion, only in this case is it possible to organise an effective exchange of experience and search for optimal solutions in order to meet specific local and regional needs.