Singularity University co-founder, and renowned Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, said: “We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to make major strides in addressing the grand challenges of humanity. AI will be the pivotal technology in achieving this progress. We have a moral imperative to realize this promise while controlling the peril. It won’t be the first time we’ve succeeded in doing this.”

As we gain a better understanding of the scope, and depth of possibilities opened up by AI-based technologies, we’re starting to see some impressive developments that are addressing grand challenges in the areas of healthcare, education and agriculture across the African continent.  

AI in healthcare

The African continent is in dire need of better healthcare. Many of the continent’s doctors seek work abroad, there is a prevalence of fake medicines and practitioners, and patients living in remote and rural areas have limited access to clinics. Even in the busy cities, available hospitals are often understaffed and under-equipped, and simply cannot cope with the volume of people they need to treat on a daily basis. This overload is exacerbated by local clinics transferring patients to larger hospitals due to a lack of skills and medicine.

In South Africa, there are a number of new health-tech platforms that are working hard to improve the medical sector. Essential Medical Guidance (EMGuidance) is a mobile, and web-based clinical support platform for medical professionals that provides instant access to locally relevant medicines, information, clinical guidelines, tools and care coordination information. A lite version of the platform is also available in eight other African countries. Their recently launched free offering for public and private hospitals, is already being used by Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. It lets hospitals publish their own guidelines, medicine, formularies and call rosters in the app, which creates huge efficiencies for the hospitals using it.

Cape-based start-up, Aviro Health, is focused on creating digital health solutions that enable everyone to access high-quality healthcare. Their flagship product, Ithaka, is a mobile platform that empowers patients to navigate healthcare systems and manage their medical journeys for chronic conditions such as diabetes or HIV. Nurses in primary care settings are already using the company’s ART Treatment Mentor to help treat HIV patients, while UCT pharmacology uses it as part of an HIV hotline. Not just for South African’s the app is currently in use by Jhpiego, a public health group in the Ivory Coast.

Kenya’s ConnectMed mDaktari app enables patients to use video links like Skype to consult a doctor either once-off about a condition, or to receive continuous support for a chronic disease. Understanding that not all patients will have access to personal mobile devices, the company plans to roll out physical computer stations in pharmacies and cyber cafes to enable access for all. Through the service, patients are able to get a diagnosis, prescriptions, sick-notes, and referrals should they be needed. In Rwanda, Babyl Health provides a comparable solution.

ConnectMed’s users can be treated for minor ailments such as cold and flu symptoms, coughs, sinus infections, sore throat, urinary tract infections, gastric issues such as heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, vomiting or diarrhoea, and can receive sexual health advice and contraception, and address children’s health and common illnesses, as well as anxiety and minor depression, among others.

The ConnectMed team is currently using AI technology to develop a Symptom Checker that advises patients on if and how urgently they need medical care based on their symptoms and history;

Zipline, whose drones are powered by AI technology, is working directly with Rwanda’s National Centre for Blood Transfusion, making as many as 150 deliveries of lifesaving blood platelets to 21 transfusing facilities daily, in western Rwanda. The possibilities arising from the use of drones, including the delivery of vaccines and other life-saving medicines, are a game-changer on the continent.

SOPHiA Genetics’ clinical genomics solution is being integrated into the clinical workflow of hospitals in Cameroon, Morocco and South Africa. SOPHiA is helping to analyse patients’ genomic profiles enabling doctors to offer better diagnosis and care.

Digital health solutions have certainly moved passed the early offerings which were predominantly focused on being able to book appointments online. Today, across the continent, patient healthcare records and history are digitally captured so they’re available to be accessed by whichever medical practitioner can see the patient on that particular day.  

AI for precision agriculture

While much of Africa still uses traditional farming methods, companies across the globe are using AI to develop autonomous robots that are capable of handling essential agriculture tasks such as harvesting. Deep-learning algorithms are helping to analyse drone, and software-captured data, providing valuable insights for crop maintenance and soil health; and machine learning models are being used to predict environmental impacts on crop yield.

Innovations in the African Agri-tech sector have increased over the past two years, particularly in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. Advancements in this space are helping farmers to access affordable, modern farming technologies that are helping to improve productivity and income.

Disrupt Africa’s Agrinnovating for Africa: Exploring the African Agri-Tech Startup Ecosystem Report 2018, records 82 agri-tech start-ups in operation across Africa by the start of 2018, with 52 per cent of these ventures launched in the past two years.

Today, cell phones applications are enabling farmers in many ways, empowering them with information such as local weather updates, allowing them to monitor soil moisture, or alert them to potential plant disease and pest infestations and how to treat them.

Kenya’s UjuziKilimo provides farmers with real-time, actionable, sensor-based data coupled with advice on fertilizers, seeds, weather and best practices to ensure they practice productive and sustainable agriculture. The platform uses machine learning, and data analytics, coupled with a comprehensive agricultural database and precise farm data, to provide detailed insights for their farmers and service providers.

In South African aerial data-analytics company, Aerobotics, is using drones and machine learning to enable farmers in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the UK to better manage their crops, and detect early stage problems.

A positive view of the future

AI and other exponential technologies do have the power to solve some of Africa’s grand challenges, and we should approach the potential with a positive view as the AI will enable us as humans to do and be much more just like electricity did in the industrial revolution. It’s exciting to see a number of AI start-ups in South Africa and across the continent. Now is the time for more constructive conversations, for the exchange of ideas, and for more collaborations between futurists, technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators. AI offers the chance to overcome obstacles, and create new marketplaces that will benefit everyone.