Kathy Gibson reports from Gitex Africa 2024 – As the world’s economies become increasingly digital, artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to play a major role in boosting GDPs around the globe.

Lavina Ramkissoon, UN University Centre of Policy Research, points out that AI is expected to have a global impact on GDP (gross domestic product) amounting to $15,7-trillion.

Given that Africa currently reports a GDP of $3-trillion, AI could prove to be a massive boon. “If we can get just 10% of the $15,7-trillion that AI is set to generate, that’s $1,5-trillion for the African economy, which is large and relevant.”

Africa will succeed in this only if it is intentional about what it needs to do, and how it goes about doing it.

Regulation is a good place to start, she adds. “Today, there are just eight African countries that have an AI strategy. That’s one with a policy and seven with some form of strategy to adapt existing policies. So we still have a long way to go, although people are starting to do the necessary work.”

Laying out clear strategies and policies will help to attract the right kind of investments, Ramkissoon says. “AI could be the Willy Wonka of the technology industry, churning out ideas and revenue – as long as we are precise and deliberate in what we decide to apply AI to.”

The important thing is that AI could give us the opportunity to reset our economies, she adds. But Africa, in particular, has to make an effort to bridge the ever-widening digital divide.

“Too many people are still being left out,” says Ramkissoon. “So we have to create spaces where everyone has access to technology at affordable rates.

“The magic equation is technology and impact – and they need to be in balance with one another.”

Christina Yan Zhang, from the Metaverse Institute in the UK, agrees that access for all Africa’s citizens is important. But it won’t be possible to achieve it unless we tackle the continent’s major infrastructure challenges.

“AI is a big consumer of resources,” she points out. “And this demands attention be placed on the infrastructure.”

The digital divide is very real and conspicuous in Africa. “One-third of the global population is not even connected to the Internet, with 2,6-billion people currently offline.”

Energy poverty is another big reality. “In Africa, there is limited access to electricity: 620-million people – two-thirds of the population – have no access to electricity.

“The reality is that you cannot do anything digital without good infrastructure.”

Yan Zhang advocates for African governments to develop effective public-private partnerships (PPPs) that build some of the fundamental infrastructure that can get people access to electricity and online.

The continent must also look to its skills development and retention, with the “brain drain” or African diaspora a real challenge when we’re aiming to build a high-tech digital economy based on AI.

Yan Zhang highlights the scale of the skills shortage by pointing out that 40-million African migrants live outside Africa – a number that is increasing al the time.

“We need to attract the best talent to the region, and part of this is about supporting economic growth.”

Dr Juergen Rahmel, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, believes that AI and large language models (LLMs) could be an equaliser and facilitator to reduce the digital divide.

“Traditional AI – data science, expert systems, fuzzy logic etc – was accessible to experts only, and used in companies that owned a lot of data.

“GenAI, on the other hand, is more accessible to everyone. With the easy to use interface, consumers feel they can get good answers, and refine the result.

“The question is how can we use that?”

While exploring the use of AI to overcome skills shortages, Rahmel warns that getting tied into the hyperscalers’ model could have unintended consequences.

“The  big tech companies provide users with the cloud environment, along with pre-trained AI models. But people don’t recognise the dependencies you get with this model.

“Yes, you can build a lot with it, and use it to create efficiencies, but you could end up creating a dependency.”

On a national level, education is key to addressing the issues. “We should also aim to build a forum where individual and countries can trade skills.”