Insights on AI, inclusion, and innovation from Tech Connect Africa: Accra

By Akua Sencherey, Senior Product Marketing Manager

Many people in the African diaspora travel to Accra, the capital of Ghana, in December for a “homecoming” to celebrate rich culture with music, fashion, food, and meetups. Accra was the perfect backdrop for a conference hosted by Tech Connect Africa to discuss innovation, progress, and resilience in the African tech scene, as well as the emergence of AI on the continent.

Tech Connect Africa is a global social enterprise with the mission to unite the global African diaspora and build a future of tech that embodies culture, connection, and community. At their final event of the year, the conference not only celebrated advancements in AI, but also highlighted the critical need for inclusive design and diverse voices in shaping technology that serves collective needs, rather than just individual productivity.

Bridging personal efficiency and societal transformation with AI

When I think about Generative AI, I usually see it as a tool to enhance my personal productivity and enable me to wear multiple hats. However, I recently realized that its influence goes far beyond that. At the Tech Connect Africa event, there was a strong emphasis on the broader impact of AI, highlighting the importance of collective impact and inclusivity. In particular, there were discussions about building AI that truly represents and serves diverse communities.

On a panel with exceptional female tech leaders, Kat Black, AI/ML GTM Strategist at Google, emphasized the need to stick to design principles when building AI. It’s important to define the real use case and need to be met, who the need brings value to, and determine the appropriate solution(s) to be built. This advice was very reminiscent of lessons I learned from Annie Jean-Baptiste’s book, Building For Everyone: Expand Your Market With Design Practices From Google's Product Inclusion Team, which stresses the creation of more inclusive products in our increasingly diverse world: 

“To create for the world we live in, we must build in an environment that reflects that world. We cannot build for people without understanding them, their needs, their preferences, and what disappoints and upsets them and makes them feel excluded.”

Kat Black's insights at the event and connecting principles in Annie Jean-Baptiste’s book, underline the importance of creating AI with a deep understanding of diverse user needs. This approach is not just about enhancing individual efficiency, but about harnessing AI's power to address broader societal challenges.

What’s one practical way that this starts? Bring diverse voices, especially those from the African diaspora, to the table. This will help uncover new challenges, provide proper context, and test the right solutions to make a true impact for change.

Language as a gateway: AI's role in enhancing communication

The conference highlighted two clear examples of what an inclusive design process might produce given proper thought. Before I share, let me tell you a little story from my time in Accra. 

It's 11 am, and I'm ready to head out for the day to join new and old friends for brunch in Osu. I open my Uber app and see a lot of digital cars hovering around Oxford Street. I enter my destination and wait for the app to work its magic. My ride is secured, and I'm about to walk out the door, but then, a minute into the four-minute wait, the Uber cancels. “Okayyy,” I say to myself. I then request a new ride. Another two minutes go by, and another Uber cancels. “Hmmmm,” I start to get worried. Trying my luck again, third time's the charm, I see my digital Uber approaching my location. Then, I received a phone call from the driver. “Hello, good morning. Please, where are you going?” I'm honestly a little annoyed at this point because the app clearly shows the restaurant location for directions. “I'm going to Buka in Osu. It's about a 10-minute drive from me,” I reply. “Okay, I know Buka. Please, I'm coming.” Needless to say, I made it to Buka, later than expected, but ready to enjoy my Ghanaian African fare.

Google Maps Local Language Initiative

Rideshare cancellations are a common experience in Accra, which is why Google’s work with AI and language is crucial in transforming this experience for drivers and riders. Kwaku Agbesi, Head of Strategic Partnerships, Sub-Saharan Africa at Google talked about Google Africa’s local language initiative, outlining some of the key research insights that led to the need to update local map technology. Given that Google’s default spoken language sounds like an American man or woman (or British man or woman), it’s often confusing for locals to understand their accent as they pronounce local street names. If that sounds like the app butchering the names of Agbawe Road or Adjoate Street in Osu, that means the driver may miss the turn which may add time to the pickup ETA, causing cancellations, delays, and frustrations for the end user. Agbesi pointed out that the way digital maps are laid out may be confusing to drivers altogether given how locals tend to give instructions based on landmarks or with back and forth dialogue. Google is using AI to help translate directions in local languages and speak in the drivers’ native tongue. Understanding this gave me a lot more empathy for my Uber driver!

Duolingo adds Zulu Language

Another unique and contextual example of language and AI is Duolingo’s introduction of Zulu to the language learning app in late 2022. This was the app’s second featured bantu language after Swahili and the importance of including this and more speaks magnitudes. Jemimah Orevaoghene, Director at Morgan Stanley, shared the perfect example of why this matters. A middle-aged woman living in Cape Town, South Africa experiences the vast change of the city happening all around her. She eagerly wants to be a part of the evolution of her city, but finds that the language barrier stands in the way of her participating in the growth in her community. Fast forward to Duolingo’s Zulu language and she can now learn English from Zulu and begin to connect in real life to ensure that she isn’t left behind. In this example, AI makes a 1:1 transformation that unlocks community connection and participation for one, but also for a generation to come.

InstaDeep's story: local innovation to global impact

There are many pivotal moments in 2023 that defined the African tech landscape, but my favorite example encapsulates the value and success of African AI, inclusion, and collective impact. Mentioned on the panel was InstaDeep, a Tunisian-born AI solutions company that was acquired in early 2023 by Germany’s largest vaccine maker BioNTech.

The company only pivoted to AI in 2017 after humble beginnings in web design. As a Harvard Business School case study outlines, the company’s co-founders realized AI could be used to solve long standing industrial problems, such as container packing or route optimization. By 2021, the company had two products: the printed circuit board routing system DeepPCB, and DeepChain, an AI-based protein design system for drug research.

The InstaDeep technologies leverage what’s called “reinforcement learning,” a type of machine learning that adapts quickly to new tasks by using what was learned from similar prior tasks. Reinforcement learning can be used to optimize strategies in a wide range of industries. Besides biotechnology, InstaDeep’s technology has found a place in industries such as logistics, electronics manufacturing, and financial services

InstaDeep's journey, culminating in its acquisition by BioNTech, exemplifies this shift from small to large-scale impact. Initially focusing on localized needs, InstaDeep's AI solutions have now scaled globally, showcasing how building the right product for the right use case can lead to substantial collective advancements. This story exemplifies the untapped potential and value of African tech.

Final thoughts

The insights I gained from Tech Connect Africa have been instrumental in helping me make a pivotal mindset shift in application of AI. Previously, my focus was on enhancing personal efficiency to drive collective societal progress. From Google’s local language initiative to Duolingo's inclusion of Zulu, each example presented at the event demonstrates how AI can foster community connection and address diverse needs. These insights are invaluable for my role as a Product Marketer, as they highlight the need to build better products with inclusion at the forefront and the importance of understanding AI's broader implications. Recognizing AI's potential for collective impact equips me to market products that are not only innovative but also socially relevant and inclusive, catering to a more diverse and global audience.

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