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Scholars at Calestous Juma seminar explore place of innovation in SDGs

The late Prof Calestous Juma.

Scholars are calling for more research and training on innovation to empower African countries to creatively solve endemic problems such as hunger, climate change and disease burden.   

They say the continent will lag in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if it does not embrace and deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) solutions to its challenges. 

They spoke during last week’s 3rd installment of the Prof Calestous Juma memorial seminar series focusing on how AI and ML can accelerate realisation of SDGs in Africa. 

The two-day seminar was meant to create awareness on how Africa can develop its capacity to exploit the huge potential accorded by innovation enrich the lives of people in the continent. 

Specifically, the seminar focused on application and development of responsible AI and ML and showcased cutting edge research projects undertaken in the continent under the umbrella of a flagship programme on Artificial Intelligence for Development in Africa (AI4D Africa) implemented by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). 

Speaking at the seminar, ACTS Executive Director Tom Ogada, who was recently appointed board chair of the Kenya Innovation Agency (KeNIA), said Africa should take advantage of the unparalleled power of new technologies to address global challenges. 

Prof Ogada said the Africa scholarship programme under AI4D seeks to build the research capacity on AI and ML in the continent with a view to meeting the growing demand for research-oriented solutions and responsible AI and ML use. The AI4D Africa programme is supporting 20 beneficiaries to develop AI solutions targeting different SDGs areas including agriculture, energy, health, climate change, environment, as well as finance. It is implemented by ACTS as the lead partner and funded by the International Development Research Centre – Canada and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. 

Industrial revolution

“We are supporting 20 scholars on AI and ML in 15 universities spread across 12 countries in Africa,” said Prof Ogada. 

He said AI and ML are a key component of the 4th industrial revolution with the potential to redefining how people work and relate to each another, adding that rapid advances in technology have the potential to converge the physical, digital and biological spheres. 

Prof Shem Wandiga, Dean of the College of Scholars at ACTS and former Director of the Institute of Climate change and Adaptation at the University of Nairobi, said Africa is lagging behind in the application of AI and ML. 

“Africa is lagging behind because we do not have enough trained people with capability to use new technologies to address challenges facing the continent especially on climate change, lack of water, lack of food, all of which can be understood better if we apply artificial intelligence,” said Prof Wandiga. 

Katie Clancy from IDRC said the AI4D Africa programme is focused on Advancing AI application in dealing with developmental challenges in Africa. However, she warned that though AI provides great opportunities for addressing these challenges, they must be deployed responsibly. 

 “We risk causing harm with these technologies if we don’t take a responsible approach which is inclusive and rights based ethical and sustainable” she said. 

Angela Christiana, the Executive Director of the Calestous Juma Legacy Foundation (CJLF) said it was important to create public awareness on AI and ML. “It is important to create awareness on the practical application of ethical and responsible AI and ML,” she said. 

The seminar also explored gender dimensions with regard to the application of AI and Ml in Africa. Whereas demand of AI has increased significantly, women still lag behind especially in Africa in in application and development of AI solutions. 

A 2020 World Economic Forum report found that women make up only 26 percent of data and AI positions in the workforce, while the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI’s 2021 AI Index Report found that women make up just 16 percent of tenure-track faculty focused on AI globally. This, Ms Christiana said, calls for concerted efforts to build the capacity and increase the number of women taking AI related courses and jobs. 

The seminar series, jointly organised by ACTS and CJLF, are meant to honour and cement Prof. Calestous Juma’s legacy as a global icon in the application of STI for sustainable development. Until his untimely death in December 2017, Prof Juma (pictured) was an internationally recognised authority in the application of science, technology and innovation in developing countries. 

His work focused on analysing how knowledge and innovation could be harnessed for development in the context of institutional change in socio-economic systems. All his initiatives promoted this agenda through advanced STI policy research, especially biotechnology; provision of high-level science and technology advice and promotion of the conservation of biological diversity. He founded ACTS in 1988 where his initial developmental ideas were nurtured.