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26-year-old N’Guessan becomes first African woman to win prize for engineering innovation

By Fredrick Obura | September 8th 2020
Charlette N’Guessan, the first-ever woman to win the Africa Prize

A Cote D’Ivorian technology entrepreneur in Accra has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious 2020 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. Charlette N’Guessan is the first-ever woman to win the Africa Prize, and the first winner based in Ghana.

The 26-year-old N’Guessan and her team developed BACE API, a software that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to verify identities remotely. The software can be integrated into existing apps and systems and is aimed at financial institutions and other industries that rely on identity verification when providing services.

The BACE API software uses a phone or computer’s built-in camera and does not need special hardware, and in contrast to global AI systems, has been developed specifically to identify Africans.

While facial recognition software isn’t new, BACE API specifically uses live images or short videos taken on phone cameras to detect whether the image is of a real person or a photo of an existing image.

N’Guessan wins the first prize of Sh3.5 million (£25,000). At the virtual awards ceremony held on 3 September 2020, four finalists delivered presentations, before Africa Prize judges, and a live audience voted for the most promising engineering innovation.

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK in 2014, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation and has a proven track record of identifying successful engineering entrepreneurs. Now in its sixth year, it supports talented sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs with engineering innovations, that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way.

N’Guessan and her co-founders developed the software in 2018 after research they did during their studies revealed that Ghana’s banks have a significant problem with identity fraud and cybercrime. The research estimated that approximately Sh43 billion ($400 million) is spent annually by Ghanaian financial institutions to identify their customers.

In partnership with a data controller that deals with certified government-issued identity documents, BACE API has access to Ghanaian passports and other identity documents to use during its verification processes.

Two financial institutions are already using the software to verify customers’ identities, and the software is being tested on an event platform to confirm attendee registrations.

During the global pandemic, BACE API has emerged as a viable alternative to the in-person verification processes used by most businesses, such as fingerprints or personal appearances. Companies can now authenticate and onboard new or existing customers without ever meeting them.

The Africa Prize mentorship and training has helped the team focus more on their business development, and since being shortlisted, the team has defined strategies to improve BACE API’s market position. They have also signed key partnerships with local financial institutions, improved the accuracy of the model, and reduced the verification time.

James Duddridge MP, Minister for Africa, UK, said: “Congratulations to all the participants in this year’s Africa Prize. The UK is a hub of engineering innovation and home to a wealth of entrepreneurial talent and experience. By partnering this talent with the most promising African innovators we can create local solutions to global challenges, transforming lives and improving economies.”

Fifteen shortlisted Africa Prize entrepreneurs, from six countries in sub-Saharan Africa, received eight months of training and mentoring, during which they developed their business plans and learned to market their innovations. The group received coaching on communicating effectively, focusing on customers and approaching investors with confidence.

The Africa Prize also connects the shortlist to individuals and networks in the UK and across Africa who can accelerate their business and technology development – from fellow entrepreneurs and mentors to potential investors and suppliers.

The Africa Prize supports the brightest minds across the continent, equipping them with skills to reshape and rethink their businesses.

“We are very proud to have Charlette N’Guessan and her team win this award,” said Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge and Cameroonian entrepreneur. “It is essential to have technologies like facial recognition based on African communities, and we are confident their innovative technology will have far-reaching benefits for the continent.”

The three runners up, who each receive Sh1.4 million (£10,000), are:

  • Farmz2U, Aisha Raheem from Nigeria - a digital platform that provides farmers with tailored agricultural data to improve their experience and efficiency.
  • PapsAI, Dr William Wasswa from Uganda - a low-cost digital microscope that speeds up cervical cancer screening diagnosis, and systems to improve patient record management.
  • Remot, David Tusubira from Uganda - a system that manages off-grid power grids by monitoring the condition of solar arrays.

“Being part of the Africa Prize has given us such confidence,” said N’Guessan. “We focus on Africa because we want to make sure BACE API is used by our people and works for them. We are so grateful to the Academy, and cannot wait to take our innovation to new heights.”

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