A new wave of innovation is rising on the African continent, where startups are leveraging AI to address local challenges, fueling sustainable growth, and forging a path for others to follow. The AI industry on the continent is expanding rapidly, with reportedly over 2,400 companies specializing in the industry as of this year.
Spending on AI innovation in Africa and the Middle East is likely to see the fastest growth in AI spending in the world, hitting $3 billion this year and over $6 billion by 2026 per the International Data Corporation (IDC). This innovation is both locally and internationally-driven, with organic AI-based startups across the continent, as well as collaborative initiatives such as Google’s first AI research center in Ghana, launched in 2018.
In the heart of Cameroon, in the capital city of Yaoundé, resides Agrix Tech — a startup committed to aiding smallscale farmers in their battle against plant diseases and pests. These threats, exacerbated by the ongoing climate crisis, pose a critical challenge to agriculture. Agrix Tech’s innovative solution is a mobile app that empowers farmers to scan their plants’ leaves. Leveraging AI, the app identifies any ailments and suggests appropriate interventions.
What sets Agrix Tech apart is its dedication to inclusivity. The app’s features are available regardless of location or internet connectivity — crucial for remote farmers. “The app can work offline as the AI model is embedded into the mobile app,” states founder and CEO Adamou Nchange Kouotou to FORBES AFRICA. “This allows farmers with no internet connection to still use it. The app can also be set in many local African languages.” By extending its AI library to other developers, Agrix Tech is broadening the reach of its crop and disease detection capabilities.
In Nairobi, Kenya, is another groundbreaking company making use of AI. Since its inception in 2012, SunCulture has made significant strides in equipping farmers with precision irrigation solutions.
Starting with solar-powered irrigation and pay-as-you-go financing, the company has expanded its reach from Kenya to Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, and the Ivory Coast, among others.
“It’s a viable business idea,” says SunCulture CEO Samir Ibrahim.
Approximately 90% of smallholding farms on the continent rely on rainfall for irrigation. As a result, the timing of planting, fertilizing, and harvesting is critically dependent on weather forecasts, which are often too broad or inaccurate. SunCulture’s solution — a trailblazing amalgamation of technologies called AgOptimized — addresses this issue head-on. The app gathers local soil and weather data, integrates it with meteorological and satellite data, and analyzes it alongside historical trends using AI. The result? Detailed, localized weather forecasts and recommendations on irrigation, fertilizing, and pest control, designed to lower costs and maximize farming yields.
Further south in Johannesburg is an AI startup that aims to meet their bold slogan of ‘AI for Africans, By Africans, Solving African Problems’. Lelapa has crafted an AI-based language- model-as-a-service named Vulavula.
Linguistic diversity is the heartbeat of Africa, and nowhere is this more evident than in South Africa, a country that proudly recognizes 12 official languages. Yet, the digital space often falls short in catering to this richness. That’s where Vulavula steps in, carving out a unique niche in the landscape of AI applications.
“We tackle the challenges of language diversity through very careful data creation and curation with the help of sociolinguists who understand the nuances of dialects,” says Jade Abbott, Director at Lelapa AI. “Our vision is for Vulavula to be used across education, healthcare, government.
Children learn maths best when taught in their home language, people die because doctors do not speak the same languages as their patients, and many people can’t participate in government because majority of the resources are available in English or Afrikaans.”
Vulavula harnesses the power of AI to provide real-time translation and transcription services, enabling businesses to communicate with their customers in their own language seamlessly.
Ubenwa, a Nigerian-owned AI startup, is making significant strides in the realm of neonatal health. Named after the Igbo term for ‘baby’s cry’, Ubenwa has developed an AI system that deciphers infants’ cries to detect early signs of neurological issues. It specifically targets birth asphyxia — one of the leading causes of infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa — by analyzing frequency, pitch, and other key acoustic features in a baby’s cry. This AI- powered approach provides a low-cost, non-invasive diagnostic tool for early intervention, potentially saving many young lives.
What sets Ubenwa apart is its commitment to accessibility. Their AI solution operates independently of internet connectivity, a pivotal feature ensuring its usability in Africa’s remote areas. Bymeeting this challenge head-on, Ubenwa exemplifies how AI can be harnessed to tackle region-specific healthcare issues, paving the way for other AI startups to make impactful strides in their domains.
On a broader scale, Ubenwa underscores the transformative potential of AI in healthcare, particularly in settings with limited resources. Their innovative approach is a powerful testament to the potential of AI in Africa, spotlighting the profound societal impact of locally-sourced solutions to local challenges.