Kenya can be Wakanda! AI guru gives three tips

John Kamara calls for investing in data science, AI engineering and human capital

In Summary

• The AI Centre of Excellence is hosting its second edition of the AI for Leadership Summit in Kenya today

• The Star spoke to AI Centre of Excellence co-founder John Kamara about what the continent needs to thrive

AI Centre of Excellence co-founder John Kamara
AI Centre of Excellence co-founder John Kamara

As the world evolves, so does the technology we use. Africa, and especially Kenya, still have vast untapped potential, and AI presents a perfect opportunity for growth and development.

Gaps in data science, AI engineering and human capital call for investment to drive the uptake of AI in Kenya and across Africa.

AI has proven countless times that it has the potential to revolutionise every aspect of our lives, from healthcare to education to agriculture and business.

AI Centre of Excellence co-founder John Kamara says Africa is struggling to adopt AI due to a shortage of skilled human resources.

“If you look at India, just like us, they missed out on the industrial revolution, but they built service revolution by investing in human capacity,” he said.

“Their investment in human capacity in the last 20 years or so has massively increased their level of wealth as well as intellectual property. If you went to India in 2002, the network wasn’t good, but today, all outsourcing centres are going there because their human capacity is much higher.”

The narrative is different in Africa.

“Africa does not invest in education and capacity,” he said.

“We don’t understand the value in societies like ours where our biggest assets, apart from mineral resources, is actually our human capital.”

Having been in the tech scene for more than 20 years now, Kamara likes to refer to himself as an AI enthusiast and a student of smart technology.

He spent most of his life growing up in Ireland and moved to Africa six years ago, where he worked at Cortex Logic, an AI company based in Capetown, as the Africa CEO to help drive up African business.

Kamara loves data and for the better part of his life, he has been working with data.

The AI Centre of Excellence is hosting its second edition of AI for Leadership Summit in Kenya today.

The summit seeks to bring together corporate leaders both in the governmental and private sectors and sensitise them on the value of AI data in industries similar to theirs.

Kamara said the event will shift focus from just having a technical conservation to talking about the use cases of what AI is doing in the different sectors around the world.

“We want these leaders to see the impact of investing in data-driven science. If we have the assets but lack the skillsets, Africa will continue going back and forth,” he said.

Kamara had an exclusive interview with the Star on the state of investment in data science, AI engineering as well as human capital in Africa to drive the uptake of AI in different sectors.

Why champion AI?

I champion AI because I believe it is the job for the now and the future.

The most interesting thing about the AI space is that around 2004-05, we started seeing the emergence of machine learning and deep learning technologies.

It has been around since the late 60s, but when it actually kicked in in the early 2000s, a lot of things started happening in terms of machine intelligence.

With the exponential growth of technology, people can now design and develop authentic self-learning engines that could potentially be self-serving as well.

I feel it is important that as a continent and a country, we find our position in AI because we’ve missed out on the industrial revolution.

A lot of countries globally, First World countries to be exact, industrialise and grow their economies but want to continue scrambling for Africa.

At this moment, where we are waking up, Westerners are now much more invested in Africa.

Why don’t we ask ourselves, ‘Why are they scrambling for Africa right now?’ These Western nations want to bucket us.

Once we are bucketed, it becomes hard to free oneself. The mind has been set up in a bucketed mindset.

The freedom of your own mind allows you to create fundamental differences that allow you to define how you want to create and achieve your own ecosystem.

When we apply this to smart technology, we are told that we have to solve Africa’s problems first.

These include hunger, poverty, among others. But do you want to tell me that there is no poverty in America? No agricultural problems in the UK? No hunger problems in Eastern Europe?

All these things exist, but it is only that Africa’s is much higher than theirs.

Westerners are applying smart technologies to solve these same problems, but why are we not told that we can become smart technology exponents?

As a country and continent, if we can position ourselves right, AI can bring exponential value to people, nations and can even become a source of foreign direct investment (FDI).

If we don’t invest in it now, 10 years from now, our problems will keep evolving and we will be left behind as the world evolves.

It is a forward-thinking but now approach to fundamental basics that will help shift our society, and we can easily become the largest service providers in the world.

We have the human capital but are weak. We have quantitative human capital but we lack qualitative human capital.

What is holding back African countries in the AI adoption scene?

We know about investment in education and capacity. We say it a lot, we throw it around when we want to collect free money, but we don’t understand the value of that asset of building qualitative value into human capital across multiple sectors.

Where were we 20 years ago, when governments in the Western world were investing in AI as well as in data scientists in universities?

Where are we now when they are spending billions of dollars in capacity development in AI?

Universities and high schools in these states started adopting things around AI, data science, data engineering and even climate-focused solutions.

We are consuming it all over again. When you consume things too much, you have lethargy to become a creator because you only learn the skills of consumption.

An influencer who uses Instagram is not the same as the person who created it. They make money off of consumption but they don’t own the IP.

If we see capacity, talent and education as the fundamental framework for us participating in this sector, then we will have a short and long-term plan.

We should also assess the gaps that are already existing in the Kenyan STEM education space.

For example, with robotics, there are intelligent brain networks driven by AI that are put in these bots.

Teaching robotics without understanding how neural networks function is a disadvantage to the young ones who these STEM educators are tutoring.

By creating programmes that encourage the training and development of AI experts, we can build a workforce that can help drive the uptake of AI in Africa.

Such programmes should target both the private and public sectors, as both sectors stand to benefit from the deployment of AI systems.

Is it safe to say that as a continent, we are “AI woke”?

We are waking up but we are not woke yet. To be woke, you have to really understand what it is you want to do next.

We are great at just using words, but how many of our multimillion full-time philanthropists have invested in smart technology?

If we are digitising Africa, this means we are creating a lot of data. Should we not invest in data scientists, AI engineers and data security experts?

This is actually a good way of creating a huge number of jobs. The world needs such skillsets but what if Kenya, we were known as the home of world-class data scientists?

This would bring us a huge FDI for like the next 10 years.

The AI industry is estimated to hit $13 to $15 trillion in the next five to six years, and we probably don’t even have 0.1 per cent of that.

The question we should be asking ourselves is: How many Kenyan universities actually offer data science courses? And how many highly skilled graduates are there?

What level of investment is there by both the government and private sectors to create capacity centres for individuals who want to become data scientists?

Do we have the infrastructure to produce these AI engineers, and how many university lecturers are there that teach about AI?

If we can confidently give the statistics and facts, then we can freely argue that we know what we are talking about and working with.

At the moment, neither the government nor the private sector understands the value of AI.

If they did, there would be a dedicated project around AI and data just the same way we have with digital transformation.

We should devote to data transformation where we think about every data point, what we are going to do with it in the future and how we are going to use it for intelligence.

We can learn from other nations because as we digitise, we are also thinking about the future of data.

The kind of data sets we are collecting, how we should collect it, the intelligence systems and engines in place, to start processing info for us.

If we are digitising without thinking about data as the core engine, then going forward, we will be coming back to the same place.

The government has a lot it is dealing with, but it needs to look into policy frameworks that deal with investment into AI specifically.

This includes running programmes from high school all the way to university, as well as building holiday camps for kids.

The private sector is using the power of AI to make money, and if they are focusing on the SDGs, why not invest in human capacity?

The government needs to have a strategy.

Kenya wants to be known as the Silicon Savannah when it comes to tech, but what if we become the place where the best data scientists and engineers are sourced from Africa?

When building capacity, the ripple effect is that individuals become valuable and also become entrepreneurs in that space.

One thing we cannot ignore is that people will eventually lose jobs as some of them will become automated. The good thing is that we expect to see the development of new jobs
John Kamara

Do you think AI startup investment is working?

Investors in Kenya and also in Africa don’t believe we can do it, and I say this because investing in AI startups needs a different kind of patience.

It is a high-value investment because there is a lot of data that needs to be processed, as well as the development of hi-tech systems.

If we can believe and start exercising confidence, we can be Wakanda.

We rarely build AI companies and even if they are there, there is little to no investment just because investors are not confident that the younger generation can do it.

Every corporate company has a data scientist who is looking for work. You train a data scientist, they will have a job tomorrow as compared to other skillsets.

To spearhead the adoption of AI in education, there are different approaches that we need to consider.

There is the school-level approach, the industry sector as well as the government approach.

I run an AI bootcamp for 11-year-olds, where I just teach them the basics.

It is all about getting their interests into learning about the power of AI, showing them a lot of things that they do in the world that are powered by AI, and they end up getting excited and interested in delving deeper into this.

One thing we cannot ignore, however, is that people will eventually lose jobs as some of them will become automated. The good thing is that we expect to see the development of new jobs. We need to train and retrain people in these different sectors.

Let’s remember that an AI needs human training to operate like a human. Therefore, it will not completely do away with human beings.

We also need to start thinking about how we can become creators in the Web 3.0 tech scene. AI has a lot of positive value.

Through the summit, corporates will get to see how companies in the Western world are commercially becoming more viable by applying a data-driven approach, machine learning and to some extent, deep learning in their businesses.


Kamara said there will be discussions around the impact of AI on climate in the common markets and the impact of AI in environmental science and agriculture.

By the end of the summit, he said, they are looking forward to having the leaders pledge to invest more into capacity development.

“We hope government organisations will start thinking about framework policies around AI, ethical AI and creation of AI committees in Africa to manage the impact,” he said.

They are also looking forward to having the leaders invest in their own companies for them to become data-driven institutions.

This will bring a positive impact as more jobs will be created.

“We want to have investors looking to invest in Africa because we can develop AI-driven startups. We are also hopeful that we can find ways in which AI can help us in the fight for opportunity in climate financing.”

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