By Elie Mutangana, Kigali
After realizing the substantial gaps in African local languages and realizing its potentials from adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, Rwanda’s Audace Niyonkuru is championing to build AI technologies, specializing in collection of dataset and creating AI tools to enable African local languages reap from the fast-rising technology.
In 2019, Niyonkuru started Digital Umuganda, an Artificial Intelligence company with special aim of driving impact on African local languages in technology, and with a mission to contribute to reduction of digital divide gap in Africa.
Given that Artificial Intelligence technology has advanced in other foreign languages such as English, African languages are still underrepresented in the technology owing to lack of investment for collecting and setting data in AI systems. This has subsequently prompted the reliance on foreign languages, thus leaving behind the indigenous people on the continent who do not understand these foreign languages.
According to Niyonkuru, the initial aim of creating Digital Umuganda was to create a prototype which other AI enthusiasts and professionals could build upon and advance by creating several Applications that can help with digitally processing African languages.
In an exclusive interview with Heritage Times HT, Niyonkuru explained that they are currently working on five speech recognition AI technologies which are; speech to text, text to speech, machine translation (like how Google translate works), Chatbot (an African languages Chatgpt) and speech to speech recognition technology for African languages.
He disclosed that they are working on six African languages including Kinyarwanda (Rwanda) Lingala (DRC), Shona (Zimbabwe), Zulu (South Africa) and others.
“In order to work on a certain languages, we communicate with different partners in the country including relevant authorities and languages specialists for full access and information. We have started the ‘Open data for all” program which aims to enable us scale the initiative to 20 languages in the coming years,” said Niyonkuru whose educational background is Project Management and Entrepreneurship.
As a result of the initiative, the Kinyarwanda language has witnessed impact so far, by increasing in volume of data-ranking, the second after English, the largest open voice data in the world.
Drawing experience from the Covid-19 pandemic, Niyonkuru showcases the “Mbaza”, a Kinyarwanda AI Chatbot that enabled citizens to access information and guidance on the pandemic while using the local language.
The Chatbot could provide feedback to relevant authorities including key concerns of the population as well as tracking probable contamination cases. Over 2.2 million people could access it through the national health hotline, by using short and quick code on mobile phones.
“Given that the updates on the pandemic could only be found on X, formerly Twitter from the Ministry of Health in English language, we thought about ordinary people who don’t understand English and couldn’t access such social media. The Chatbot helped the population to easily get information and services including, Covid updates, test results and vaccination certificates,” he revealed.
Niyonkuru emphasizes on potentials and benefits from investing in Artificial Intelligence and affirms its contribution to the economic development and transformation.
“I have hired IT professionals and other enthusiasts whom we are working together to drive the impact and it paying off,” he said.
Calling For Best Use Of AI Solutions
Although AI generates many opportunities and great potentials to promote development, there are significant risks with many of its applications.
There have been myths and misconceptions that AI will completely replace all jobs. Certainly, it has been predicted that the advent of AI and automation will potentially disrupt the labour force with perception that super-intelligent computers will develop to a level where they become superior to humans at performing tasks.
According to Niyonkuru, “Although some jobs will be lost, there are other jobs that are going to be created, even with higher value”.
He commends that Rwanda and some other African countries are establishing specific AI Policies for ethical considerations to capture the opportunities for economic development and mitigate the risks.
For instance, Rwanda’s AI policy includes the recommendation to establish Responsible AI (RAI) to coordinate the responsibility of driving implementation and deployment of AI across the public and private sectors.
“Importantly, as UNESCO recommends, the lawmakers and law enforcement officers should also be trained on AI technology for critical understanding of the technology for enabling them to set proper laws for AI and enforce them appropriately,” Niyonkuru stressed.
Rwanda’s Minister of ICT and Innovation, Paula Ingabire said Rwanda embarked on generating from AI solutions by determining the critical industries that would see the most impact and risks, which is the reason why they spearheaded the AI policy for setting guidelines and regulations.
She estimates that Rwanda will potentially earn over $589 million as the economic value, an addition of six percent to its GDP.
“We are looking at more important use cases where we can deploy the AI technologies. For example in Agriculture, we are using it in weather forecasting for providing real insights of weather for farmers, institutions like RSSB, around claims management and insurance schemes and RRA for tax collection,” said the Minister.
According to New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), AI-based technologies can significantly upsurge growth and development in key areas including Agriculture, Healthcare, Public Services, Mining Industry and Finance.
NEPAD plans to help the African countries forge collaborative platforms and networks in order to grow AI specific policies to at least 30 countries over the next five years. In addition, there should be a critical recognition to formulate policies and regulatory frameworks that best suit the African context, instead of copy and paste of the made in Europe or America to address specific Africans’ needs.
Furthermore, Project Management Institute (PMI), an organization that empowers project professionals acknowledge that AI technology have the potentials to automate works that can absorb 60 to 70 percent of employees’ time today.
While AI investment could be near $2billion globally by 2025, PMI reiterates that the demand for Projects professionals with AI skills is currently growing, yet the research finds that only 18% have practical experience.
Experts recommend African countries to put much efforts in including Artificial Intelligence studies in their education systems, empower and boost the existing innovations to avoid recruitment of AI professionals from other continents.