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Ghana is set to expand its research, development and innovation potential after US tech giant Google launched a dedicated artificial intelligence (AI) centre in Accra, the company’s first in Africa.
Unveiled on April 11, the centre, which features a team of 10 research scientists and software engineers, will collaborate with local universities, research bodies and policymakers on ways in which AI can be used to find solutions to Ghana- and Africa-specific challenges.
“Africa has many challenges where the use of AI could be beneficial, sometimes even more than in other places,” Moustapha Cisse, the head of Google’s AI Accra team, said upon the centre’s launch.
The launch of the site, which will join Google’s global network of dedicated AI clusters located in Paris, New York, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, is expected to generate more investment in the sector domestically.
“Being here and attracting an international team of researchers and engineers allows us to raise awareness so that policymakers will understand better the importance of this technology, and I hope they will invest more in AI education across Africa, and also promote its application and its effective use in different areas,” Cisse added.
See also: The Report – Ghana 2019
Agriculture to benefit from AI
In particular, agriculture has been highlighted as a sector that stands to benefit from improved AI research and deployment.
An example of this has been seen recently in Tanzania, where Google technology helped to develop the Nuru smartphone app that allows farmers to detect potential diseases in cassava plants.
After holding a phone above the plant, the app returns a result within seconds – which, if positive, is accompanied by a series of suggestions on how to best fight the disease. The app was developed by a team of researchers from Penn State University and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and uses Google’s open-source, machine-learning library TensorFlow.
Similar technologies could combat prominent crop problems in Ghana and improve yields. Making improvements to farming practices has become a priority issue: the Ghana Cocoa Board outlined plans last year to sell bills and notes worth $200m-250m in order to fund the replanting of 45% of the country’s stock of cocoa trees, much of which has been depleted by viruses.
Given that cocoa crops generate about one-quarter of export earnings annually, equivalent to some $2bn, any further developments in the area could yield important returns.
“This is sometimes a matter of food security because, in certain regions, you have crop diseases that can cause food-security problems. We have people that are working on improving the diagnosis of various crop diseases,” Cisse told local media.
With agriculture accounting for 19.7% of GDP last year, according to the Ghana Statistical Service, and around one-third of overall employment, there is great potential for AI and new technologies to have a significant positive impact on the economy more broadly.
Some Ghanaian farmers have begun using drones for precision spraying and crop diagnostics as part of early-stage digitisation of the sector. According to industry officials, the drones have the capacity to spray 2 ha of crops in 30 minutes and up to 40.5 ha in a day, greatly improving efficiency and productivity.
Drone service to improve medical access
The expansion of drone-based AI research and technology is also playing a role in improving health and social development.
In late April the government launched a service that uses drones to carry medical supplies to remote parts of the country, part of a plan to achieve universal access to medicines.
Operated by US company Zipline, the first of four distribution centres was set up in the town of Omenako, located some 70 km north of Accra, with the remaining sites to be established before the end of the year.
Once fully operational, each distribution centre will have 30 drones serving 500 clinics within an 80-km radius. The drones have the capacity to travel at up to 100 km per hour and can carry a load of 1.7 kg, helping to leapfrog last-mile connectivity problems.
The service is expected to provide assistance to some 12m people, or around 40% of the population, in what President Nana Akufo-Addo has described as the “world’s largest drone delivery service”.
Elsewhere in health, companies such as multinational mPedigree have developed apps to help people verify the authenticity of medicines. The app, which uses a simple text message code as part of the verification process, is central to efforts to fight against fake medicines, which are estimated to claim tens of thousands of lives in Africa each year.