Microsoft Africa President Lillian Barnard On The Continent’s AI Prospects

November 5, 2023


Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly becoming the underlying technology that will future-proof economies and companies’ long-term growth prospects. McKinsey Global Institute predicted in a July report that “artificial intelligence is set to add up to $4.4 trillion of value to the global economy annually.”

Generative AI, which includes chatbots such as ChatGPT that can generate text in response to prompts, is currently the biggest driver of innovations. “Generative AI has the potential to change the anatomy of work, augmenting the capabilities of individual workers by automating some of their individual activities,” said the McKinsey report.

Africa needs to expedite the development and implementation of such technologies. “The continent is lagging,” Lillian Barnard, president of Microsoft South Africa, told AmCham in September. “We have to know why we are lacking.”

Answers were edited for clarity and length.

How can African governments regulate AI technology and use cases without stifling innovation?

Africa, similar to the rest of the world, is at an inflection point – today’s AI breakthroughs will change and augment how people across the continent work and live for many years to come. At Microsoft, we are optimistic about the future of AI, and at the same time, we realize there is a need to remain responsible and cautious about how this technology is used.

As one of the organizations at the center of AI development, we are committed to creating responsible AI by design, with our work guided by a core set of principles: fairness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. We are putting these into practice across the company to ensure that the tools we develop positively impact society.

We are committed to sharing our learnings, innovations, and best practices with decision-makers, researchers, data scientists, developers, and other public and private stakeholders. We’ve spent the last six years working on responsible AI policies with researchers, engineers, and policy experts to craft these principles and build them into a framework with actionable guidance.

That led us to develop a five-point blueprint for AI governing public policy, law, and regulation. First is the implementation and building of new government-led AI safety frameworks. Second: require safety brakes for AI systems that control critical infrastructure.

The third is to develop a broader legal and regulatory framework based on the technology architecture for AI. Fourth: promote transparency and ensure academic and public access to AI. Lastly, pursue new public-private partnerships to use AI as an effective tool to address the inevitable societal challenges of new technology.

Government regulation around AI will require deeper development and discussion, but it’s important to start having these conversations to ensure the guardrails are in place. That will be a shared responsibility for all stakeholders within the government and the private sector.

What is Microsoft Africa doing to make the public more comfortable interacting with AI?

From a Microsoft perspective, we encourage organizations to take a considered approach when it comes to their AI deployment so that it is inclusive for both their employees and the customers they serve, and this comment is not specific to call centers.

From trains to cars and even telephones, people have often been wary of change.

It is only when they experience the benefits of an innovation that they truly embrace it. We see the same pattern with AI, where the potential for transformation goes beyond what we can imagine.

Organizations must deliberate on addressing change management if they want their staff to embrace it.

Microsoft’s research has shown that leaders in AI have achieved success by focusing on three key areas.

Firstly, an open culture reduces uncertainty. Among companies deploying advanced AI, employees tend to be less concerned about the risk the technology poses to their jobs. One reason for this is that AI-mature companies excel at creating open cultures.

It starts with company leaders articulating a clear vision for any AI initiatives in the pipeline and extending them across the organization. We also see that organizations are best able to go through a transformation when the people inside it are unified and working with shared values and ideas. They have developed a culture that keeps their team connected and an organizational mindset rooted in flexibility and openness: Openness to new ideas, processes, and technologies – that’s what it takes to build a culture that embraces change.

Secondly, experimentation creates comfort. Companies should experiment more broadly with AI pilot projects to ensure employees from across different levels and functions experience AI. Businesses that successfully work with AI tend to take an agile, iterative approach to projects. While this helps to build internal capabilities, it also demonstrates the value of AI to more people more quickly.

Finally, employees will feel more comfortable interacting with AI if their organization is committed to upskilling and constantly thinks about developing a wide range of capabilities. One of the most effective ways to ensure employees are enthusiastic about engaging in AI activities is to reskill them so that they become part of the AI journey. Even employees not directly involved should still have a basic understanding of what AI is and what it can do.

Companies must look closely at their human capabilities and ask themselves – does everyone have the resources to do their job? How are we training people to work in new ways?

Beyond human capabilities, they should also be looking at operational capabilities – in other words, the processes that enable people to execute efficiently. Organizations must have processes that support equitable access and empower everyone to experiment with AI.

What is Microsoft Africa doing to train governments to capitalize on AI’s benefits?

Microsoft has a long-standing commitment to being a trusted, responsible partner in accelerating digital transformation for businesses and governments in Africa – and we have made significant investments to lay the groundwork and ready the continent for AI transformation.

Our investments focus on four key areas: Skilling and capacity-building, supporting SMEs with the capacity to scale, providing essential infrastructure, and enabling innovation.

Skilling and capacity building will be crucial for governments to ensure their people benefit from AI. To support this, Microsoft has invested heavily in skilling programs to catapult African digital economies into the future. More than 4 million young people across Africa have been upskilled over the last five years through various skilling and employability programs.

We also have many learning options available, including Microsoft’s AI Business School, which offers an online leadership series that covers how to drive business impact by creating an effective AI strategy, enabling an AI-ready culture, innovating responsibly, and more.

In South Africa, we have embarked on an AI-driven technology skills training program for 2,000 local SMMEs. The initiative aims at helping SMMEs build solutions and applications fuelled by data and AI using the low-code capabilities of Microsoft Power Platform.

Microsoft has also invested significantly in developing engineering and developer talent through our Development Centers, with offices in Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt.

In addition to the Development Centers, we launched the Africa AI Innovation Council earlier this year to bring together a high-level, multi-sector group of African leaders from the government, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Their focus will be to deeply understand the continent’s issues, inform the work of our AI for Good Labs, identify opportunities, and facilitate ways to generate additional climate data and drive continued research.

What is Microsoft Africa doing to ensure AI serves the poorest segments of users in Africa?

According to the State of AI in Africa report, if current trends continue, AI and our relevant startup ecosystems could win big – if, as a continent – businesses and governments come together to accelerate the AI opportunity responsibly.

Microsoft is focused on helping local organizations take full advantage of AI, and we are investing heavily in programs that provide technology, resources, and expertise to empower individuals, businesses, and governments on the continent.

While sub-Saharan Africa has one of the lowest AI readiness scores globally, Africa is a hub for innovation with a thriving startup and vibrant entrepreneurial culture. There are more than 640 tech hubs active across Africa.

Microsoft currently supports almost 900 African startups on the Microsoft Founders Hub program with Azure cloud credit, dev tools, access to mentors and technical support.

By empowering and uplifting these businesses, Microsoft hopes to drive digital inclusion and economic growth for the continent.

The proper infrastructure will be crucial to Africa’s ability to tap AI’s potential, so Microsoft has invested in robust technology ecosystems on the continent. We were the first hyper-scale cloud provider to launch enterprise-grade data center regions on the continent and continue to invest in a powerful technology ecosystem to promote economic growth.

In addition to the data center regions, we have invested in subsea cables and gateway colocation deployments in Egypt and Nigeria.

Through the Airband Initiative, Microsoft has invested in solving connectivity challenges in rural areas in Africa. That includes Project Mawingu in Kenya, which uses TVWS technology to connect over 26 schools in Kenya to affordable internet.

In South Africa, we are working with startup Ilitha to deploy fiber to high-density townships to provide broadband connectivity to underserved areas, enabling adult upskilling and education.

Ensuring AI is inclusive and accessible requires a multi-layered approach that addresses responsible governance, infrastructure development, and opportunities for training and upskilling of local talent. To achieve this, we must build strong partnerships between AI leaders, businesses, government, academia, and civil society.