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Abake Adenle Works to Expand Discourse on Role Artificial Intelligence Can Play in Africa

AJA.LA Studios

While data privacy is a hot topic in the United States, Abake Adenle says in many ways, it’s even more concerning in African countries. Safeguarding data privacy is more complex because foreign entities are the ones collecting most user data. Adenle wants to be part of engaging with a wide spectrum of the public in Africa, from urban centers to rural communities, to contextualize and broaden the discourse around artificial intelligence (AI), including data privacy, beyond generic narratives -- to help inform better policies and increase the benefits Africans can reap from AI. She sees this as part of her effort to do social good with the products her company develops, but also more broadly – and “you can’t know what societal good is in a bubble. It has to be a conversation.”

Adenle is the chief executive officer and founder of ajala, a London-based start-up that develops enterprise speech technologies like voice recognition specifically for low-resourced languages, especially African languages. She is part of the 2020-21 cohort of AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute public engagement fellows, all researchers working in AI. “The fellowship gave me the opportunity to set aside the time to focus on ways to contribute to the expanding public discussion on the role AI can play in Africa,” Adenle says. “This included organizing a series of webinars titled ‘AI & African Enterprises,’ which examined the expanding landscape of AI solutions and their implications to African enterprises and consumers.”

The “AI and African Enterprises” webinars are being held between November 2020 and September 2021, each with a different focus. The first was on data privacy and security, and included the chief data officer of a company that partnered with the Nigerian government’s National Information Technology Development Agency to engage with corporations on new data privacy and security regulations. About 70 people attended, 90% of them from Africa. The second webinar focused on technical considerations for African enterprises deploying AI solutions, including the challenges associated with many countries still being early in their digital transformation programs. The conversation was attended by senior representatives from telecommunications companies and retails banks with a pan-African presence. The third webinar, “Delivering Economic and Operational Gains” contextualized how African economies can and should extract value from AI solutions, and the possibility of considering AI as a job creator rather than a job destroyer. The fourth session will include a panel of start-ups who are already innovating on AI solutions for African consumers.

Adenle also wanted to be sure there was follow-up to the events, so her company’s social media lead live-tweeted the highlights of the sessions from @ajalastudios using the hashtag #ajalaai, and then they created and tweeted a newsletter from each one, recapping it with bullet points on the themes discussed and resources shared. She posted the recordings on Vimeo, but also cut them into 2-minute clips to share on Twitter. This garnered many more views and a lot more engagement with the content. Adenle noted that one of the panelists also re-broadcast the videos on their YouTube channel and Twitter account. 

Adenle has several ideas to move these conversations forward and broaden who they can reach: one is to turn the series into a podcast in which she interviews business leaders and consumers about AI in Africa. Another is to hold workshops in rural villages in Africa so participants can interact with different AI “toys” and engage in discussions about these and other technologies (for example, they can use a Q&A voice chatbot that mimics the user’s response, and then asks them how well it responded to the question).

“I would like to help provide the public with the information they need to contribute to ongoing discussions about AI in Africa. I think democratizing information access is especially important because African communities span people from a broad range of backgrounds and exposures, and it is important that policymakers and enterprises capture a broad range of perspectives as they make decisions about how best to introduce AI solutions into African markets,” Adenle says. “In line with the global discourse on the future of work, in Africa, AI presents a potential to further marginalize members of rural communities who already have limited access to technology and educational resources. Considering rural communities still form a significant portion of many African societies, it is important that their voices and needs contribute to the future of AI in Africa.”

She added, “As a startup building a speech technology company that provides broad coverage of African languages, the scale of what we’re trying to do is immense. The fellowship gave me another mission outside the company. It helps set the tone for the broader vision of what I would like to achieve.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.