Higher Training Cycle on AI and NewSpace in Africa

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been identified as one of the most significant growth opportunities in the world. It is estimated that the world GDP will increase by up to 14% by 2030, thanks to its development. In addition, AI is expected to improve product variety, with advanced personalisation and affordability over time.

As this new technology slowly gains momentum, governments worldwide are developing policies to harness its potential for their national economies by putting in place national AI strategies to use AI to boost productivity and competitiveness to become a leading country in the 4th industrial revolution (4IR).

To measure up to other regions, Africans (governments and their multilateral, non-governmental, private and civil society partners) need to invest in AI to increase the impact of interventions targeting Africa’s sustainable development goal, Agenda 2063 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To this end, PROMETHEE, a medium-sized enterprise in France, the Endowment Fund for senior executives of the Ministry of the Interior in France (AMICHEMI), the Francophone Agency for Artificial Intelligence (AFRIA) and several other regional and international partners have come together to enhance the creation of pragmatic solutions on space activities and AI in Africa. Furthermore, the initiative aims to identify and present the impacts of space democratisation in Africa and the thematic applications of AI to the continent’s overall advancement.

Space in Africa spoke to the Research and operational adviser of AMICHEMI, Thierry-Roland Tabi, to learn more about the initiative.

What inspired the creation of this project, and how has it fared so far?

In November 2021, two meetings (one at the Embassy of the Republic of Benin and the second at AMICHEMI head branch in the 9th district of Paris) with members of PROMETHEE, AFRIA, and the Ambassador of Benin in France, resulted in a string of training sessions where Africans could learn the fundamentals of AI and new space technologies.

This was after PROMETHEE approached the French Prefect at the Ministry of the Interior in charge of artificial intelligence, Mr Jean-Martin JASPERS, to leverage their satellite capabilities to help Africa harness the advantages of these new technologies. 

On 24 February 2022, the Benin Ministry of Digitisation, in partnership with the City of Ouidah, AFRIA, PROMETHEE and AMICHEMI, launched the Higher Training Cycle on AI and NewSpace in Africa (HCAINA) to benefit African executives, engineers, researchers and business operators. 

The training was organised and structured over eight cycles and delivered in eight African countries. It is meant to enlighten youths in these countries about the prospects of NewSpace technologies and artificial intelligence in different sectors.  

We also wanted a quick link with the governments of Benin, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast to collaborate on projects that will improve the sustainable development of these nations. To this end, we decided to create workshop sessions and select some African Francophone countries whose interests align with ours. The plan has translated into eight training sessions/conferences in Benin, Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Senegal, Togo and Tunisia.

We just concluded the 7th section in Tunis (at the DOT, silicon valley of Tunis) on 27 October 2022. The session focused on the “protection of water resources and administration of port activities using NewSpace and AI.” In addition, the seven sessions have enjoyed more than 80% success rate and reached 800-1000 youths, which is a considerable success. The last session will take place in Egypt on 1 December 2022.

Cross-section of participants at a training session. Source: Thierry-Roland Tabi
Cross-section of participants at a training session. Source: Thierry-Roland Tabi

Here’s a breakdown of all sessions

S/N Training Topic Date Country
1 AI & New Space: fundamental knowledge 24 February 2022  Ouidah, Benin
2 Applications of big geospatial data to the environment, economy and cultures 31 March 2022  Abidjan, Ivory Coast
3 Governance of AI and NewSpace: Legal, ethical and ecological issues 21 April 2022 Dakar. Senegal
4 Spatial policies and AI strategies in Africa 25 May 2022 Lomé, Togo
5 The tools and advantages of geospatial intelligence for the security of African States 30 June 2022 Rabat, Morocco
6 Sustainable land management and responsible agriculture with NewSpace and AI 29 September 2022 Yaoundé, Cameroon
7 Protection of water resources and administration of port activities using NewSpace and AI 27 October 2022 Tunis, Tunisia
8 Growth of smart cities with the help of NewSpace and AI 1 December 2022 Cairo, Egypt
Artificial Intelligence remains a relatively new and growing field, especially in Africa. How did you structure the course module to ensure that trainees are not overwhelmed?

While preparing the training materials, we understood that space technologies and AI are relatively new research areas for these regions. So we made sure that we structured each country’s training topics based on their national priorities. Our mission was simple: how AI and NewSpace, which touches all sectors of life, could be inserted via masterminded paradigms to produce success in those chosen priorities. With the first session, we were more than pleased with the turnout. For instance, in Morocco, the session was themed, “the tools and advantages of geospatial intelligence for the security of African States”. It discussed the endless possibilities of merging satellite technology with AI to enhance the country’s defence sector. 

The next edition of 2023 could be divided into two types of paid conferences; the first will be an elementary introduction to artificial intelligence and NewSpace technologies, and registered participants will have 40 hours of nine lectures, while the second will be 400 hours with a certification. In addition, we are ready to help African governments with customised courses for the private and public sectors.

Agriculture is the backbone of African states, and optimising agricultural processes and reducing losses is every country’s mantra. So what role can AI play in realising their dreams?

We need to investigate several factors in Africa as AI touches all domains. First, AI could be optimised across all African states based on each country’s focus areas. For instance, AI could be integrated into Nigeria’s agricultural sector to optimise operations and improve productivity. For Cameroon, the discussion is about how to use AI to improve the country’s defence capabilities. This shows that AI could be applied to any domain or sector. 

Nigeria is well known for producing cash crops such as cassava, yam, maise and millet. According to my research, 65% of the country’s land is cultivated with cash crops. Similarly, according to government figures, Benin has become Africa’s leading cotton producer in the last few years, with an annual production of 728,000 tonnes in 2020/21. With AI and space technologies, these sectors could be specifically tailored to each country’s agricultural ecosystems to increase productivity simultaneously.

How do you aim to ensure the continuity of AI studies in the African agricultural sector?

We will ensure adequate assimilation of the lectures and harness the advantages of top experts in each ecosystem. We will also need to develop our ecosystem to ensure its continuity. Because without the necessary infrastructures, such as the AI MOVEMENT in Morocco and human resources, we would not have recorded the success we did in that session. To this end, we intend to partner with institutions like the Space in Africa, Smart Africa, the OKWELIANS-think-do-tank, the French AFD, the German GIZ, Digitalisation ministries in Africa and above all, the African Union. “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” is how I wish to emphasise the importance of building a consortium whose mission and vision is to improve the utilisation of space technologies and AI for Africa’s sustainable development. 

What are some of the programme’s success stories?

It is too early to talk about the successes. However, in terms of quantifiable parameters, we have touched 800 – 1000 youths to date. In the early stage, we first met with PROMETHEE to explore space technologies to improve the agricultural sector. Since then, we have collaborated with partners to explore different industries and build a lasting legacy for the African Francophone community.

One of the countries that impressed me was Tunisia, where we had the seventh section on 27 October 2022 in the domain of Artificial Intelligence and Agriculture. It is a country that has made great strides in NewSpace technologies and substantially increased its agricultural productivity. However, to answer your question, we hope to model other sessions after Tunisia to most Anglophone African countries, which are ahead of Francophone countries in utilising these technologies.

What other opportunities could these training sessions bring to Africa?

Security plays a vital role in the development of African countries. Without security, there is no stability. Maintaining a security scope in African countries is one of the major talking points across borders, alongside the role of communication. Individuals need to be aware of the advantages of AI in different fields. Local conflicts could also be addressed thanks to NewSpace technologies integrated with AI.

What are your long-term plans for this project? Are you planning more training sessions in other countries? Can you share the schedule with us?

The schedule for 2023 is yet to be organised. For now, we are focusing on the last session of the first edition in Egypt. The plan for the next edition will be communicated to the public in the coming months, probably by January 2023. Nonetheless, we implore each African Government to realise the need for this kind of initiative and collaborate with us materially, as it could be through the transfer of technologies of our African experts in the diaspora; and financially. 

The help we expect to receive is fundamental to the success of future editions. Another perspective could be through local community support, which is vital to propel the growth and utilisation of these technologies in Africa.

Can you shed some light on your partners and your funding source(s)?

The training sessions are 40% funded by PROMETHEE, a medium-sized enterprise in France. PROMETHEE also supports us with international experts and speakers who intervene at no cost for the development of Africa. Furthermore, 30% of the total funding comes from AMICHEMI, the organisation I represent, established in 2017. AMICHEMI is the Endowment Fund for senior executives of the Ministry of the Interior, which conducts operations of general interest in strategic studies and training.

Our third sponsor is the Francophone agency for Artificial Intelligence (AFRIA). AFRIA is an international non-governmental organisation whose mission is to advise and support public authorities, civil society, academic circles and the French-speaking private sector in the acquisition of expertise in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its controlled integration for the benefit of business creation, jobs and sustainable development, particularly in Africa. AFRIA supports us by providing funding experts to speak at the sessions and structure each country’s training programme. 

We have also cultivated partnerships with local institutions across several countries. For example, the Artificial Intelligence Movement, based in Morocco via Prof. Amal EL FALLAH, an international expert in AI. Also, we have several other partners who have helped or promised to help make our dream for Africa a reality. Notwithstanding, we call on other organisations interested to help develop this initiative. We call for the African Union’s support to help build a homegrown AI agency dedicated to developing studies into leveraging AI for different thematic applications for its member states.

Again, we need the support of the French Development Agency (AFD) and the German Developmental Agency in Africa. We implore them to support us to ensure that we spread this gospel across the continent through targeted training sessions through our second edition, which will begin between January and February 2023. We are open to collaborating with any other interested parties. 

Policy-wise, how can African governments make space business more conducive?

The Government is vital in drafting policies and funding initiatives and ensuring they follow a concrete and precise pattern. In Africa, there is a need to make government policies attractive to external investors. The African Government must emulate strategic space solutions with the inspiration of the European Union, which is still developing its continental AI strategy across different sectors, including human trafficking and cybersecurity for its member states. We need to identify these domains in Africa and align ourselves to ensure a cross-cutting growth that would be felt throughout the continent.

The attractiveness of these policies could be in the areas of taxes, incentives, assets or infrastructures allocated to NewSpace startups seeking to develop solutions and tools to better the lives of everyone thanks to its extensive human labour present that would have to train efficiently. 

We need to emulate countries training their younger ones of 7-15 years in new technologies, as in Singapore. For example, there is a book written by the HTX, Artificial Intelligence Singapore Institution, for children between the ages of 7 and 10. We have adopted a similar initiative to produce a manual for Africa to ensure that we include space courses in elementary and high school curricula. Training our youth today, with all rigour and expertise, would ensure Africa’s technological independence.