Digital transformation is gaining momentum in Africa and the Middle East (MEA), becoming an imperative for businesses in every industry as they seek to build a sustainable future. Within the context of this huge shift, artificial intelligence — still a relatively nascent area in the region — is now firmly in the spotlight, with companies busily experimenting with AI to helping to improve efficiency and reduce costs, among other aspects.
So exactly what are the AI opportunities that lie ahead in this emerging digital transformation, particularly for those in the ICT sector? To give some indication of how AI is taking hold in MEA, projections from IDC at end-2017 showed spending on cognitive and AI systems in the region increasing by 31.8% to $37.49 million for 2017, with the market expected to reach $114.22 million in 2021. Interestingly, although software is expected to account for the largest portion of the investment in MEA by 2021 at 44.7%, followed by IT and business services at 35%, the IT and business services segment is expected to grow at a much faster rate over the course of the forecast period, with IDC projecting a CAGR of 49% for this segment compared to 27.7% for software.
While still small compared to global projections — IDC also predicts that worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems will reach $19.1 billion in 2018 — the figures for MEA reflect a strong upward trend. Indeed, Africa is expected to benefit from new technology including AI in a way that sets it apart from other continents because it is free from much of the legacy technology that burdens the more developed regions. Some even speculate that the so-called fourth industrial revolution, including emerging technologies such as AI and the IoT, represents an opportunity for Africa to really make its mark.
Indeed, a quick glance at the agendas of upcoming technology and telecoms conferences in MEA during 2018 further confirms the growing significance of AI for the ICT industry.
There are certainly challenges for companies of all types as they seek to exploit what AI can bring to their businesses. Do they have the necessary talent in place, for example? How do they know which AI projects will be the best for their business, and how can they ensure they are in compliance with regulations?
These are all questions that telcos in the region now face. At the same time, they are excited about the beneficial impact that AI can have on areas such as customer support and marketing, to mention just two. Indeed, speeding up the digital transformation and AI are among the top priorities for telcos in MEA as they seek to improve the customer experience. In Africa in particular, free from legacy systems and technologies, telcos really have the opportunity to forge ahead with AI and create something that others may follow.