Kenya’s tech sector is opposed to a new bill aimed at regulating artificial intelligence (AI) in the country, arguing that it would stifle innovation and put off investors.
The bill seeks to create a professional body to oversee the activities of AI practitioners and imposes license fees for those working in the sector. It also aims to guarantee government funding for AI research and development. Critics say it could hold back a nascent sector by reducing the flow of private investment, locking young people out of opportunities, and undermining Kenya’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ reputation.
Alfred Ongere, founder of AI Kenya — an AI training and research organization in Nairobi — told Semafor Africa the bill would raise barriers of entry for AI in Kenya, hurting the sector’s ability to contribute to the larger tech ecosystem and economy.
Ben Roberts, chief technology officer at Liquid Intelligent Technologies, a digital infrastructure company that has invested in data centers in Kenya, told Semafor Africa that he “strongly condemned” the bill, arguing that it would dent investment flowing into the country’s tech sector. “Even the fact that it’s being discussed is a disincentive to investors,” he said.
“It’s like a tax on curiosity,” said Brian Muhia, chief technology officer at AI research lab Equiano Institute and co-founder of Fahamu AI. He told Semafor Africa the proposed legislation would lead to many AI startups closing down or failing to take off at all.
The debate around regulating AI in Kenya echoes a broader global conversation, as policymakers weigh how to regulate emerging technologies and protect consumers without stymying innovation. In the United Kingdom, the government has stated that it will avoid regulating AI “in the short term” in fear of stifling the sector’s growth. In the U.S., some smaller AI companies have raised concerns that tight regulation could limit their growth, arguing that they may not have the capital to meet extensive testing and regulatory requirements.
The AI sector is growing across Africa. Of the 2,400 AI companies on the continent as of 2022, forty percent were established in the previous five years. Analysts say AI could add $1.5 trillion to Africa’s GDP by 2030 if the continent captures just 10% of the global AI market.
The AI sector in Kenya is in its very early stages. Many of its innovators are young people exploring AI for the first time. Burdening them with license requirements and fees would likely stifle innovation and hold back the sector’s growth.
It is, however, also crucial to protect consumers. Kenya earlier this year became the first country to ban WorldCoin, the Sam Altman-backed ‘AI-meets-crypto’ project, over data protection concerns. Developing an AI roadmap or policy paper that factors in the views of all stakeholders would be a better first step than imposing regulation that could potentially damage a promising sector. This would also help address other concerns for those in the sector, such as access to affordable compute power to run projects and local data and languages to train models.
John Wafula, commercial lead at Nairobi-based AI training institution AICE Africa, told Semafor Africa that the AI sector in Kenya and most of Africa wasn’t yet mature enough to regulate. “We need data and a lot of experiments,” he said. “After we have laid the foundations and the pillars, then we can talk about regulation.”
Other African countries will soon have their own decisions to make on AI regulation as the impact of the technology is felt across different sectors.
Room for Disagreement
Fred Sagwe, who co-founded the Robotics Society of Kenya, argues that the bill will offer stakeholders in the AI sector a voice in national decision-making on the sector and an avenue for self-regulation. In a discussion hosted by Nairobi-based Riara University in October, he also said the proposed regulator would mobilize crucial funding for the sector.
“The paramount thing (about the bill) is a professional body which will advocate for the best practices. We can do self-regulation,” he said.
The View From Nigeria
Nigeria launched a new AI research scheme in October. It will give a total of $290,000 in grants to 45 AI-focused startups and researchers. The scheme is designed to identify applications of AI in key sectors including agriculture, education, healthcare, finance and governance.
The country’s digital economy minister Dr. Bosun Tijani said the initiative was meant to “support the mainstreaming of the application of artificial intelligence for economic prosperity.” Tijani had previously said the government was keen to engage global AI researchers of Nigerian descent in the development of a national AI strategy.
- Questions remain over who will write the rules for AI since the technology is global, argue researchers writing in The Conversation. They say there are already more than 1,600 AI policies and strategies worldwide.