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The unexpected ways AI will change Africa’s green economy

New tech doesn’t land in one’s lap. Only those who experiment will reap the benefits. What are you doing?

Hello – transformative tech is often unjustly hyped in the short-term and grossly underestimated in the long-term. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no exception. Nor is Africa‘s green economy. 

Those who said a year ago that AI would soon change everything in climate-relevant sectors on the continent were obviously wrong. Look around.

Yet, thinking transformative change won’t come is equally misguided. Finding applications for new tech takes time – but not forever. Tick-tock.

The key is getting involved. Anyone who sits back and waits for AI won’t see results. If you’re not experimenting, nobody will do it for you. 

The first thing successful AI will change is how we work – not how machines do.

Today’s reading time: 3 mins

LOGISTICS UPDATE | Thursday 16 May


📆 IEA Conference on Energy Efficiency in Nairobi (May 21)

📆 Lagos hosts ARE Energy Access Investment Forum 2024

💻 Webinar: Social capital assets for NGOs (May 21)


💼 Balancell is hiring a senior mechanical engineer (South Africa)

💼 Senior portfolio analyst vacancy at Bboxx (Rwanda)

💼 UNIDO seeks a sub-regional advisor (Tunisia & Morocco)

1.🚁 Heli view: How AI opens up new battlefronts

This early in the technical evolution it’s rare to find game-changing examples of AI in Africa’s green economy. But there are some undeniable ones. 

At the frontier: Mini-grid operator Husk Power Systems uses predictive AI in Nigeria to forecast supply and demand. 

  • The company plans to expand solar power to 7.7 million Africans in five years, using 1,500 mini-grids.

  • AI reduces staffing needs by 40% to a team of 2,500 operators. 

  • It also reduces the use for back-up diesel generators by 25%. 

  • And utilisation of solar assets is increased by 10%. 

The promise: AI acts as a catalyst, optimising resource use and reducing waste.

  • Estimates suggest a global GDP boost of $16 trillion in 2030, about 10%.

Local angle: Transformative applications should also benefit Africa's green economy.

  • Andy Kuper, the CEO of LeapFrog Investments, a major green funder in Africa, recently said: “AI has immense potential to power decarbonisation.” 

  • He named “everything from agriculture to energy grids to carbon tracking. In all these use cases, smart data-sharing and analytics can drive costs down for emerging consumers and producers in their millions – if used responsibly.”

The dangers: No new technology comes without its own set of risks. 

  • Experts warn of job losses and human enslavement by machines. 

The problem: Justified debates about AI threats obscure another, less sexy debate – how hard we’ll have to work to get machines to do our work.

  • It's becoming clear AI doesn't mean putting your feet up on a desk. 

  • AI gains are worthwhile but laborious (see our cheat sheet below).

How: The point is made by AI pioneer Nigel Toon in his new book “How AI Thinks”.

  • He writes, "AI is the most powerful tool we have ever created." 

  • "Those who take the time to understand how AI thinks will end up inheriting the earth." The emphasis is on the "how".

Differing opportunities: AI is a platform technology. Applications are specific to sectors – including green ones. Everyone has to figure out their own. Prime candidates are: 

  • Renewable energy

  • Carbon & biodiversity

  • Sustainable agriculture

Renewable energy: AI can help to optimise power grids, forecast demand and integrate renewable sources effectively.

  • “Predictive maintenance” also flags repairs before major problems arise while avoiding unnecessary replacement of parts that are still in good condition.

  • A Nigerian study says “Automated systems adjust energy distribution and dispatch resources efficiently, preventing grid instability and optimising overall energy use.” 

Carbon & biodiversity: African ecosystems face threats from habitat loss to poaching. AI provides tools for more effective conservation. 

  • Utilising drones, acoustic monitoring and satellite imagery can boost the effectiveness of interventions to protect species and landscapes.

  • Hluhluwe–Imfolozi in South Africa has become a “smart park” processing inputs from cameras to alert rangers to potential rhino poaching.

Sustainable agriculture: Farmers can use AI to optimise existing practices and increase yields substantially.

  • A Nigerian study talks of, "Using AI to precisely monitor crops, evaluate soil health and improve decision making through weather forecasting." 

  • Another focus is better resource allocation for water and fertilisers by leveraging real-time data insights.

  • Machine learning algorithms can help time local planting optimally. 

Healthy scepticism: Is using such technology out of reach for smallholders involved in subsistence farming?

  • Larger landholders will benefit predominantly. Where they can roll up less efficient, smaller farms, employment will suffer, creating lower median incomes.

  • However, in Kenya, AgriTech Analytics helps smallholders by using AI to detect pests and advise on precise countermeasures.

2. Cheat sheet: How to build your own climate AI today

Everyone has played with ChatGPT, but have you used it for anything other than mundane tasks?

  • Build your own AI called a GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer). 

  • It literally takes a few minutes. 

  • It’s a custom version of ChatGPT, the product that made AI famous. 

  • But this one is tailored to your specific purposes. 

  • It lives online at a unique URL, running in the cloud.

  • You tell the GPT in plain English what you want it to do.

  • Then you upload work documents relevant to the task (e.g. marketing plans). 

  • This trains the machine for your specific context, the more the better.  

  • You can also set capabilities it may use to carry out your task (e.g. browse the web).

  • This short guide from OpenAI takes you through the set-up.

3. Number of the week

is the amount President William Ruto of Kenya called for in the 17th replenishment of the African Development Fund, which supports 37 low-income countries across the continent including on climate challenges.

4. Network corner

👉 Zero Carbon Charge to deliver a $235 million network of solar-powered, off-grid EV charging stations in South Africa.

5. Q&A: Climate leaders with answers

Brian Onyango is the founder CEO of Usafi Green Energy which offers clean cooking solutions in Kenya

Q. What’s the latest in clean cooking? A: Growth is steady but the industry is struggling with limited funding and the cost of production remains high.

Q. Are carbon credits the way forward? A: Indian and UK companies are helping Kenyans tap into credits. Our government should help by creating awareness and ensuring that people comply with the necessary frameworks.

Q. How would you compare African regions? A: East Africa has the lead, West Africa is following. The south has laggards such as Zimbabwe although Botswana and South Africa are making bold steps.

6. Media monitoring

  • Opportunity: Nigeria launches a mineral resources portal for investors

  • Paradox: Queries over McKinsey contract in Kenyan e-mobility

  • Sustainability: How Ethiopia’s shift to electric mobility is unfolding

  • Regulation: South African parliament approves Climate Change Bill including mitigation and adaptation measures

  • Benchmark: ESG Africa and Moore Global partner to launch ESG Africa Confidence Index

🗃️  Report: Tanzania releases its carbon impact report for 2023

🗃️  Report: Market creation strategies for solar e-cooking in off-grid and displaced communities by UNEP

Don’t have time to read 100+ media sources every day? We’ve done the reading for you. Check out our full media monitoring here  

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