May 01, 2024

Shikoh Gitau on amplifying humanity, Africa’s AI leadership, technology sovereignty, and the power of community (AC Ep42)

Sovereignty means that I need to be in charge of my destiny and able to control my future. This involves understanding the context in which you’re operating and not allowing others to define that context for you.”

– Shikoh Gitau

Robert Scoble
About Shikoh Gitau

Shikoh Gitau is CEO of Qhala, a digital innovation company with clients across Africa. She was previously head of Safaricom Alpha, the first corporate innovation hub in Africa and worked for African Development Bank helping governments adopt information technologies. Her numerous awards include being the first African to win the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, and Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government, Technology. She sits on numerous boards and holds a Ph.D. in computer science.

Website: Shikoh Gitau

LinkedIn: Shikoh Gitau

Twitter: @DrShikoh

What you will learn

  • Exploring technology as an amplifier of human intent 
  • The transformative impact of mobile technology in Africa
  • How mobile money revolutionized financial inclusion in Africa
  • The urgent role of AI in addressing critical health issues in Africa
  • Discussing technology sovereignty and the power of defining one’s future
  • The unique communal approach to technology implementation in Africa
  • Future visions: AI’s potential to amplify community and human connection in Africa

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Shikoh, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Shikoh Gitau: It is wonderful to be here after going through every other challenge, but we are here now.

Ross: So you have spent all of your career amplifying people with technology. I would love to just hear your perspectives on how it is we can amplify humanity, and amplify ourselves.

Shikoh: I love the word ‘amplify’ because it sets a very good tone for this conversation. So one of my mentors Kentaro Toyama wrote a book at the very beginning of my career. And I remember him giving the talk before he did the book. And he kept saying that technology is an amplifier of human intent. At that time, he was a Senior Director at Microsoft Research in India. And his goal for going to India was to help Microsoft build these technologies to enable human flourishing. I think after years of doing this, he realized that technology builds technology so much, so much to do something, but eventually amplifies a human act, a human intent, a human habit. And that’s what I love. I love this conversation because it set me on my career path. And my career path is you have to. I started looking inside how technology amplifies my intent. I want to be able to change the world. I want to be able to increase thriving and economic emancipation in Africa, how’s technology going to ‘Hey, help me achieve those goals.’

But more importantly, how is technology going to help other people around me and on the African continent to be more specific, be able to achieve their own goals? And that is how I got my career started in technology. So it was very interesting when I saw this. I’m thinking oh, amplifying cognition is part of human humanity and humaneness. For me, that is how I’m jumping into this looking at it from like, not just like an AI perspective, because AI is just another technology. And when I say that some people take it personally, I’ve been working in technology. I’ve gone through so many fats and buzzwords and hypes of technology. So I know AI. Well, it is a significant technology, it is one of the other technologies. For me, I feel like one of the technologies in Africa is a mobile, mobile phone. The mobile phone did change our lives. Yeah, to be totally honest. It changed how Africa works. And if I was to choose between, like, we are back to whatever Dark Ages and I was to choose between AI and mobile devices, I’ll always choose mobile devices. So I’ve seen this hype, I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve seen the amplification part of it. So I am, I am riding the hype, but I am very conscious that it is just amplifying what we as human beings want to achieve. 

Ross: Yeah, hello, I love what you’re saying, typically around this idea of intent. That’s the first thing that really struck me about generative AI is that what it doesn’t have is intent. That’s what humans have intent on. And I think this point around you saying that the mobile phones, essentially Africa leapfrogged. So it led to mobile payments because it had the mobiles. And that’s what people had. And so it did lead the world and these technologies. I’m interested in thinking about other things with any other technologies now, where Africa could leapfrog in the same way that it did with the applications of mobile phones.

Shikoh: So specifically taking Mobile Money, right? We always say it’s like a nice cliche that always says that a necessity is the mother of invention, right? So for us, having Mobile Money was not innovative. It was not, innovating for the sake of being on the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Times, or being listed in the New York Stock Exchange, because that’s many of the founders when you meet a founder, in Silicon Valley in New York, in Florida these days. You will find somebody just wants to be listed and their goal is to be able to create this company that is then listed on the New York Stock Exchange. That was not the intention. We intended to solve a very painful problem. At the time M-PESA. was coming in. That was 1997. We only had a 2% penetration rate in mobile, mobile, and mobile financial services, that is somebody who has a bank account, people who are able to save, people who are able to access credit, people who are able to access insurance, we’re just a measly 2%. And those are the 2% that were employed with formal jobs. Right now we lead the world with, like, 98% Mobile Money, we flipped the numbers. Why? Because my mobile phone is my bank account.

Every time I go to the US, at least in the last two years, I’ve seen things changing in the US and Europe. So every time I go to the US, I’ll just be carrying my mobile phone around. And every time I needed to pay, I’d remove my phone, and I realized, Oh, my God, they don’t have M-PESA. Here, I need to go and find my card. So I had to carry cash and cards. I don’t carry cash in Kenya, why? My Mobile Money, my mobile phone is my Mobile Money. And that’s how we reflect. So in the last two to three years after COVID, especially when I saw the larger adoption of mobile payments in the US and Europe, I realized that we’ve been experiencing this for more than a decade as there is no surprise here, you’re talking to us. And in the same sort, again, amplifying human intent. Our intent was to solve this very painful problem around financial services access. In the same way, I strongly feel and after saying, I mean, I have been in Europe for the last couple of weeks, I realized that we are going to replug even in AI because you see there is no urgency in Europe to adopt AI. Zero, like I was thinking, zero urgency in all this conversation. Everybody’s like, Yeah, but things work. Why should we make them faster? What I mean, is that things actually do work for them. There is no need for interest, what is it called? Efficiency, because efficiency is there. Like AI is for the many people that I was speaking to another additional chore.

For us, AI is a necessity. It’s the difference between life and death. And always give this example if we work with one of our startups called TPN, The Pathology Network. Let me give you and let me just put it in context. There are 3000 pathologists on the African continent, which is 1.5 billion people. Do you do the numbers in terms of ratio? Just do the numbers in terms of ratio, in terms of GP, this one to 3500 people, one doctor to 3500 people. It should be one to 50 people, I’m just putting it in context for you. So when AI is coming to bridge the gap of I’m a pathologist, I’m able to solve this by uploading pictures online, getting that quick initial diagnosis, getting connected to the right medicine or the right treatment plan. We will use it because we are solving a problem that is actually killing us. Yeah. When you’re being told, if you’re able to install this an A&P and see and follow the following instructions listen out, check out for these take a picture uploaded of your what is it called of your plants and to see if they are doing well if there is a disease, what to project to how much production utility of land is going to have? You’re going to use it, you’re going to use it for your kids. I hear everybody in the US call screen time. I’m saying screen time is the only time my child can be able to access this information when I’m at home on my phone, I’m going to give them my phone to go and learn.

We are adopting this technology to be able to take us to that place where everybody in the world is about efficiency and increasing productivity. It is nice to have. It’s a chore. I’m using the word chore because I remember somebody saying you know AI is just another technology etc. Things already work here. And I’m thinking to myself, ask us if we’re using it to replug ourselves. So the world is still figuring it out. Africa is going to lead in AI. I am more than confident of that because I have our team that is actually working really hard to solve some of those problems that the foundational problems and our meet. I’m meeting all these amazing innovators across the continent who are saying if we have this, we will be able to solve this. So our goal is to be able to work with partners to solve this, the foundational aspects of it. So I know like, let the world continue fighting about regulation, fighting about what is the role of AI? Is it going to take up humanity, we are going to show them how it’s going to be used to solve our problems.

Ross: That is awesome. That is absolutely fantastic. I can just imagine, as you say, the scope, you know, all, as you say, relatively speaking on the margins in the sort of the highly developed nations, but in terms of the incredible difference that these tools can make, and you’re just giving me a fantastic example there. It’s staggering, in terms of the potential, so very, very excited to see that and how that can be applied at scale. So one of the impacts, and somewhere do you look at as in terms of sovereignty, and technology, particularly given that has been dominated by big tech, which, because it’s big, it dominates? It takes power from us in many ways, I suppose. And whereas there’s, of course, technology has always had the potential to give power to individuals, it says somehow, we often haven’t taken that. And so perhaps those again, Africa can lead and point away to where the individual can be the leader. In a world where technology holds the balance of power.

Shikoh: Yeah, when I think about sovereignty, I think about sovereignty of the individual from technology, but also think of sovereignty of geographies and entities, apart from others, they mean, loosely defining a serenity, it means the ability to define your own future and your own destiny very loosely, like, if you read all the definition, it goes to that. It’s that ability and capability to be able to define that right? Sometimes that ability is taken away from you. Why? Because somebody else somewhere else is sitting trying to define what your future looks like. Sovereignty means that I need to be in charge of my destiny, I need to be able to be in charge of my future. Yeah. And that means being able to understand the context that you’re operating in. Yeah, and not letting other people define your context for you. And that’s part of the foundational work we’ve been talking about on AI in Africa is saying, Guys, when you go to Europe, they’re saying, oh, we need to regulate, we need to regulate, we need to protect ourselves, we need to do this. But when you go there, everything is working for them. Everything works. Yeah, they have a super supercomputer, they can switch on a flip chart as a flip switch, right? They have been collecting data for ages, our data has already been moved from one person to the other. Yeah, they have talent, they have mechanisms and processes that they are working on, and they have the luxury to start talking about regulation. And for them, as I mentioned, it is just an updated technology. It’s not for many of the people that we spoke to, it’s not adding anything, it’s not adding any further efficiency to what they do. The things already work for them. The pace might meet, maybe wanting, but it’s still working for them, they don’t need to do any other thing. But for us, we need to first challenge ourselves, which means that we have to define many of these things for ourselves, which means we have to define things for ourselves. Because for them, they are in no hurry to make anything work because things already work. Things are not working for us. And they don’t understand that things are not working for us. And that’s the whole sovereignty part is understanding the context and defining it for yourself, and defining that future for yourself. And that is the ability and capability of doing yourselves. 

So it is building these capabilities on the continent to be able to do this for ourselves to be able to define and innovate for ourselves because we understand our problems further. If I went to Europe, and I told them, I have to Uber for pathologists. They’ll be looking at me and thinking what do you mean, you have to Uber for a pathologist? I’m saying this because there’s only one pathology in my whole county of 10 million people. And they’re like, what, what? Exactly because it is not something that occurs to them. I cannot just walk into a medical center and get health care, then they have a right to get health care and then fight to the state later for payments. We don’t have that luxury not because a state cannot pay, we don’t have the doctors, right? So we have to be able to see that the syringe I’m thinking about is the serenity of mind and mindset. Knowing that we are solving for ourselves, we are solving for things that are very, very African. Yeah. And other people are coming from totally different contexts. My totally different place, and their idea of the world. And the less they’re looking at the world is very, very different from us. And then accepting and acknowledging that the lens we look at the world is extremely different from theirs.

Ross: There’s lots I want to dig into there. So first things you talked about, you mentioned the luxury of regulation. And I think you’ve just flown back from Europe, where there’s got the most intense regulations around AI and technology and data and so on. So you’re suggesting that Africa can flourish better where there is less regulation? Because some of the regulation is, of course, trying to avoid over-concentration of power? When you look at regulation, or its potential role in allowing Africa to flourish through technology, how do you envisage that?

Shikoh: To be totally honest, after being in Europe, I’ve stopped hating on them, because I was just thinking, Why are you pushing this down our throat, literally, but being there and seeing for them, there is no, like, whether AI works or not, whether it’s regulated or not, it will not affect their life. Yeah, so I totally get it from them like, we have the luxury of saying, let’s regulate everything, completely. And then let’s try it out slowly by slowly if it works for us. Let’s try everything and see what works for us. Not if it’s what works for us, which are two distinct things. Yeah, for them it is if it works for us, and that’s well and good. If it doesn’t work for us, that’s well and good. It will not affect them. For us. Whatever works for us, works for us, gives us a big step change. And the difference between If and What is huge. It’s miles apart, because, for us, we are looking at how we can innovate around this technology to meet and close our gaps. Yeah, for them. They’re like saying, how can we use this technology for efficiency to just make life a little bit better? But if it does not exist, it is fine. It does not exist, we don’t care. And for me, that is the difference. And for me, my mind shift was changed from actually not needing AI to survive. We do need AI in the same way. I mean, in the same way, they fought everything from mobile phones to cloud computing, everything. We don’t have enough computers, we will rely on cloud computing, right? We don’t have a computer in every school. We rely on mobile phones for that, right? We don’t have teachers, we don’t have these things. So we have to rely on innovation. Yeah. We have to constantly and consistently be innovating around technology. they are just small, you know, in innovation, they say they’re these dramatic big innovations. And these, what’s the word for that innovation that we call it, it is called Step CI, that’s the top step change innovation. If you read the book by Christian Christensen, you will see the differences in innovation. For most of Europe, it’s like small, small innovation, that is helping them just a little bit. It is not 10% incremental in terms of difference for us. It’s a 500% difference if this thing works. And for us, it’s what can you do for us? Not if it can do for us? 

Ross: Yeah, one of the things you mentioned there is around education. And I think that’s yeah, that’s one of the, as you say, completely transformative in quality education personalized to all African youth. That’s that, you know, the impact of that is absolutely incredible. But one thing you said earlier was about somebody the fact of the unique African way of thinking from mine, which is very distinct, and for many reasons for the rest of the world, and without trying to define it because of that. That’s too big a question. So well, how does that inform your vision of Africa’s potential? So what is the as we see Africa as the continent of extraordinary potential for so many reasons today? How does the uniquely African perspective way of thinking and way of shaping the potential of the vision for what Africa can become in the coming years?

Shikoh: To explain how Africa is different I always give this example because people don’t understand these until they are able to be practical in how they do. So in the US, when you put Siri or Google Drive or Google, any of these mapping technologies, they only say, drive straight, turn left, turn right, go straight, turn left and right. We agree on that, right? There are places on the continent, where people will say, walk north, then turn south. Yeah, the other people will take a walk straight up, when you see a tree of this kind, tan on your left. Those are different ways of thinking, right? And what happens is that we are put in a box to turn left and turn right. Every time somebody says turn right, I have to lift my hand and say which hand I used to write. And then that is my right hand. And then the other one is left. So that’s how I in my head, I’m able to figure right and left. It’s not automatic in my head. For many people, it’s left and right is very automatic in their heads, right? And now you can imagine, when, as a community, we are a very community-based communal culture across Africa. It’s not a Kenya thing. It’s not a South African thing across cultures, we have a term for it called a Nguni Bantu, but it’s everywhere. Ubuntu is everyone’s continent where we are because you are, there’s no individuality, which is another condition around AI that I always argue against, right? It’s about not budgeting time around us as a community. 

So when I’m giving directions for somebody to go somewhere else they go when you get you when you see this house, that is so and so’s tree, so actually is named after a person, then you turn left, then you see so and so’s bridge, then you cross the bridge. So we’ve personalized all these things around our community, around, our heritage, right? And that is what we are bringing to the world, right? And you’re bringing this idea of like, my humanity is not based necessarily on me as an individual or my intellect. So every time I ask my friends about having costumes with my US friends, they say, You’re not scared about AI, I’m saying no. Why? Why? Why should I be scared about AI, it’s going to take away our ability to be like, unique, and individual. Saying my uniqueness is not formed by my intellectuality, we recognize that there are other intellectual beings in the universe. As part of our growing up. We were taught that intellectual beings can be innate and animate beings. Yeah, we are taught that in many, many African countries, not just Africa. I mean, like, even in Asia, they have a lot of these beliefs that our intellectuality does not make us unique. Our ability to think and reason is not just unique to human beings, what makes us part of a community is that that is what makes us human, our ability to talk to each other, to be able to have compassion and have kindness, you know, to each other is what makes us as a humanity. But when you go to the US when you go to Europe, everybody’s by themselves, they go to their small apartment, they don’t know who their neighbor is, as good as every like every holiday like those are two holidays these last few days they eat, whether you’re Muslim or not, you’re partying.

During the Christmas holidays, everybody’s partying with their neighbors. Why? Because that’s how we were brought up in the community and I’m saying not putting up. I’m going to my neighbors if the whole community comes together, we bring our food together and have a really good time. Right? And for us that communal way of thinking that I don’t think of as myself alone, I think of myself in the context of other people is what makes a difference. Yeah. When I think about sheep, I don’t think of sheep as an individual. I think about Chico within the context of my family and the village I came from. Yeah, so anything I do impacts my village and everything in my village does impact me. It is two-way, it’s a two-way conversation and people don’t understand that. We have deep roots here. We have a deep association with ourselves and that is something that does not translate into many of the AI models we are pushing like you know paper I don’t if you don’t read our paper, we have something you’re calling Data Sets and Data Systems. Data sets are what the world knows. Data Systems is how that data is being used in our context. And that is what is important for us not to lose sight of what Africa is about. 

Ross: So I mean, that goes to, I suppose to the point that mobile technology being such a transformative tool for Africa, and for many, many reasons, but including the fact the reality is that families are different places, and people are connected, and so to connect, and that’s a very obvious supportive community. So I’d love to hear how you see AI, being able to amplify community or the relationship between how AI in an African context might be, you know, relates to the reality of community and the ability to support and to grow, grow the community.


Shikoh: So let me backtrack. So I feel old when I say this. I was amongst the first five people at most, who studied the impact of the internet on the continent through mobile phones. So my research actually my PhD research was around, what the internet looks like for the billions of people on the continent on their mobile phones. That was my world. My whole dissertation was about the very unknown days of the Internet or the mobile Internet on the continent. So it was very, very, very early days, no smartphones yet, right? And in the middle of doing my research, Facebook became publicly accepted, acceptable on the continent. So it stopped being like a university only. Products become and everyone can be able to access Facebook products. At that time, I saw a switch even in my research, because at that time, the internet, Facebook became the internet. Right. And that equating Facebook to the internet changed. Why? Because I’m able to connect like I was not in the country. So, people who I have not seen for many years while coming onto Facebook, I was able to connect to them and link back to my childhood, link back to many, many things, right? Think of it from that point of view. So Facebook became the internet for many, many African people. Yeah, so we have to credit Facebook for that. And then it became even better with WhatsApp. Yeah. Now I am able to create these tight-knit communities within WhatsApp. Yeah. And for many, many, even my grandmother, my mother, everybody, my extended family is on we have a WhatsApp group for the extended family and magazines and every level of community that you can think about to my siblings, right? And that has connected us as families like people, we will I mean, without the internet, who never would have lost love made lose if they like I wouldn’t have traveled out of the country. I couldn’t connect with my cousins. Now. We were very, very tight. We could talk every day until midnight. It’s a nice, nice community and family is what is called family is not child on these platforms, right? When I think about AI, AI has the ability to do that even better. Yeah, the ability to engage a baby’s ability to enable people to know patterns, not being able to connect, find, find help for each other, close family for us is not only for connecting but also finding help and supporting each other in very, very dark times. But also like I’m having a baby. Does anybody want to come and sit with me for the next two weeks? Right? So that is where we are, we are looking at the internet being an intricate part of us, again, amplifying our intent to be a community and helping us critical communities across the board. Yeah, and for me, that is what is critical is being able to create those bonds, using agents using understanding using our understanding about each other, like agents understanding all the single each other and be able to notify us if something is not happening or not being able to seek for health help, both in health, financial education, any type of help that somebody is able to do that. But most importantly, helping us bond better. Yeah. Because once I have a better understanding, I’m able to bond better. 

Ross: Fantastic. So to finish up, just like to get a few words from you on the potential for amplifying the humanity of Africa. So you know, I think that’s your mission with extraordinary other people on that journey with you. And you know, just love what were Where could this go? What is that? What is that vision for how Africa’s beautiful humanity can be amplified to the fullest?

Shikoh: Before I can amplify our humanity, AI needs to accept and acknowledge that Africa actually exists. Yeah, we just wrote an op-ed a few weeks ago, where like, our hook was the Gemini debacle. Right. And everybody liked it, it was hilarious for me. Because as an African woman, and uneducated when I was in March, I’ve been erased. Yeah, over and over again, I do not exist, the number of times I receive an email saying, Dear Mr. Gitau, all of these things, because nobody bothered to Google and find out that I’m a woman, right? So it was very hilarious to see these threads upon threads of conversation around Gemini racing. White men, because it is post-primary around white men more than anything. And as I was telling my friends at Google, you need to give the guy who made that bag and give them a race, because, they brought to life, what we experience every day. Yeah, but when it’s flipped on the other side, then yeah, it is actually quite painful, right? And we need to be able to acknowledge Yes, that it was a bug. And or not, I don’t know, I only see some bugs that are normal technology. So I understand it cannot be a bag. But for me, what’s exciting about that is being able to showcase that this can be undone. the narrative of humanity can be undone. So it is a very conscious thing that people actually do. Yeah, in the same way, you can arrest somebody, you can decide not to erase them. 

So acknowledging that the African continent is a continent of 1.5 billion people, we are a huge landmass, and not minimizing us to something small in the middle of the globe, we are bigger than the biggest continents of the continent. We are the largest continent, but every time we teach geography, we are minimizing the place of Africa in the world, right? We are minimizing the intellectuality of African people of black women of African origin. Acknowledging that AI can help us acknowledge that Africans can do the rest. Because right now what we are fighting is we are fighting bias, barriers, and hurdles to get acknowledgment, one acknowledgment, acknowledgment is there, and we will do the rest. We are not asking the world a favor to do us, we are saying, can we stop believing that Africa is this small thing in the middle of the continent? That is a nuisance to the world? Africa has a lot to offer to the world. That is my closing remark.

Ross: That’s fantastic. Yeah, as you say, you’ll be able to do it for yourself and you already are. And I think that it’s not that ignoring will be fading away as Africa makes a bigger, bigger impact of duty on you and so many other wonderful people in the continent. So thank you so much, not just for your time and your insights today, but also for all of the wonderful work you’re doing to amplify humanity not just of Africa, but better the world. Thank you. 

Shikoh: Thank you so much.

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