“We are entering a new era of AI.”

That’s according to Microsoft in its announcement two weeks ago of Microsoft Copilot, a generative AI companion that’s coming soon to Word, Outlook, Excel, and all of Microsoft’s applications.

And just last week Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Meta’s new AI products, Spotify announced a new generative AI feature that replicates podcasters’ voices and translates them into different languages, and Amazon made its Bedrock service for building generative AI applications generally available.

It’s clear that AI is having a moment right now.

And it’s not just Big Tech. Just yesterday, Domino’s Pizza announced a partnership “to create the next generation of pizza ordering and store operations with generative AI.”

While interest in AI is booming these days, artificial intelligence has been around for a long time in reality — since at least 1956 when the term was first coined.

But while AI in general isn’t new, what is new is ‘generative AI‘ and it’s captured attention globally.

It’s still early days though and while there’s a lot of excitement, it’s uncertain what role Africa will play in this new global era of AI.

This is 1850, really, when you parallel with the Industrial Revolution. AI is as big as the Industrial Revolution in its impact… As an entrepreneur, goodness me, this is as exciting as it gets…

I can see the opportunity at one level, but it’s not inevitable that [Africa will] be a part of this opportunity… We don’t want to be users anymore than we want to be used, okay? We want to fully participate in the economic opportunity…

We have to be able to build our own [AI] enterprises… We need to make sure that Africa is participating in the conversation.”

Strive Masiyiwa, Founder & Executive Chairman of Zimbabwe’s Econet Group

As billionaire Zimbabwean businessman Strive Masiyiwa recently mentioned, it’s not inevitable that Africa will play a meaningful role in the ongoing generative AI revolution.

But across Africa, a number of pioneers are rolling out generative AI products that have the potential to reshape old processes across a variety of industries.

From biotech to coding to financial analysis and more, here’s a look at five generative AI products from startups in Africa.

Design & discovery of new protein molecules : DeepChain

Tunisian enterprise AI startup InstaDeep was acquired in January for ~$685 million (including up to ~$245 million in performance-based earnouts).

One of the products it offers is DeepChain, a protein design platform (with commercial applications in drug and vaccine discovery) that uses language models trained on billions of amino acids to help users discover & validate new protein molecules.

Today we have the capability with machine learning models … to extract and give to biologists extremely valuable information very quickly… The value proposition is quite clear. No one has managed yet to build in one product the capability to quickly interrogate a given a protein sequence and visualize it even in 3D.Karim Beguir, InstaDeep Co-Founder & CEO (December 2020)

One way to think of protein sequences is as a rulebook — written in the language of amino acids — that governs how proteins should ‘behave.’

And historically, applying that rulebook to design, discover, and validate new proteins has required a lot of resources. But DeepChain simplifies and democratizes this process.

We train this system where the AI knows what’s the language of proteins, we send the sequence available from the [program database] file, and we see what the transformer thinks are the probabilities per position.Nicolas Lopez Carranza, Head of BioAI, InstaDeep

At a high level, DeepChain’s generative AI solution takes in protein sequence inputs and generates various estimates of protein shape, function, and structure thanks to what it’s learned about the ‘language of proteins.’

As CEO Karim Beguir said, “There’s a wave of deeptech innovation and AI happening in Africa.” And InstaDeep is in many ways at the forefront.

Local language support: VulaVula

Founded in 2022, South Africa’s Lelapa AI is an artificial intelligence research and product lab whose mission is to use AI to address social and economic challenges across Africa.

Its first product is VulaVula, a ChatGPT-like AI language model trained on underrepresented Southern African languages. And it offers various APIs that allow businesses to leverage VulaVula to communicate with their customers in local languages.

VulaVula currently offers entity recognition, translation, speech-to-text, and text-to-speech solutions for South African languages including Afrikaans, isiZulu, Sesotho, Setswana, and Xhosa — potentially enabling up to 80% of South Africa’s population to communicate with businesses in their preferred languages.

And it plans to expand to other under-represented African languages soon.

The challenges in applying AI in the African context are many, but the opportunity is immense: just imagine all the ways in which AI technology can improve the lives of the more than one billion people living on the continent. But Western researchers parachuting in and applying their own technology without understanding local context have always failed. That’s why our goal is AI by and for Africans — developed and applied locally.George Konidaris, Lelapa AI Co-founder
Africa has many unique issues that could be addressed by AI solutions, and these issues need to be addressed by people who understand the nuances of the context, rather than by Western counterparts. When other parts of the world aim to solve our problems, they often fail because of a lack of context — and quite often cause harm.Pelonomi Moiloa, Lelapa AI Co-founder

Web3 smart contract code: MazzumaGPT

Ghana’s Mazzuma (CYST) was founded in 2015 as a mobile payments and remittance platform that leverages blockchain technology and AI chatbots.

Late last year, however, the company began working on a large language model called MazzumaGPT.

Trained on popular blockchain languages Solidity and Plutus and officially launched this June, MazzumaGPT helps developers generate Ethereum- and Cardano-compatible smart contract code.

In its first month, roughly 400 developers from ~70 countries used MazzumaGPT, and more than 10,000 developers are on its waitlist.

Given the high growth and demographics, there are big opportunities in [Africa].Kofi Genfi, Mazzuma Co-Founder
I think we’re on a trajectory to leapfrog progress elsewhere.Nii Osae, Mazzuma Co-Founder

Financial analysis, research, & planning: FinanceGPT

South Africa’s IPOXCap was founded in 2022 to help finance professionals and investors make better decisions faster with AI.

The company’s first product is FinanceGPT, a generative AI solution that helps traders, portfolio managers, and company finance personnel perform financial analysis.

Users upload a company’s financial data and FinanceGPT generates reports and dashboards that allow them to easily understand the current state of the business and future forecasts.

The company is also working on FinanceGPT Patches, a suite of three language models designed to fill the gaps left by popular Large Language Models when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa, the MENA region, and Asia-Pacific.

Medical imaging & radiology: minoChat

Founded in 2017, minoHealth AI Labs is a Ghanaian startup working on artificial intelligence solutions for healthcare across Africa — for radiology, infectious diseases, and biomedical research.

The company is now developing minoChat, a multi-modal, ChatGPT-like generative AI foundational model focused on radiology, with funding from the Gates Foundation.

minoChat will take in various medical images (x-rays, mammograms, CT scans, etc.) and output comprehensive diagnostic reports. It will also allow clinicians to ask questions about those medical images and the underlying patient.

My belief is that Africa’s youthful population could, with AI, do what China did with manufacturing. Today, there are AI governance initiatives in many African countries, AI communities in most major cities, and the start-up scene is maturing. In the next five years, I believe Africa will be considered a global dominant force in the AI race.Darlington Akogo, minoHealth Founder & CEO

Final thoughts

Protein design. Local language communications. Web 3 programming. Financial analysis. Medical imaging.

Very different verticals — but all the startups above are linked in their use of generative AI solutions to ensure that Africa participates in the ongoing artificial intelligence revolution.

Paraphrasing Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa, “Africa has to build its own AI enterprises,” and the pioneers above are doing their part.

AI — like the internet or electricity before it — is general-purpose technology that has a wide variety of applications across industries. And Africa-focused business leaders would do well to pay attention to the ongoing AI revolution and reflect on how they might harness it for commercial impact.

By Emeka Ajene

Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Emeka is the Founder & Publisher of Afridigest and leads Africreate, a strategic advisory firm that helps global senior executives, corporates, and investors take advantage of opportunities in African markets. He also connects global capital to promising Africa Tech investment opportunities via investment firm Africapital. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.