Rural Kenyans are driving the AI ​​revolution in the West. Now they want more | Technology

Naivasha, Kenya – Caroline Njau comes from a family of farmers who tend fields of maize, wheat and potatoes in the hills near Nyahururu, 180 kilometers (112 miles) north of the capital Nairobi.

But Njau chose another path in life.

Today, the 30-year-old lives in Naivasha, a picturesque town located at the center of Kenya’s flower industry and halfway between Nyahururu and Nairobi. Sitting in her living room with a cup of milk tea, she labels data from overseas artificial intelligence (AI) companies on an app. The sun rises over the unpaved streets of her neighborhood as she flips through images of paved roads, intersections, and sidewalks on her smartphone while carefully drawing frames around various objects; traffic lights, cars, pedestrians and road signs. The application designer – an American subcontractor for Silicon Valley companies – pays him $3 an hour.

Njau is what’s called an annotator, and her data annotations compile the building blocks that train artificial intelligence to recognize patterns in real life, in this case, with self-driving cars.

“My parents haven’t fully embraced technology because they have difficulty learning it. But I always loved science. Annotating data creates opportunities, and you don’t need a degree to do it – all you need is your phone and an internet connection,” says Njau who studied teaching but has been annotating since 2021 .

Kenya is becoming a hub for this type of online work, rivaling countries like India and the Philippines. The birth of technology start-ups since the late 2000s, followed by the arrival of technology outsourcing companies, along with business-friendly policies, a skilled workforce and high-speed internet access, have all leads to an economy in which digital jobs are the bread and butter. a large part of the youth. In 2021, a survey by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) showed that at least 1.2 million Kenyans work online, most informally.

But data annotators in Nairobi have recently revealed a less rosy side to this industry. In an article from Time Last year, employees at an outsourcing company in Nairobi described the “torture” they endured while tagging chunks of text from the darkest corners of the internet – all in an effort to make OpenAI ChatGPT capable of recognizing harmful content. According to the article, workers were paid less than $2 an hour to do this.

Kenyan data annotator, Riziki Ekaka
In Kenya, most data annotators are self-employed, often working from home. Riziki Ekaka, 45, labels data from a US AI company in his bedroom. Her young daughter watches playing with a feature phone (Anne Kidmose/Al Jazeera)

AI in the countryside

Despite these stories, the annotation industry continued to expand far beyond the cramped offices of Nairobi.

In mid-January, when Kenya’s President William Ruto inaugurated a government-sponsored technology hub in Kitale – a farming town near the border with Uganda – a young ICT student explained how he won $284 in three weeks training AI for Silicon Valley companies. He used Remotasks, an American website where freelancers get paid for data labeling.

The video clip of the tech center – one of several establishments designed to equip learners with marketable technology skills – spread like wildfire on social media and prompted young Kenyans to rush to create Remotasks accounts .

“Many young people are unemployed. Even computer science graduates cannot find jobs. The government is doing well in helping young people access work online,” says Kennedy Cheruyot, 24, a recently qualified nurse from Eldoret, western Kenya.

He opened a Remotasks account in 2021 and continued working online while seeking employment in hospitals. Some of his friends have completely abandoned other careers to focus on digital tasks.

“Before, in our culture, boys were expected to go to the farm and herd cattle. Now they stay indoors to work online,” says Cheruyot when we meet at a cafe overlooking Eldoret’s business district. Hardware stores and agricultural supply stores mingle with bright yellow signs advertising internet cafes, called “cybers”.

Although Cheruyot’s dream is to own a ranch “like in Western movies,” he currently spends most of his time looking for more online gigs to pay for rent, food, electricity, water and transportation.

Commodity prices in Kenya have soared since 2022, attributed to a prolonged drought that year and the war between Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Kenyan shilling continued to depreciate due to demand for dollars from the energy and manufacturing sectors. As the shilling weakens, the prices of imports rise and with them the cost of goods for consumers like Cheruyot.

He expects that if he lands a nursing job, he will continue to work online in his spare time, earning between $5 and $20 an hour depending on the task.

“I don’t care if Western AI companies get rich off our work. As long as we get paid. It may not seem like much, but it has a huge impact in Kenya,” he says.

A new generation of scientists

But for Njau, monotonous online tasks are a gateway to something bigger.

“Right now, Kenyan commentators are watering someone else’s garden. The flowers are starting to bloom, but we’re not even here to see them,” she says, pointing to the green grass in front of her brick house.

“I don’t want to stay in data annotation, my goal is to advance in technology. I want to know where the data goes and how the AI ​​is programmed. Technology is taking over, whether we like it or not, and we Kenyans should become data scientists,” says Njau who has already trained people with disabilities and young women in data annotation in collaboration with the Next Foundation Step, a non-profit organization based in Nairobi. Recently, she received a scholarship in AI and data science from the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry.

Programs like these aim to make Kenya a pioneer in the tech revolution, says Nickson Otieno, head of training at the Next Step Foundation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a Kenyan comes up with the next big AI invention. We have an innovative generation and there are many problems to solve. For example, how can AI be used to notify the Kenya Power and Lighting Company of power outages by feeding them complaints about power outages posted on social media? » asks Otieno.

However, there remain obstacles to overcome for Kenya – and other African countries – to stand out as AI innovation hubs. According to Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, a South African AI expert and rector of the United Nations University, education systems need an overhaul.

“Africans often receive quite a specialized education, which is the case in countries like Kenya and South Africa which have UK-oriented education systems. However, specialized education is outdated in a multidisciplinary world,” he argues, citing an example: to create an AI platform that analyzes x-ray images, you need to master both medicine and computer science.

Much of the discussion surrounding AI, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, has focused on human jobs at risk of layoffs, and this is also a real concern in African countries. Marwala believes, however, that many people have “overestimated the importance of AI and confused it with normal automation.” Additionally, AI could help small businesses thrive.

“If a South African flower grower uses AI to analyze soil quality using a camera rather than paying a scientist to do it, it could make flower production cheaper for them. ‘farmer. I anticipate that AI will bring much more efficiency and reduce costs,” he says.

AI applications that rely on data labeled by Kenyans, such as chatbot ChatGPT, are already popular with young people like Njau and Cheruyot. He finds it “very useful” when he needs recipes or travel itineraries. But he can’t do his job for him.

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