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Face of the Future
Zimbabwe moves to become African leader in facial recognition technology and AI depelopment
By Problem Masau | VOL.10 August 2018 ·2018-08-13


(ISTOCK)

Africa is finally catching up with the rest of the world in the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution and Zimbabwe is no exception.

“Across the continent, from Ghana to Zimbabwe, this technology has the potential to bring myriad positive changes in sectors such as healthcare and finance, bridging the gap between physical infrastructure inadequacies and consumer demands, while freeing up more time for skilled labor and increasing labor productivity,” said Lexi Novitskeis, Principal Investment Officer of Singularity Investments, a Lagos-based investor in early-stage tech companies in sub-Saharan Africa. 

McKinsey & Co., an American worldwide management consulting firm, predicts that up to 30 percent of the global workforce could be displaced by 2030 because of advances in AI such as robotics, digitization and big data. 

However, despite this prediction, the Zimbabwean Government is adamant that AI could play an important role in the country’s development, spearheaded by Chinese assistance. 

“China has proved to be our all-weather friend and this time around, we have approached them to spearhead our AI revolution in Zimbabwe,” said Christopher Mutsvangwa, former Zimbabwean Ambassador to China, who is now the special advisor to the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa. 

Mutsvangwa said the country has recently received donations of facial recognition terminals from CloudWalk Technology, a company based in South China’s Guangdong Province. It marks the first time China has entered the AI field in Africa.  

The smart way forward 

Mutsvangwa said the facial recognition terminals are currently being installed in all the country’s border posts and points of entry for smoother passenger processing. 

However, he said that the benefits do not end there as the project will help the government build a smart financial and banking system. 

“An ordinary Zimbabwean probably won’t believe that you can buy your groceries or pay your electricity bill by scanning your face, but this is where technology is taking us and as the government, we are happy because we are moving with the rest of the world,” said Mutsvangwa.

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security Supa Mandiwanzira noted the Chinese firm will partner and train local developers to grow the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector. 

“The Chinese are helping us to grow our ICT. The software they are using is integrated with the facial recognition hardware which will be made locally by local developers,” said Mandiwanzira. “Thanks to the Chinese, Zimbabwe is going to be the leader in [the field of] facial recognition surveillance and AI systems in Africa. The country [has], for a long time, been in need of technology to improve efficiency at its points of entry to handle large volumes of traffic. 

Facial scan technology is already widely used across China, both as a method of payment and in the field of security.  

In April this year, Zimbabwe signed an agreement with CloudWalk Technology that saw the Chinese firm provide facial recognition for smart financial service networks, as well as intelligent security applications at airports, railway and bus stations.  

The agreement was reached when Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa paid a state visit to the Asian country in April and forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa.  

Tech challenges 

“The Zimbabwean Government did not come to Guangzhou purely for AI or facial recognition technologies; rather it had a comprehensive package plan for such areas as infrastructure, technology and biology,” said CloudWalk CEO Yao Zhiqiang. “The differences between technologies tailored to an Asian face and those to an African face are relatively large, not only in terms of color, but also facial bones and features.   

CloudWalk Technology has already recalibrated its existing technology, similar to Transsion through three-dimensional light to recognize darker skin tones. 

By optimizing cameras to better highlight the features of people with darker skin tones, Transsion has become a top player in Africa’s fast-growing smartphone market. The company, based in Shenzhen of Guangdong Province, whose products are sold under the Tecno, itel and Infinix brands, controls 40 percent of the African market. 

China is building one of the world’s most comprehensive facial recognition databases.  

The Zimbabwe Government is also working with Chinese surveillance firm HikVision in a pilot smart city project in Zimbabwe’s fourth biggest city Mutare. The Chinese Government has a controlling stake in HikVision. 

Since Zimbabwe launched its Look East policy in 2003 after the U.S. and EU slapped economic sanctions on the nation, China has been providing assistance in areas of technology, mining and farming. 

This assistance has seen Zimbabwe launch its first ever space agency in July this year with the focus on using satellites to advance geospatial science, earth observation and satellite communication systems. 

The Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA) is also expected to enhance agriculture, wildlife conservation and mapping. The country is now employing drone surveillance to protect is wildlife from poachers. 

"The agency will deploy navigation and observation satellite systems, geospatial and space technologies for better farming, wildlife conservation, infrastructure management and disease surveillance,” said President Mnangagwa. 

University of Zimbabwe lecturer and project leader Caleb Maguranyanga said the country was grateful to the Chinese for providing the country with technology that has reduced the cost of sending a satellite into space from millions to tens of thousands of dollars. 

“Gone are the days of space being accessible only by agencies backed by budgets of billion dollars,” Maguranyanga told a local publication. 

Zimbabwe, which was ravaged by years of economic decay, is catching up and embracing technology to benefit its people.  "We [also] need to take citizens in rural areas on the information highway,” said Mandiwanzira. 

(Reporting from Zimbabwe)

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn)

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