2021 Volume 24 Issue 2

Editorial: How AI Can Help Developing Countries Post COVID-19

Editorial: How AI Can Help Developing Countries Post COVID-19

The onslaught of COVID-19 has hit the developing world with ferocity, India being the most recent example. To that end, some pundits argue that the impact of the pandemic will result in the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression. Preliminary estimates suggest that the plague could cost the global economy nearly $11 trillion over the next several years. This downturn will have a disproportionate impact on developing countries since they have fewer resources, including infrastructure and access to the new COVID-19 vaccines, to address this dual economic and health threat.


Fortunately, immediate help for the global economy is at hand in the form of artificial intelligence. This technology opens-up exciting new possibilities that were mere science fiction a few years ago. In the emerging world, education is but one of many sectors that can realize significant enhancements through the effective application of artificial intelligence. Full assimilation in this context is the stage at which economic benefits tend to kick in on an ongoing basis. Estimates of AI’s potential effect on economic markets show that it could add around 16 percent to global output by 2030, or about $13 trillion. The COVID-19 crisis is one event that has intensified the need for urgent action by developing countries to utilize technologies like AI to drive economic growth.

Most developing countries responded to the pandemic the same way developed states reacted by imposing lockdowns and travel restrictions. This may have been the right approach to the pandemic, but the lockdowns were soon reversed as economic activity grounded to a halt. Working from home was one strategy adopted by most advanced countries. However, the ability to work from home depends on a range of factors. These include the extent to which job functions can be performed remotely, which tended to favor developed nations. It also depends on the capacity to leverage digital technologies, the degree of adoption, and the employment base needed to thrive in a digital economy.

I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, I’d probably say that. So we need to be very careful…—Elon Musk[1]

AI-Driven Business Models

In traditional business operating models, scale inevitably reaches a point at which it delivers diminishing returns. This may not necessarily be the case with AI-driven business models, in which the return on scale can continue to climb to previously unheard-of levels. The growing impact of AI-driven business models is being felt across many industries, including automotive, financial services, agriculture, telecommunications, media, health care, energy, and even education. It is hard to think of an organization that is not facing the pressing need to digitize its operating model and respond to the new threats and opportunities. To this end, AI can enhance organizational processes that historically relied on only labor and management to deliver products and services to customers. In the emerging world, energy and education are but two of many sectors that can realize significant enhancements through the effective application of AI.

Nigeria for instance, with roughly half the population of the United States, only generates about 1 percent of the United States electrical capacity. Sometime in the next 20 to 30 years, Nigeria’s population may surpass the United States in size. As large as the power gap is today, what will Nigeria’s electrical generation capacity look like in 20 years? If Nigeria’s population prediction becomes a reality, can economic growth and job creation keep up? In support of these challenges, a project led by the U.S. Department of Energy, called the Grid Resilience and Intelligence Project, uses AI to identify precise locations where the electrical grid is vulnerable to disruption. The system can identify and predict areas that need mechanical reinforcement, which enables quicker recovery when failures occur.

The long-term objective of this project is to create an autonomous energy grid that reliably absorbs power fluctuations such as major weather events or downtime periods from renewable energy sources. AI can have a transformational impact in the energy sector by helping developing countries unlock the power of innovation. There are about 1.2 billion people who currently do not have access to power grids. Tech start-ups around the world are tapping into AI to develop new solutions. Azuri Technologies, for example, has developed a solar-powered pay-as-you-go model for rural homes in 12 countries across East and West Africa. The service comes with a charging system for multiple devices that utilizes AI to optimize power consumption—these systems learn home energy needs and adjusts power output accordingly by automatically dimming lights, slowing fans, or managing how quickly devices are charged. This solution has great potential, and the company recently secured a $26 million private equity investment to expand across Africa.

Open markets offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people in developing countries out of abject poverty, while sustaining prosperity in the industrialized world.—Kofi Annan[2]


In most developed countries, the average student receives about 16 years of education, whereas in developing countries the average is less than one-half that figure. Obviously, education remains one of the greatest challenges throughout the developing world. Clearly, a fast-track action strategy is needed, and this is where artificial intelligence can play a pivotal role. Web-based AI learning systems can now be deployed on a massive scale to bring education to a larger segment of the population and to close the gap in years of education without the need for expensive capital brick and mortar infrastructure. This so-called leap-frogging approach should allow developing countries to catch-up at a much faster pace. Although, in some developed countries, like the United States, many in the educational community believe that the learning process has veered off from the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic, which suggests that the new direction is not something that developing nations may wish to emulate.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures that followed have no doubt affected the learning process throughout many school systems on a worldwide basis. Educational institutions have had to quickly adapt to the situation by transitioning to online learning. While most developed countries moved their classes online in seemingly good order, many of these same initiatives in developing countries have been found wanting, due to a lack of digital infrastructure and the costs associated with interface access devices. Investment in expanding infrastructure as a vehicle for reaching entire student populations represents a strategic option with very high potential. Armed with this enlarged capacity, AI can reshape high-quality education and learning throughout the developing world by precisely targeting individual students and student groups with a customized learning platform. The integration of online courses with AI offers the opportunity to improve access to affordable education and raise learning and employment opportunities in emerging markets. Edtech companies like Coursera, Andela, and Udemy are generating data on student performance across emerging markets and are poised to leverage this data to deliver upskilling recommendations.

Along these lines, about a year ago Africa Teen Geeks launched the STEM Digital Lockdown school in partnership with the South Africa’s Department of Basic Education. The system has reached over 500,000 students across the country through the MsZora platform—an artificial-intelligence-based educational program, which offers free live classes by qualified teachers. It is available to all South Africans with access to a computer and the Internet. However, if South Africa has over 12 million students in its basic education system, how is it possible that only 500,000 were able to access these classes? Additionally, AI driven chatbots can expanded educational opportunities. For example, Botsify, an AI-enabled chatbot, provides study material to students over text or multimedia messages and then assesses their knowledge through pop quizzes. The system submits these results to teachers for assessment. In addition to learning, chatbots can double as a teacher’s virtual assistant, by answering frequently asked questions for students, giving personalized feedback to students, and providing additional learning materials based on a student’s individual progress.


Many developing countries will face a long, hard recovery from COVID-19. Economists speculate the pandemic has triggered what is likely to be a deep global recession, threatening decades of hard-won development gains. Nevertheless, over the next few years about one-third of digital data flows will be related to cross-border e-commerce, and 30 to 40 percent of digital commerce will be supported by AI technologies. Online marketplaces that rely on AI solutions across Africa are expected to create around three million new jobs by 2025 by expanding the supply of goods and services, making assets more productive, and unlocking demand in remote locations. Productivity growth of informal businesses and market expansion are more critical in emerging markets, suggesting a higher economic potential for AI in these countries than in developed markets. Furthermore, the strategic embrace of technologies such as AI can be an important part of the rebuilding effort, helping to foster a new generation of innovation throughout the developing world.

The AI challenge is not just about educating more AI and computer experts, although that is important. It is also about building skills that AI cannot emulate. These are essential human skills such as teamwork, leadership, listening, staying positive, dealing with people and managing crises and conflict.—Financial Times (Owen, 2017)[3]



[1] Montenegro, R. (2014, October 25). Elon Musk: “We should be very careful about artificial intelligence.” Big Thing. https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/elon-musk-we-should-be-very-careful-about-artificial-intelligence

[2] Reuters. (2000, July 26). UN: Annan Says Only Open Markets Can Ease World Poverty. CorpWatch. https://www.corpwatch.org/article/un-annan-says-only-open-markets-can-ease-world-poverty

[3] Owen, J. (2017, December 11). Education must transform to make people ready for AI. Financial Times, Special Report: Disruption & Technology. https://www.ft.com/content/ab5daa64-d100-11e7-947e-f1ea5435bcc7

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Authors of the article
Owen P. Hall, Jr., PE, PhD
Owen P. Hall, Jr., PE, PhD
Owen P. Hall, Jr., PE, PhD is a former Corwin D. Denney Academic Chair and is a Professor of Decision Sciences at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business. He is a Julian Virtue Professor and a Rothschild Applied Research Fellow. Dr. Hall received the Harriet and Charles Luckman Distinguished Teaching Fellow in 1993, the Sloan-C Effective Teaching Practice Award in 2013, and the Howard A. White Teaching Excellence Award in 2009 and 2017. He is the vice-chair of the INFORMS University Analytics Programs Committee. Dr. Hall has more than 35 years of academic and industry experience in mobile learning technologies and business analytics.
Enekole Atabo, MSc
Enekole Atabo, MSc
Enekole Atabo is presently a Ph.D. student at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Her educational background in Information Technology and Telecommunications Law has given her a broad base from which to approach topics such Artificial Intelligence. She especially enjoys seeking possibilities for developing countries.
More articles from 2021 Volume 24 Issue 2
Related Articles