BusinessDay: Artificial intelligence has a place in rural SA

Redhill School follow-up event underlines what technology can do to solve unique SA problems

By Johan Steyn, 15 March 2022

Published by Business Day: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-03-15-johan-steyn-artificial-intelligence-has-a-place-in-rural-sa/


“I need there to be a panic button. I never wish to hear my mom scream like that ever again.” The 15-year-old was explaining the mobile app concept her group was working on. “My father tried to kill me. But he is no longer with us.”


The other group spoke about teenage pregnancy, how hunger drives young girls to have sex with men who pay them with food. “My two younger brothers were going hungry. I did what I had to do.” At another table, the group explained how gender-based violence is the story of their daily lives. “The men come back from the shebeens and then all hell breaks loose.”


These are not the typical things I hear at the events I attend or speak at. Like many people, I live in my own little bubble. I speak with clients or at conferences about the amazing potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). The pulpit (or podium) is rightly called the coward’s castle. It is a safe space. We deliver presentations, we debate, we theorise, all while our rooms are lit with electricity (mostly), while our tummies are full and our homes are relativity safe.


In my first article for Business Day, I wrote about an “eureka moment” I experienced during the pre-Covid-19 global Girls in AI event hosted by Redhill School in Morningside, Johannesburg (Artificial Intelligence Has a Place in the Dusty Streets of Rural SA, June 8 2021).


At the past weekend, I attended the follow-up occasion at the same school. The Teens in AI event — again a globally hosted initiative — was attended by pupils from Redhill and a group from rural areas co-ordinated by the Tomorrow Trust. On the first day, they were instructed about Design Thinking and the basics of smart technology. The next day they were tasked to ideate a mobile application that utilised AI technology for societal good.


At each of the tables, there was a board where the participants could brainstorm, write, and design the screens of their conceptual mobile applications. They were encouraged to think about the challenges they were facing in their families and societies. I was not surprised to see — as I did at the previous event — that these youngsters were very aware of the world they lived in and also about the promise that modern technologies offer.


Lulu Burger, head of educational technology at Redhill, and her team again hosted a brilliant and well-organised event. Zanele Nyoka, the chief technology and operations officer (engineering) at Rand Merchant Bank was the opening speaker and the group moderators were mostly women of colour who have excelled in careers of technology leadership.


It made me remember a piece I wrote in my native language while I was living in the dreary weather of glorious rural England. I longed for the dust and the diversity of my homeland. I penned that, “I miss the smell of your dirt roads that reminds me that my soul belongs there. I miss your people and the scars that formed on your face. Most beautiful land, under your blue skies the children should run and play freely. One day I will return to you, and as a child myself I will play again in your dusty streets.”


I say once more that AI has a place in the dusty streets of rural SA. I realise again that I can do so much more to utilise the most incredible technology mankind ever created to contribute to my beloved homeland.


• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA.