Charlette n'guessan, a pioneer of facial-recognition technology in Africa

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31 December 2020 Thursday 19:39
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Charlette n'guessan, a pioneer of facial-recognition technology in Africa

don't miss the news africa, sign up to the newsletter of the "World Africa" from this link. Every Saturday at 6 hours, for a week of news and debates being addressed by the drafting of the " World Africa ".

entrepreneur and software engineer Charlette n'guessan in the premises of the incubator, MEST, Accra, December 4, 2020. Marie de Vergès

She is not ashamed to say it : the coronavirus is rather "a very good thing" for Charlette n'guessan. And, more generally, for entrepreneurs in technology who seek to invent the Africa of tomorrow. "With the challenges posed by the Covid-19, the continent wakes up, she says. People think of innovation, ideas, change. This crisis gives credibility to what we do. "

It must be said that the domain in which this young Ivorian has made a speciality is a field that is both unexplored and feared in Africa : facial recognition. The apprehension that this technology presents does not come from nowhere : the algorithms already existing, including the best, are less efficient to identify individuals of color, as revealed by tests carried out in the Usa, which have revealed an error rate five to ten times higher than for these populations.

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It is in part to correct these biases Charlette n'guessan is associated, in 2018, three other software engineers met at the incubator Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) in Accra, Ghana, where she followed a training in coding and entrepreneurship. The start-ups they had founded has developed its own software, Bace API. To ensure that it is good with skins dark and can adapt to the local market, the team drew on a data set of highly diversified, comprising a large sample of faces of sub-saharan Africa. "At the beginning, we even trained on the other members of the incubator ", says Charlette, laughing.

A flawless

The development of this solution intends to respond to issues very concrete. In 2017, cybercrime has cost 3.5 billion dollars (about 2.9 billion euros at the time) to the african economies, according to the company's board Serianu, based in Kenya. "Cybersecurity is an issue everywhere in Africa and even more in the financial sector, because in our country we have moved directly from cash to digital," says the entrepreneur. According to the research of the four partners, the financial institutions in ghana are confronted with a problem massive identity theft causing a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Bace API provides to banks and fintechs a system for verifying the identity of remote clients thanks to photos "live" (moving) to ensure that the person is real and not a robot.

This achievement has earned Charlette n'guessan, 27, of win, in September, the price of the royal Academy of engineering Africa, a prestigious british institution that distinguishes each year a innovation on the continent. This trophy, which is useful for the reputation and finances of the start-up (it includes a total of 25 000 pounds sterling, or approximately 27 700 euros), is the reward for the flawless journey of the mind.

Article reserved to our subscribers to also Read The facial recognition, promises, and risks

Born in Abidjan, Charlette – " with an e, not an o ", taking care to specify – grew up in the popular neighborhood of Yopougon, with a father professor of mathematics and five sisters all prénommées... Charlette ! "But we have each received a second first name," she said without trying to say more about this curious homonymy.

The most important is probably elsewhere. "I have always been encouraged to follow my path and to dream of great things. Probably because we were only girls in the house, my father didn't see why we'd have career plans less interesting than the boys, " she says. After studying electronics and computer networks, and internships in companies of the Plateau, the business district of Abidjan, Charlette n'guessan is finally selected for training within the incubator MEST. A nursery is deemed to be on the continent, and that it is one of the few francophones to integrate.

Africa is lagging behind

This is where she chooses to focus on this discipline derived from the artificial intelligence (AI) that is the facial recognition. A bet, she admits, " while this technology is perceived as discriminating, causing a lot of debates in Africa. Moreover, the identification by fingerprints has already a good step ahead in many african countries. But the health crisis is in the process of change. "Today, with what we just went through, everybody wants to have access to its services at a distance," says the young woman. She sees opportunities in many areas : education (with the establishment of platforms for online tests) to the transport of individual passengers (to facilitate the hiring of drivers), through the public services, as well as during electoral processes, which require extensive operations for the enrolment of voters.

at the present time, Africa is lagging behind in the creation of start-up businesses and technologies of artificial intelligence. According to a report from Stanford university, in 2018, a score of countries focused the bulk of investment in AI – and not a single one in Africa. But a few centers of excellence are beginning to emerge. In Ghana, precisely, Google has opened beginning in 2019, its first research laboratory in africa dedicated to the artificial intelligence. And in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the african Institute of mathematical sciences launched a master's programme devoted to the automatic learning (machine learning) and AI, in partnership with Facebook and Google.

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" We need more solutions "made in Africa" instead of products from elsewhere, " insists Charlette n'guessan. This advocacy echoes the fears expressed here and there on the continent, where we are particularly concerned to see China deploy its technologies of surveillance. Thus, in Zimbabwe, the government has passed a cooperation agreement with CloudWalk Technology, chinese leader in the sector, to set up facial recognition on a large scale. And the company Huawei has increased its partnerships with various african countries to develop its initiative of " safe city ", a project of the "security" of the cities through the installation of smart cameras.

For reasons of" ethics ", Charlette n'guessan does not want to venture into this field of public video surveillance and police. But the field of possibilities remains wide, she said, for of the useful technologies developed by and for Africans.

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Updated: 31.12.2020 19:39