Funding AI for Good: Reflections from MWC Barcelona 2024.

By Lily Steele, Investment Director

Mar 05, 2024

I’ve just returned from MWC Barcelona (formerly but still commonly referred to as Mobile World Congress), an annual trade show dedicated to the mobile communications industry. As the world's largest and most influential connectivity event, it attracted 100,000 delegates, showcased cutting-edge technology and provided a platform for some of today’s most influential visionaries.

This audience is all too aware of how generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionise the Global North, and ‘Humanising AI’ was one of the central themes of this year’s event. Beyond the maze of mechanised pets and airborne taxis, however, the conversations in the GSMA Knowledge Zone focussed on how we can harness this technology to benefit the Majority World and its 6 billion inhabitants. Hosted by the M4D team of GSMA, this enclave buzzed with ideas on how AI can be a force for good in advancing socioeconomic development and climate action in low- and middle-income countries, where innovative approaches are most needed to bridge inequalities. 

The AI innovation for impact and climate action session brought together tech-for-good innovators, funders, and ecosystem builders to explore how AI is being used in impact-driven solutions. We learned from Amini how AI is being used to address the environmental data gap across Africa, and, from Digital Green, how smallholder farmers can engage with AI-enabled chatbots to get access to instant agronomic knowledge.

The session included a panel discussion on the AI ecosystem, where I shared the stage with Calum Handforth from UNDP and Koliwe Majama from the Mozilla Foundation. Offering insights from an investor's viewpoint, I explained how the Global Innovation Fund evaluates AI-centric or AI-enabled innovations with the same rigor as any other venture, by asking three fundamental questions: (1) how do you create value; (2) who do you create it for; and (3) at what cost?

The use cases and application of AI are vast, but it boils down to start-ups being able to articulate how AI is creating value. Take GIF portfolio company, Viamo, a mass communications company bridging the world’s poorest people to potentially lifesaving and life-enhancing information. When ChatGPT floodgates opened in late 2022, Viamo did not want its 30 million users to be excluded. Integrating Generative AI into its platform allowed a pilot group of a few hundred Zambians to call up and Ask Viamo Anything for free, using just their simple (non-smart) mobile phones.

Viamo had developed an incredible solution to democratise access to information that Viamo callers had not had previously. Building on this value creation, Viamo is rolling out Ask Viamo Anything to more countries, and further innovating so that the Ask Viamo Anything solution can draw on a repository of hyperlocal information. This is essential for the African context, as the “traditional” AI models are built on Western datasets.

The MWC panel discussion also covered the importance of collaboration. Organisations such as UNDP and Mozilla Foundation are paving the way for AI for good, building the digital public infrastructure and guardrails needed for AI to thrive without jeopardising the wellbeing or privacy of the world’s most vulnerable communities. India is a prime example of strong digital public infrastructure, especially in the education space. Former GIF grantee, Ei (Educational Initiatives) strengthened its student learning tool, Mindspark, using AI to create an individualised learning experience for each child that caters to their level of understanding.

Another sector that is benefitting from AI going mainstream is health. Public health systems are rife with inefficiencies and fragmented supply chains which make it very difficult to access even basic primary care in many developing countries. Healthtech companies enabled by AI are emerging, from innovating telemedicine by using AI powered chatbots to using big data to map climate-induced spread of disease.

This MWC session demonstrated a collective ambition to drive forward to an era where technology not only connects us but also enriches our human experiences in ways previously unimagined. Everyone at MWC Barcelona, and likely reading this blog, has access to an infinite amount of information at their fingertips, which puts the Majority World at a huge disadvantage. AI acts as a leveller, and can unlock human talent in a way we have never seen before.