Singapore firm ventures to make AI accessible in Africa

SINGAPORE – Specialising in weather forecasting for the maritime industry, Singapore-based Terra Weather offers automation, weather simulation and artificial intelligence (AI)-related services.

A chance invitation by the National University of Singapore in 2017 to hold a training competition in big data processing for students created more opportunities for the firm and it eventually set up a new division focusing entirely on AI.

Called Terra AI, the aim was to promote AI development and make AI accessible for all, regardless of background.

It has since expanded to countries including Indonesia and Russia, and last year, the company forayed into Africa.

Terra AI is now working with CTIC Senegal, a business incubator in the country’s capital Dakar, and partner company Gallium, on AI training programmes such as chatbot building for companies in Senegal. It also partnered Cliniq in Kenya to do the same for schools.

In all, it serves around 30 clients, with more in the pipeline, said Terra AI chief executive Arnold Doray.

“Our focus is not AI for programmers and professionals. We are looking at non-programmers who have the need to use and apply it… People who are business decision makers sometimes don’t understand the value of AI and how they can incorporate it into their company,” he added, noting that AI can be used in areas such as human resources and data collection.

Venturing into a foreign market like Africa came with new challenges.

The time difference was one thing, but what was more tricky to handle was the language barrier – people in Senegal are French speaking – and the cultural differences.

And in Kenya, Mr Doray said: “The students were very quiet when we were doing some of the programmes for them, so getting them to loosen up and have a fun discussion was difficult.

“Our partners later explained that authority plays a big role there.” 

He added that Enterprise Singapore (ESG), the government agency championing enterprise development, had played a key role in helping the division break into the African market, as it had provided crucial contacts that helped Terra AI to secure partnerships.

“In business, it’s not about what you’re selling, but who you know. The initial introduction is really important, and of course, we have to deliver value after that,” said Mr Doray.

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