Charlette N’Guessan is the first-ever woman to win the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.
N’Guessan and her team beat 14 other companies from across Africa to win the 2020 Africa Prize with their BACE API, a software that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to verify identities remotely and can be integrated into existing apps and systems for verification.
“Being part of the Africa Prize has given us such confidence,” said N’Guessan. “We focus on Africa because we want to make sure BACE API is used by our people, and works for them. We are so grateful to the Academy, and cannot wait to take our innovation to new heights.”
BACE API uses a phone or computer’s built-in camera to work compared to global AI systems that need specialized hardware. It’s this simplicity that makes it best suited for Africa. It specifically uses live images or short videos taken on phone cameras to detect whether the image is of a real person, or a photo of an existing image.
N’Guessan wins the first prize of £25,000 ($32,200). At the virtual awards ceremony held on 3 September 2020, four finalists delivered presentations, before Africa Prize judges and a live audience voted for the most promising engineering innovation.
Now in its sixth year, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK in 2014, supports talented sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs with engineering innovations, that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way.
N’Guessan and her co-founders developed the software in 2018 after research they did during their studies revealed that Ghana’s banks have a significant problem with identity fraud and cybercrime. The research estimated that approximately $400 million is spent annually by Ghanaian financial institutions to identify their customers.
In partnership with a data controller that deals with certified government-issued identity documents, BACE API has access to Ghanaian passports and other identity documents to use during its verification processes.
Two financial institutions are already using the software to verify customers’ identities, and the software is being tested on an event platform to confirm attendee registrations.
During the global pandemic, BACE API has emerged as a viable alternative to the in-person verification processes used by most businesses, such as fingerprints or personal appearances. Companies can now authenticate and onboard new or existing customers without ever meeting them.
The Africa Prize mentorship and training has helped the team focus more on their business development, and since being shortlisted, the team has defined strategies to improve BACE API’s market position. They have also signed key partnerships with local financial institutions, improved the accuracy of the model, and reduced the verification time.
The Africa Prize also connects the shortlist to individuals and networks in the UK and across Africa who can accelerate their business and technology development – from fellow entrepreneurs and mentors to potential investors and suppliers.
“We are very proud to have Charlette N’Guessan and her team win this award,” said Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge and Cameroonian entrepreneur. “It is essential to have technologies like facial recognition based on African communities, and we are confident their innovative technology will have far reaching benefits for the continent.”
The three runners up, who each receive £10,000, are:
- Farmz2U, Aisha Raheem from Nigeria – a digital platform that provides farmers with tailored agricultural data to improve their experience and efficiency.
- PapsAI, Dr William Wasswa from Uganda – a low-cost digital microscope that speeds up cervical cancer screening diagnosis, and systems to improve patient record management.
- Remot, David Tusubira from Uganda – a system that manages off-grid power grids by monitoring the condition of solar arrays.
To date, the 86 Africa Prize alumni businesses have raised more than 14 million USD in grants and equity and created more than 1500 new jobs, with over 50% of these going to women and a significant proportion to disabled people and youth.
The other 11 candidates shortlisted for the Africa Prize 2020 were:
- Aquaprotein, Jack Oyugi from Kenya – an affordable protein supplement for animal feed, made from invasive water hyacinth
- CATHEL, Catherine Tasankha Chaima from Malawi – an affordable antibacterial soap made from agricultural waste and other plant-based extracts
- CIST Ethanol Fuel, Richard Arwa from Kenya – a clean cooking ethanol made from invasive water hyacinth
- DryMac, Adrian Padt from South Africa – a containerised drying system that uses burning biomass instead of electricity to dry and preserve crops
- Eco Water Purifier, Timothy Kayondo from Uganda – a digital system that turns bones, cassava peelings, coconut shells and other waste into an activated carbon water filter
- EcoRide, Bernice Dapaah from Ghana – bamboo bicycles made by Ghanaian women and youth from sustainable materials and recycled parts
- Garbage In Value Out (GIVO), Victor Boyle-Komolafe from Nigeria – automates and digitises the collection, processing and sale of recyclable materials
- GrainMate, Isaac Sesi from Ghana – a simple handheld meter to accurately measure the moisture content of grains to prevent rotting, insect infestation and quality reduction
- Lab and Library on Wheels, Josephine Godwyll from Ghana – a mobile, solar-hybrid cart with gadgets and e-learning resources to encourage reading and teach STEAM subjects in under-resourced schools
- Safi Organics, Samuel Rigu from Kenya – a novel chemical process that turns crop waste into a range of affordable fertilisers
- Tree_Sea.mals Mini-Grid, Tracy Kimathi from Kenya – a solar system that powers communal refrigeration storage spaces in rural Kenya