May 8 , 2021

A private bank takes the lead to launch artificial intelligence (AI) tools, in league with a newly formed federal agency, the Artificial Intelligence Centre (AIC).

The Cooperative Bank of Oromia (CBO) is set to launch an AI-based chatbot, the first for the banking industry. The Bank, 17 years in business, signed an agreement with AIC to develop the chatbot in August last year, hoping to facilitate seamless live communications to bolster its customer service.

The chatbot will be operable on Telegram and the Bank's website in three languages fully developed by Ethiopian professionals: Amharic, English and Oromiffa. This makes CBO, which serves some 7.4 million account holders at its 470 branches, the first bank to embrace an AI-enabled customer service management system.

What makes the AI-enabled chatbots different from the more common rule-based chatbots is the machine learning to understand the context and intent of a question before formulating responses, according to Sintayehu Zekaryas, vice director for Finance, Transportation and Geo-spatial at AIC and one of the bot's developers. AI chatbots generate their own answers to more complicated questions using natural-language responses.

"The chatbot learns from every conversation it has with the customers, going through the previous interaction to improve future responses," said Sintayehu. "It'll also help to understand customer’s choices and preferences."

Formed in September last year to develop applications for use in agriculture, education, health and public security, the AIC developed the chatbot free of charge, and the Bank is hoping that the AI programme will help cut down on customer service costs and human errors.

"We wanted the chatbot because it's accessible and doesn't require customers to memorise ambiguous USSD codes for different services," Aman Semir, vice president of information systems at the Bank, told Fortune. "The majority of our customers are young and tech-savvy. It`ll be easy to serve them."

The chatbot was first trained in the English language before Afan Oromo and Amharic were incorporated during the second phase, Taye Girma (PhD), deputy head of research and development at AIC, told Fortune.

The bot is currently training in the Afan Somali and Tigrigna languages, Taye disclosed.

"We're also developing a voice-based AI chatbot for those that can't read," he said.

However, a lack of properly labelled data and high-speed computers and issues with carrying out translations to Amharic and Afan Oromo have made training the AI programme difficult, according to the persons involved in the development process. This is the second Amharic-speaking AI chatbot on the market. The first, dubbed Meron, was developed by MetaAppz. Moneta Technologies also has a rule-based Telegram chatbot for its Amole mobile money service.

Creating a Telegram chatbot is an easy task for people who read English, it might not even need basic coding knowledge, Mignot Tariku, a freelance application developer with over six years of programming experience, told Fortune.

"I think it is a good start to develop an AI chatbot because it can increase customer satisfaction, and it exposes more people to advanced technology," she said.

Mignot uses a programming language known in the industry as Python, for she finds it easy to train the AI bot with an application programming interface (API).

"Though training the bot is a challenge, there is no accurate and reliable data in the Ethiopian context," Mignot told Fortune.

PUBLISHED ON May 08,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1097]

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