Young scientists want machine learning revolution in Africa

Cameroon national Loic Elnathan Tiokou Fangang concluded his masters degree in mathematical sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) earlier in 2022 and, as he awaits an opportunity to pursue a PhD in machine learning, he believes the dream of the institute’s founders – of producing the next Einstein – has already been accomplished.

AIMS is a network of six centres of excellence, which are based in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and Rwanda. Students who join the institute get to work on driving the continent’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) agenda.

The founder of AIMS, South African physicist Neil Turok, in 2008 gave a speech in which he declared his wish that the next Einstein would be from Africa.

In an interview with University World News, Fangang said that, each year, AIMS is producing African Einsteins as it invests in its students – and not just by equipping them with mathematical skills.

“Being Einstein is more like a concept [and] values, and that is who we, who attend AIMS, are. ‘Being Einstein’ entails using critical thinking skills, and any other skills, hard and soft ones, to effectively solve real-life problems.

“We all have different backgrounds and, therefore, different ways to impact. On my own, my challenge is to change the narrative of Africa around technology and go beyond our limitations,” he said.

His studies at AIMS have cleared the path for him to be involved with organisations that work voluntarily to spread machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa.

For example he is an ambassador for Zindi, which hosts the largest community of African data scientists and is working to solve the world’s most pressing challenges using machine learning and AI. It connects data scientists with organisations.

“I am involved with several organisations across Africa such as AMLD Africa and Zindi, as their ambassador. I’m working in the core team of KmerAI, an association aiming at decentralising machine learning and AI in Cameroon. I’m working towards opening a start-up in order to sensitise and educate people and companies around the fields of AI and data science.”

Fangang said that, for a livelihood, he is providing services to companies through his marketing agency and is actively looking for a PhD opportunity in the scope of machine learning.

And why does he want to do a machine learning PhD?

“I believe that AI and machine learning are going to solve big challenges we have in Africa such as traffic, climate change, and so forth ... It’s a must for Africans to be part of the revolution. Having a PhD will give me access to certain opportunities for a bigger impact in Africa,” he added.

Nurturing independent thinkers

Daphne Machangara, Image provided

Another AIMS alumna, Daphne Machangara, a Zimbabwean, was admitted to AIMS to study for a masters in industrial mathematics from 2017 to 2019.

In an interview with University World News, she said that, at the African institute, professors from across the continent promote independent thinkers and allow students to engage and solve real-world problems, by offering theory and application.

Machangara said everyone is offered a scholarship and there’s diversity of Africa’s best students chosen to represent different countries. When they meet, it’s all about sharing ideas, teamwork and problem-solving.

“Students per centre per intake are manageable numbers; [there are] not very big classes, funded by such foundations as [the] Mastercard [Foundation].

“AIMS is vital because it brings together talented African students who, together, try to tackle problems existing in Africa through the obtained skills from the programme. I think the next Einstein could be from Africa, because of the efforts and projects which students from the programme have engaged in or are engaging in after the programme has ended,” she said.

In terms of her contributions on the continent, Machangara said she is a central committee member of the Deep Learning Indaba and also of its local chapter in Zimbabwe.

The Deep Learning Indaba is an organisation with a mission to strengthen machine learning and AI in Africa towards the goal of ensuring that Africans are not only observers and receivers of ongoing advances in AI, but active shapers and owners of these technological advances.

Annually, the organisation holds a conference it calls The Deep Learning Indaba and, this year, it was held in Tunisia, bringing together more than 300 members of Africa’s artificial intelligence community for a week-long event of teaching, research, exchange and debate around the state of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Machangara said AIMS scholars are taught to give back to the community in terms of STEM.

“Firstly it’s about giving back to community … by trying to spread data science and strengthen machine learning in Africa. Attending AIMS prepared me so well in this direction, the reasons being that I got to know of the Deep Learning Indaba during AIMS.

“Additionally, as AIMS scholars, we used to give back to the community weekly, through various activities at schools, hospitals and so on … that prepared me well to do voluntary activities like the one I am doing now,” she said.

Machangara said, under the Zimbabwe chapter, they are bringing about networking among individuals and identification of mentors, as well as collaborations through their programmes.

“We have had chats with Data Science Zimbabwe and appreciate the work they also do in the community,” she said.