A growing list of brilliant women shaping AI in Africa

A growing list of brilliant women shaping AI in Africa

African Women working *on* AI

Jan 9, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

This week, I’ve suffered from analysis paralysis. 

I wanted to write a captivating blog to kick off the new year and I've listed tons of topics but really struggled to pick one and finally didn’t write anything in time for my own personal deadline. 

Yesterday, I received a request from a journalist for a list of influential people in Artificial Intelligence, in their words, “beyond the usual suspects (Gebru, Mitchell, Bender, etc.).” My name had been suggested and they were looking for additional suggestions in the field that are worth highlighting. Because I am who I am, I assumed he was looking for African women in AI and sent through a list of five people who came to mind. But also, because I’m a bit lazy, I decided to look it up online first. I am always coming across lists of the top X number of women in AI, so I figured it would be easy peasy to find a list.

Dear reader, I was wrong.

The first hit was the African Women in AI project by my very own, Pollicy. Can’t lie, I’m very proud to see it up there. But I supervised all those papers and knew what I was looking for wasn’t in them. I found another promising lead, but that was behind a paywall. The remainder is some combination of empowerment and inclusion content or US-focused. I hit a wall quickly. 

Since I didn’t find what I was looking for and I get this request fairly often, I’ve decided to put a list together, as I similarly did with a list of African women illustrators a few years ago. And so, we land upon this week’s blog post topic, African Women in AI, or rather, African women working on AI.

In the spirit of this comic, saving time in the future ;)

What’s the criteria for inclusion in my “African Women working on AI” list?

  • Must identify as from Africa

  • Must be practitioners of applied AI technology

  • Must be working on something in Africa

There are MANY brilliant women whose work focuses on theorising about AI, drafting regulatory policies, documenting the present and future impacts of AI, creating art and so on, and while this is very important and needed work, I wanted this list to focus purely on women who are deeply engaged with the intricacies of the numbers, databases, algorithms, models and networks. 

The List

  1. Pelonomi Moiloa (South Africa): CEO and co-founder of Lelapa.ai, Pelonomi is at the forefront of AI innovation in South Africa. Lelapa.ai focuses on leveraging artificial intelligence to address unique African challenges, blending cutting-edge technology with local insights. 

  2. Jade Abbott (South Africa): CTO and co-founder of Lelapa.ai, Jade is a key figure in the African AI community and is also the co-founder of Masakhane, with a mission to strengthen and spur NLP research in African languages, for Africans, by Africans. 

  3. Dina Machuve (Tanzania): Dina is the co-founder and CTO of DevData Analytics. Until recently, she was a lecturer and researcher at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania. Her work focuses on the application of machine learning and computer vision on developing data-driven solutions in agriculture such as disease detection and food processing.

  4. Neema Mduma (Tanzania): Known for her versatile contributions to AI, Neema is a computer scientist and lecturer at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania. Her work focuses on using machine learning to address, amongst other things, school dropouts through her project, BakiShule

  5. Kathleen Siminyu (Kenya): Kathleen is a significant contributor to AI development, particularly in the field of natural language processing. Notable work involves her contributions to Mozilla's Common Voice project, focusing on developing the Kiswahili dataset and speed transcription models. This project is vital for making voice technology more accessible and inclusive for Kiswahili speakers.

  6. Rebecca Ryakitimbo (Tanzania): As a founder and co-founder of KsGEN in Tanzania and Core23lab in DRC-Congo, Rebecca Ryakitimbo is instrumental in the development of the Mozilla Common Voice dataset for Kiswahili.

  7. Muthoni Wanyoike (Kenya): Founder of AI and Insights and previously at Instadeep and Africa’s Talking, Muthoni is a leading figure in the Kenyan AI space. Her expertise lies in developing practical AI applications and insights and in her work on community building as co-founder of Nairobi Women Learning & Data science.

  8. Zohra Slim (Tunisia): As a co-founder of Instadeep, Zohra has played a vital role in establishing one of Africa's most prominent AI companies, which was recently acquired by BioNTech for £362 million. Her work at Instadeep includes developing deep learning solutions and AI products that have a broad range of applications, from logistics to healthcare.

  9. Winnie Nakiyingi (Uganda): Winnie is a Research Assistant for Data & Quantum at Quantum Leap Africa (QLA) under the AIMS Research and Innovation Centre in Kigali, Rwanda. She is also the founder of Words That Count (www.wordsthatcount.org), where they document stories of successful African women in STEM.

  10. Belona Sonna (Cameroon): A PhD student at Australia National University, Belona Sonna's research focuses on formal explanations and fairness in AI systems. She is also the founder of Bel’s AI, which is focused on promoting AI skills and uptake.

  11. Abemgnigni Njifon Marianne (Cameroon): As a PhD student at the University of Goettingen, Marianne’s research focuses on Graph Convolutional Networks and Spatial Inference. Co-leading at Bel’s AI, Marianne is particularly interested in the domain of network analysis and spatial data.

  12. Joyce Nakatumba-Nabende (Uganda): A lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Makerere University, Uganda, Joyce heads the Makerere Artificial Intelligence Lab. She is also a co-founder of EmergentAI, a social enterprise focusing on AI-driven transformative technologies for low resource settings.

  13. Tejumade Afonja (Nigeria): As a Doctoral Researcher at CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security, Tejumade is focused on learning generative models for tabular data. She co-founded AI Saturdays Lagos, significantly contributing to AI education and research in Nigeria and leads the Sauti Project. 

  14. Deborah Kanubala (Ghana): Deborah is an NLP Engineer at Proto and also the co-organizer for the WiMLDS Accra-Ghana chapter and the co-founder of Women Promoting Science to the younger Generation (WPSYG). She is currently enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Saarland in Germany. Prevously, she was a lecturer in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at the Academic City University College, Accra Ghana.

  15. Charlette N’Guessan Desirée (Ivory Coast): Founder of BACE Group, a secure remote identity verification software using facial recognition, Charlette is an artificial intelligence consultant for the African Union High Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET by AUDA-NEPAD) and a BI & Data science product manager on data-driven Agritech projects in Ghana.

  16. Nyalleng Moorosi (Lesotho): Nyalleng is a Senior Researcher at The Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR). Previously, she was a Software Engineer with Google AI in Accra and a lecturer at University of Fort Hare teaching software engineering, human computer interaction as well as AI. As a Data Scientist and Senior Researcher at South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), she worked on modelling and pattern discovery especially in areas of human behaviour modelling. She is also a founding member of the Deep Learning Indaba.

  17. Rebecca Beldon Chaula (Tanzania): Rebecca is currently an ICT Officer at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. Rebecca recently served as the Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) on the establishment of machine learning datasets to enhance healthcare outcomes, with a specific focus on rabies. She is also a co-founder of the Emerging Technology Healthcare Laboratory at MUHAS. Currently, Rebecca is actively engaged in an AI project, "Artificial Intelligence for Screening of TB among people living with HIV," and is contributing to another project focused on AI in the early detection of dilated cardiomyopathy.

As always, quick disclaimer, this list is in no way comprehensive. I acknowledge I have a number of blind spots and that francophone Africa is poorly represented in this list. I’d like to keep it growing and updating it, so if you would like to be added or have someone to add or something to correct, please send me a message here. I wanted to highlight a particularly wonderful resource that I found in my searches, Words that Count, by Winnie Nakiyingi, that highlights women in STEM from across Africa. Thank you for your project, Winnie!