During a trip Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, while pursuing a master’s degree in engineering in Japan, Pelonomi Moiloa attended the largest gathering of the machine learning community she’s ever seen in Africa, just a few miles from where she grew up. A total of 600 people from 22 countries attended the 2017 Deep Learning Indaba workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, which discussed topics such as healthcare and agricultural solutions designed specifically to meet the needs of Africans.
This week-long gathering made Moiloa feel like she could make an impact on the lives of Africans and helped convince her to return to South Africa and find a way to apply her engineering skills to her home continent. “The talk was about making a real impact and positive change in the lives of Africans on a massive scale, and I really wanted to be a part of that,” she says.
Moyloa will be joining some Deep Learning Indaba organizers this month to launch Lelapa, a commercial and industrial AI research company focused on serving the needs of Africa’s 1 billion people. The co-founders hope the startup can turn into a magnet for Africa’s top AI talent, sort of like how the best AI minds have been drawn to the well-equipped labs of OpenAI, the startup and Microsoft partner behind ChatGPT, for years, or Deep Mind by Google.
Lelapa aims to convince Africans like Moiloa to quit working abroad and come back, and she aims to do so by working on the issues African AI researchers care about and allowing them to work closer to the people and places that matter to them. “We’re talking to a lot of these people and they want to come back, but they need opportunities, and that’s the gap we’re trying to fill,” says Benjamin Rosman, who runs the AI lab at the University of the Witwatersrand along with another Lelapa co-founder, Pravesh Ranchod.
The company is backed by the Mozilla Foundation and Atlantica Ventures and has raised $2.5 million in funding. Individual investors include Jeff Dean, head of artificial intelligence at Google. active supporter from Deep Learning Indaba, and Karim Begir, CEO of startup Instadeep, acquired by pharmaceutical company BioNTech for $682 million last month.
Lelapa plans to make money by building AI for African businesses and nonprofits, whose needs the founders say are not always easily met with US-focused AI technologies. Initial projects include building a financial services and literacy bot for a South African bank, machine translation to connect mothers with healthcare professionals, and text analysis to support Open Restitution Africa’s work to return artifacts from overseas museums to their homelands.
Lelapa plans to train models in southern African languages, which are not on Silicon Valley’s priority lists, to provide translation and other forms of automated word processing. It would find application in communications, education and business.
University of Pretoria data chair Vukosi Mariwate, another co-founder, says the company is an attempt to start building technologies that put Africa’s needs and values first, rather than relying on a handful of foreign technology companies. “We don’t want to be left behind,” Mariwat says. “During technological revolutions, those left behind pay a heavy price as a society.”