on the go Pelonomi Moiloa lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and during her engineering masters program in Japan, she attended the largest machine learning community meetup she had seen in Africa, just a few miles from where she grew up. A total of 600 people from 22 countries participated in Deep Learning Indaba 2017 at Wits University, discussing topics such as healthcare and agricultural solutions tailored to the needs of African people.
That week-long gathering gave Moiloa a sense that she could make an impact on the lives of Africans, and it helped convince her to move back to South Africa and find a way to put her engineering skills to work on her native continent. “The conversation revolved around making a real impact and positive change in the lives of Africans, and that’s something I really wanted to be a part of,” she said.
This month, Moiloa will join some of the organizers of Deep Learning Indaba to launch Lelapa, a business and industrial AI research company focused on meeting the needs of Africa’s 1 billion people. The co-founders hope the startup will grow into a magnet for Africa’s top AI talent, in the same way top AI brains have been drawn to OpenAI’s well-resourced labs, the startup behind ChatGPT and Microsoft partners for years, or Google’s DeepMind.
Lelapa aims to convince Africans like Moiloa to quit their overseas jobs and return, by addressing the concerns of African AI researchers and bringing them closer to the people and places that matter to them. “We’ve talked to a lot of these people, and they do want to come back, but they want opportunities, and that’s the void we’re trying to fill,” said Benjamin Rothman, who works with the University of the Witwatersrand. Another runs AI lab 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 Google’s AI chief Jeff Dean vocal supporters Karim Beguir, founder of deep learning Indaba and CEO of startup Instadeep, was acquired by pharmaceutical company BioNTech last month for $682 million.
Lelapa plans to make money by building AI for African businesses and nonprofits, and the founders say U.S.-centric AI technology isn’t always able to easily meet those needs. Initial projects include building financial services and literacy bots for a South African bank, machine translation to connect mothers with healthcare professionals, and text mining to support Open Restitution Africa’s return of artifacts from overseas museums to their home countries.
Lelapa plans to train models on southern African languages, which aren’t high on Silicon Valley’s priority list, to support translation and other forms of automated text processing. This will have applications in communications, education and business.
Vukosi Marivate, chair of data science at the University of Pretoria and another co-founder, said the company is trying to start building technology that puts African needs and values first, rather than relying on a handful of overseas tech companies. “We don’t want to fall behind,” Marivate said. “In technological revolutions, laggards pay a huge price as a society.”
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