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Helping AI startups grow in Africa

In 2016, Dr. Anicia Peters discovered a problem. Dr. Peters, a researcher with the University of Namibia and chairperson of the Presidential Task Force on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, noticed that machine learning (ML) startups were not able to grow or shift quickly enough. She believed that early career, self-taught techmakers in the field lacked the necessary breadth and design fundamentals to successfully launch their businesses.

Dr. Peters saw a need to teach these fundamentals in a way that would be shareable across the region. The University of Namibia needed to develop a course that would address the need for African AI expertise and, therefore, the needs of these startups. However, that would require funding.

In 2020, Dr. Peters learned of Google‚Äôs new pilot funding program, the Award for Inclusion Research Program (AIR), managed by the University Relations team within Google Research. They had an open call for applications. Dr. Peters believed securing funding and mentorship from Google’s AIR pilot program would help maximize the impact of the AI startups, break down barriers and bridge connections.

‚ÄúYou have to start small, so it’s hard to convince funders who are looking for big numbers,‚ÄĚ Peters says. ‚ÄúYou know, how many people are you going to be impacting? Namibia has few people compared to other countries.‚ÄĚ However, Google‚Äôs AIR program saw the potential for immediate and long-term impact and selected Dr. Peters for the award.

The funding enabled her to hire a staff member to manage the day-to-day operations of the program. This allowed her team to focus their work on social justice, specifically on inclusion, and ethics, increasing the numbers of African developers and ensuring anyone in Africa could access the resources needed to train as a developer. This funding helped secure these resources and meant they could invite experts to virtually teach, share knowledge and collaborate. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs part of what Google does through the University Relations program,‚ÄĚ Peters adds. ‚ÄúThey enable African university research and tech development.‚ÄĚ

Dr. Peters had big plans to expand this project to other countries across Africa. Thanks to the relationships established through the AIR grant, she secured an additional Google research grant and recruited additional staff members to help with expansion. This expansion allowed the University of Namibia, which has a strong focus on agriculture, to develop AI technologies in partnership with their agricultural department.

‚ÄúAt one stage I was saying ‚Äď Google if you want to come and help us, in Africa, then you have to join hands with those of us on the continent,‚ÄĚ Peters says. ‚ÄúAnd I think that for me, this is one of the main messages: that now we are really walking the path together. That, for me, is very important. It’s the beginning of great things to come.”

Google is currently accepting applications for the Award for Inclusion Research Program. Applications close July 13, 2022 at 11:59pm coordinated universal time (UTC-12).

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