Sam Masikini: The young AI entrepreneur growing the data science community in Malawi
When we gave Sam Masikini a Zindi shirt at the Deep Learning Indaba 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, he was so excited he did a backflip right there in the conference hall in front of the Zindi booth, where he met Celina Lee, the co-founder and CEO of Zindi, and Amy Bray, the Competitions Lead. If anything his enthusiasm and passion for Zindi has grown since then, he has become an integral part of the community, anchored the recently concluded UmojaHack Africa 2022 event as MC, and is growing into a tech entrepreneur in his own right.
The journey into data science
Sam Masikini is a young AI entrepreneur, co-founder of Inspirelearn, and Zindi’s country ambassador for Malawi. He graduated from the University of Malawi Polytechnic, where he studied Information Technology.
“In 2018, I took much inspiration from my lecturer Dr Amelia Taylor — she was my Artificial Intelligence lecturer at the polytechnic. I learned a bit about machine learning and was passionate about it. So, I took my learning outside classes and practised more in my free time”
Around this time, Sam became active in learning and participating in machine learning activities, practising concepts and ideas he had become familiar with, and eventually building models that helped solve real problems. He ended up having two primary projects, an automated home system — an AI assistant for homes — and a banknote identification system to identify fake and worn-out notes. The latter project was born out of genuine concern to curb the increased spread of fake banknotes in Malawi at that time.
“Both projects turned out to have so much potential that my lecturer, Dr Taylor, identified me and I pitched my prototypes at the IndabaX event.” Sam explains. Luckily enough I won the competition. The project that stood out was the AI-controlled home assistant ‘TANDI’, which directly translates to “Help”. The system was designed for special needs individuals and the older population who might need help as their age progresses.”
As if on a winning spree, Sam went on to win an award from the ICT Association of Malawi — a recognition that not only put him in the spotlight but was also a significant motivating experience that fueled his learning journey.
Growing in Zindi…and the community in Malawi
“Zindi has raised me in this community — a community like an army of data scientists across Africa. I view it as my parents and grandparents in data science. And no matter where I go or find myself, Zindi will always be like a home I can always come back to.”
In 2020, Sam became Zindi’s country ambassador for Malawi and has never held back his love for the community. He points out his favourite thing about the community is the culture — the sense of unity and humility that connects individuals across Africa.
As a Zindi ambassador, Sam is highly invested in growing the data science community in Malawi. Through Zindi, he has been able to visit several universities to introduce data science to students who are not aware of the field.
“Although data science and AI are still premature in Malawi, I’m trying my best to bring some relevant solutions to my community, the nation, and Africa in general. And one of such ways is by introducing these young students to the Zindi community and data science at its most basic form.”
Passion and projects in the education sector
Sam believes the basics of data science and ML should be introduced to the youth, to pique their interest at an early stage of their lives. He explains that data drives the world we currently live in, and the earlier the young people can see the potential of data science and ML in every sector — not just IT, but finance, education, agriculture, health, and beyond — the easier it will be for them to develop their interest and skills.
“I’m still making proposals — there are very small steps but I’m sure I will be able to break through with the help of these stakeholders that design our curriculum, especially senior secondary school. They should be able to introduce this aspect of ML or data science. So when they’re enrolling and about to enter university, they can already be thinking about career paths.”
He’s also very keen on reassessing Africa’s educational infrastructure with AI.
“I’m particularly focusing on educational technology. It doesn’t use AI in this initial stage but we’re going to collect a lot of data, nationwide. And then we’re going to spread it into neighbouring countries like Zambia, Tanzania, and the likes. The plan is to accumulate enough data in the African educational space, with which real AI and machine learning algorithms will be deployed to map out exactly what the education infrastructure is like in these countries.”
Currently, the young ambassador is trying to make learning materials simply accessible for the senior secondary students in remote locations through his startup, Inspirelearn — an e-learning platform that targets the rural populations of Malawi.
“Learning can always be used for good causes because wherever the world is going, data science will be at the centre of it,” he says.
For Sam Masikini, building AI solutions is no longer showbiz but a career driven by social impact; and so far, it’s been two eventful years exploring the industry, learning, building models, and leading impactful projects. He encourages aspiring data scientists to never stop learning and have fun while doing that. Fortunately, Malawians and aspiring data scientists across Africa have Sam as a role model to inspire them.
Zindi ambassadors play a critical role in creating awareness and social involvement at the grassroots level and helping Zindi build community. If you feel you have what it takes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ambassador Query”.