May 11, 2023

How Ishango.ai is creating life-changing opportunities for African data science talent – Faith’s story

Our mission at Ishango.ai is to create high-skill data science jobs in Africa and demonstrate the wealth of talent that exists in the region. Through our data science programme, we upskill and connect African data science talent to remote working opportunities with global companies. Below, Faith Neema Benson, an Ishango data scientist from Kenya, shares her journey into the data science field and how the programme has impacted her career and life.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did your interest in mathematics develop?
I come from a very humble background. My mother is a housewife with a primary school education, and my father is a casual worker who went as far as high school. I am the first member of my family to go to university. I come from a very remote area in Kilifi, Kenya, where I started my education at a government primary school.
It was here that I discovered my passion for mathematics and solving problems. My interest in the sciences continued into secondary school, where I opted to study mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics.
I have always taken my education very seriously because I believed that education was the only way to get myself and my family out of poverty. I had it in my mind that in order to succeed, I had to do well in the most difficult subjects, which is why I chose mathematics. I was determined to compete with the boys because I did not want to be left behind and wanted to prove that I could be just as good as them.

How did you discover data science?
After completing secondary school, I got admitted to study for a Bachelor of Sciences at the university. However, I had to sit out a year and work in order to raise my tuition. When I eventually joined the university, I worked very hard and graduated with distinction. I was then offered a scholarship to the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa, where I pursued a Master’s in Mathematical Sciences. This experience presented a new challenge, as I was not exposed to computers growing up and only had a theoretical knowledge of computer programming at this point. I felt very out of my depth and would sometimes cry. However, with the support of my classmates and colleagues, I was able to graduate with an honorary mention. After that, I got another scholarship to study for the African Masters in Machine Intelligence at AIMS Ghana. It was here that I discovered machine learning and was excited to learn that I could apply my mathematical skills to create practical solutions.

Was it easy to find employment after you completed your studies?
After completing my second master’s, I returned to Kilifi, looking forward to applying all the knowledge and skills I had acquired. However, I was disheartened to find that there were no opportunities for me to do so. Kilifi, being a small town, has very few job opportunities, particularly in areas such as data science. Failing to find a job, I ended up selling soap from door to door for a year in order to support myself. It was then that I heard about the Ishango.ai fellowship programme which offered a chance to gain practical experience in data science by working on projects for international companies. I jumped at the opportunity, worked hard on my application, and was admitted to the programme.

How has being part of the Ishango.ai programme helped accelerate your data science career?
During the Ishango programme which was hosted at AIMS Rwanda, I was assigned to work on a project for Elder Research, a data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence consultancy based in the US. My teammate and I were tasked with building a machine-learning model to predict when parts in a hydroelectric power plant were likely to fail.
The Ishango.ai programme experience was life-changing. I got the opportunity to work with an international team and learn from world-leading experts in the data science field. I have been exposed to working with people from other cultures and across different time zones. After the fellowship, I was awarded a contract and returned to Kilifi, where I have been able to continue working remotely on the project for Elder Research.

What has your experience of working remotely been like? Do you think this model could help solve the unemployment challenge in Africa?
Working remotely has taken some adaptation. I had to become very effective at communicating using email and tools like Slack. You have to be self-motivated and disciplined to keep on top of things. Having this opportunity opened many doors for me. Working for an international company, I am able to earn a salary that is very competitive compared to the local market. This has enabled me to build a house for my parents and pay school fees for my two younger siblings.
I think the remote working model can really help to develop Africa. Many young Africans want to move abroad. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that; however, if we all go, then who is going to develop our countries? With remote working, I am able to remain at home and give back to my community. For example, I have been supporting girls in my community by providing sanitary products to enable them to go to school. I can also share what I have learnt with my fellow citizens and motivate others by showing them that they too can succeed.