Demonstrating Africa’s contribution to science

Aji Busso Dieng is passionate about nurturing science and technology education in Africa.Credit: Samir A. Khan

Voices from Africa

In the next part of a series on the career experiences of African scientists, Aji Busso Dieng shares how Africans who have succeeded in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can give back to the continent.

Dieng, a researcher in artificial intelligence (AI) at Princeton University in New Jersey and Google Research in New York, is the founder and president of the non-profit educational organization The Africa I Know (TAIK). The group presents the success stories of scientists, shares lessons from African historians and facilitates the path to primary, secondary and higher education for students in Africa.

I was born and raised in Senegal to a family of 15 siblings. My mother did not finish high school, and my father did not go to school at all. He died at a young age. I don’t know what made my mother insist on sending me and all my siblings to school, but I thank her every day.

I was particularly attracted to STEM topics, but I didn’t have anyone in my family who knew about careers in this field. In 2005, before my last year of high school, I went to a summer camp in Burkina Faso, sponsored by the Pathfinder Foundation, an organization in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire that promotes girls’ education in Africa. While there, I met its founder, Cheick Modibo Diarra, an African astrophysicist who worked at NASA.

After high school I studied in France, then visited Télécom Paris, part of the École Polytechnique in Paris. I then spent a year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, earning two master’s degrees in engineering and applied statistics. After graduating in 2013, I worked in Washington as a junior professional risk manager at the World Bank, which lends money to low-income countries. But I left after a year; I felt that the impact of my work in Africa was not palpable.

I also heard about machine learning and AI and in 2014 I started my PhD in this field at Columbia University in New York.

I graduated in May 2020 and three days later I created TAIK. My inspiration was the negative performance of Africa that I have experienced since leaving Senegal. There is this misconception, widespread in popular culture, that all Africans are poor and poor and incapable of much. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt even more strongly that we Africans needed to counter this story.

I said, “Let’s tell these stories from our side.” I want the people of the continent to be inspired by all the Africans who are doing amazing things at STEM around the world. This is what I would like as a young person in Senegal – to know more about the contribution of Africans to STEM throughout history.

Wide range

TAIK has three pillars. The Inspire Pillar shares stories of Africans who have succeeded in STEM. The Inform pillar allows students to know what they can do with a STEM background. The Pillar of Education tells African history – including the history of science – from an African perspective. We also run enrollment programs for children across Africa and provide them with information on different areas of education, how to apply to university and postgraduate school, and how to find funding.

TAIK is for people of African descent everywhere. We want our content to be accessible, so our website is in Swahili, French, English and Arabic. At TAIK, we are investing in pan-African optimism – we see a great future for Africa and its people. But we also have a pragmatic approach – we know the problems and solutions that could work.

We want to see a world in which young Africans have the education and confidence they need to build their continent. You can’t look to the future if you don’t have a solid knowledge of where you come from. Some of the historical “facts” they told us are untrue. There are amazing women who have fought colonialism in Africa, but we are not taught about them.

Last September, I set up a research group at Princeton to study how AI can tackle energy, climate science and health issues. When I started this journey, I thought that all children deserve the same opportunity. So last year, TAIK launched an annual campaign in Senegal called Education Pour Tous, or Education for All, to go door-to-door in slums to convince parents that children, especially girls, should be enrolled in school. . Sometimes there is an opinion that girls should not go to school, and many families do not have the means to afford school fees and supplies, so we hand out backpacks full of notebooks, pens and pencils. In 2021, we partnered with a Senegalese non-governmental organization called Team Niintche and enrolled more than 1,100 children in primary school. We raise money for this effort through the GoFundMe platform.

Shared mission

Many of the TAIK volunteers are African scientists for whom our website resonates. They share similar stories of how they travel the world and do not see themselves presented in the right way. When I ask them why they want to join TAIK, they say, “We want to change the story, we have great stories.”

Currently, TAIK has about 40 main volunteers and it is hard work to manage them, I will not lie. There are challenges for those based in Africa: power outages, slow internet connections and occasional language barriers. This is not an easy job, but it is an important job that needs to be done. We are all in a virtual workplace in the online Slack platform and everyone knows who is doing what. It is important that TAIK is managed transparently: it enables people to take ownership and be the drivers of work.

For others who would like to set up a non-profit organization in Africa, one piece of advice is to look for great people who believe in the mission and have a good work ethic. We are ambitious at TAIK and we made sure at the beginning that everyone knows the expectations. I already have a lot of work to do as an assistant, so if it was just for fun, I wouldn’t do it anymore.

I am happy to be able to return through TAIK. We have a story on our website about a discovery made by a 13-year-old boy from Tanzania in 1963. The Mpemba effect, named after him, describes how boiling water freezes faster than water at lower temperatures. When we posted this story on Twitter, a woman from Zimbabwe retweeted it with the comment: “I shared this article with my son and now he wants to do an experiment. You never know who will read it and see themselves, and you will know that they can do it too.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

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