I arrive at the venue a few hours early to check the setup and prepare for registration. It’s almost eerily quiet, just the occasional light hum of activity around as volunteers, suppliers and sponsors make last minute adjustments. The calm before the storm. All those months of late nights preparing, the moment has finally come! There’s a sense of excitement, anticipation and anxiety which makes the quiet a bit disconcerting. But before I know it the first busses arrive from the dorms carrying hundreds of excited Indaba participants. There’s cheers, jumping for joy, high fives and hugs all around as old friends meet again and new ones are made. The registration desks are buzzing as people search for their name tags and collect their swag and then off to the first sessions. The craziness of the Indaba week has begun!

It begins as early as 6AM with some wellness activities, then breakfast, off to a keynote, a quick coffee break and then the tough choice of which parallel session to attend. I wish I could somehow clone myself and attend them all! Off to lunch for a chance to catch up with friends or meet some new people, then another difficult choice, which practical to attend? Or which of the hundreds of amazing posters do I see? Grab a quick coffee to keep the energy levels up, and off to a panel discussion, so many more people to talk to on the walk over to the other building! A bit overstimulated, I disappear for half an hour to take a break, it’s OK, the sessions are recorded so I can always catch up afterwards. Feeling re-energised, it’s off to an evening event, more socialising, drinks and dinner, the daunting task of saying a few words in front of a massive audience. Back to the hotel around 10PM, check emails and prepare for the next day, then repeat it all again, 5 more times! 

Many people ask me to describe what the Indaba week is like. We’ve always tried to recreate the energy of the big international machine learning conferences, and have far exceeded expectations there. The Indaba has all of that energy and so much more. It’s a place where there is incredible diversity, with 37 different African countries represented this year and a 50-50 gender split. It’s so clear though that we’re all connected by a common set of values, Ubuntu, of community, and by the desire to leverage the coming age of technological progress for the betterment of our home continent.. Whether from Algeria or Zimbabwe, we have so much more in common than we may initially realise. The Indaba feels like a place where we belong.

The community spirit of the Indaba has been the key to its success. New research collaborations have formed, companies and organisations have started, and lifelong friends have been made, all from conversations that sparked at the Indaba! We’ve not done a great job of tracking or systematically quantifying the impact of the Indaba over the years, and this is something we’d like to improve upon. But it is clear when you see the steadily increasing contingent of Africans at top international machine learning conferences, not just attending, but actively participating with their research. When, by removing barriers to participation such as visas and long expensive international travel, ICLR 2023 in Rwanda felt like an Indaba reunion! When we see organisations like Masakhane or Sisonke Biotik and the tremendous growth in African companies like InstaDeep and Lelapa.ai, we know the Indaba is fulfilling its mission of strengthening AI and machine learning in Africa. 

Before you know it, it’s all over, sad goodbyes are said. The trip back home is quiet and lonely. The post-Indaba blues they call it… after a rest, the Indaba inspiration and belief in the power of community fuels us in our careers and we stay connected through our online platforms, until next year, when we meet in person again! 

– Avishkar Bhoopchand, General Chair and Member of the Executive Board. August 2023.