In the New Year, Shakir Mohamed (Deep Learning Indaba Co-founder and Trustee) put forward an inspiring message to the Deep Learning Indaba organisers, aptly titled “Planting the Flag of Knowledge in 2024 and Beyond,”. This message quoted Mariama Bâ’s, a Senegalese author, equally poignant post from her first book titled, ‘So Long a Letter‘ – “[You] form a noble army accomplishing daily feats, never praised, never decorated. An army without drums, without gleaming uniforms. This army, thwarting traps and snares, everywhere plants the flag of knowledge and morality”. I have since found myself contemplating my various volunteering journeys since 2018. These experiences can be encapsulated in a single, resonant idea: contributing to planting this flag of knowledge. 

The mission of the Indaba – our mission – which focusses on strengthening the African Machine Learning ecosystem, is more critical now than ever. It is a mission that thrives on collective effort, where each contribution, be it yours or mine, is a pivotal thread in this tapestry of progress and innovation.

Reflecting on my role as Chair of the Deep Learning Indaba’s application and selection committee in 2023, I am reminded of the humility and inspiration drawn from this volunteer position. The experience brought me face-to-face with the sheer talent and diversity within our continent. Our team, a vibrant mix of individuals from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, and Tunisia, exemplifies the Indaba’s core – a beautiful blend of cultures uniting for a singular purpose: to amplify the impact of the Deep Learning Indaba and foster a diverse, inclusive community. Our community members – you – are integral to this vision, each driven by a common objective to advance the mission of the Indaba and be a catalyst for the community. Now, the mantle passes to you, with the call to continue this legacy and spread the word about the Indaba. Together, we will continue to plant the flag of knowledge, envisioning the day we rest beneath the shade of a tree as sturdy as the Baobab, rooted in our collective efforts.

The Indaba, as you know, is more than a conference. It’s a congregation of a community passionate about positioning our ecosystem at the forefront of the next major technological revolution – artificial intelligence. Our daily efforts are dedicated to putting Africa and Africans on the global map. We seek knowledge beyond our borders, nurturing talent and giving back to the communities that have shaped us. We embrace our limitations not as barriers but as challenges that spur innovation. In our uniqueness lies our strength. Each hurdle we overcome adds to our resilience, moving us forward. We are Africans. United, we can accomplish the extraordinary.

As I close, let me remind you of the power of service. Dedicating your energy, time, and heart to a cause you believe in is truly fulfilling. Yet, as my dear friend Siobhan insightfully points out, the ability to volunteer, for example, with an organisation like the Deep Learning Indaba to organise the biggest Machine Learning conference in Africa, is a privilege that may not be available to everyone. However, volunteering need not be at this scale. In fact, volunteering encompasses a wide array of activities, many of which might seem minor but are profoundly impactful. Such activities may include teaching a class at your community meetup, assisting a friend in comprehending a paper, offering encouragement during a hackathon, sharing potential opportunities with people in your network, or even acting as an accountability partner for someone in your community. These actions, while they may appear small, play a significant role in fostering an educative, supportive and collaborative environment. 

If ever you doubt the impact of your contribution, remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.” Your participation, however small it may seem, is an essential component in our collective effort to strengthen the African Machine Learning ecosystem. 

Together, let’s continue to plant and nurture the seeds of knowledge for a stronger, more connected African Machine Learning ecosystem.

Yours in service and unity,

– Tejumade Afonja, 2023 Chair of the Applications Committee and co- founder of AI Saturdays Lagos. February 2024.