One of the most important awards at Deep Learning Indaba is the Maathai Impact Award. This award, rightfully honours Prof. Wangari Maathai, and encourages and recognises work by African innovators that shows impactful application of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. For Kenyans, Wangari Maathai is not just the Nobel Peace Prize winner, she is the reason we enjoy Uhuru park and numerous green parks in the country. We don’t just know Wangari Maathai, we live her impact and legacy. 

Prof. Wangari Maatha left us a blueprint of how to create impact in the societies we live in. This is the blueprint I would like to share today through her words. This is the blueprint that, in my opinion, has led to the success of Deep Learning Indaba and the impact it has had across the continent and beyond. Prof Maathai told the story of the hummingbird. 

“The story of the hummingbird is about this huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals in the forest come out and they are transfixed as they watch the forest burning and they feel very overwhelmed, very powerless, except this little hummingbird. It says, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So it flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It puts it on the fire, and goes up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it can.

In the meantime all the other animals, much bigger animals like the elephant with a big trunk that could bring much more water, are standing there helpless. And they are saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time. 

But as they continue to discourage it, it turns to them without wasting any time and it tells them, ‘I am doing the best I can.’ And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always be like a hummingbird. I may be insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching the planet go down the drain. I will be a hummingbird, I will do the best I can.” 

The Deep Learning Indaba is an encapsulation of this spirit: multiple hummingbirds doing what they can. It is these hummingbirds that formed the team that has brought to the attention of the world the incredible work happening in the African continent around AI and Machine Learning. It is these hummingbirds that led to the creation of Masakhane which continues to have incredible impact in the continent. It is these hummingbirds that pull off the ultimate African AI experience. These hummingbirds have saved our forest. 

I will be a hummingbird and my call to action today is for you to be a hummingbird. Volunteer to review papers and posters at the Indaba. Help organise an IndabaX in your country. Donate to the Indaba charity. Volunteer to mentor someone to write their first scientific paper through our mentorship programme. Be a hummingbird and help bring us closer to Masirouna- Our Destiny.

To the existing hummingbirds, thank you. Your work matters. I am sure Prof. Maathai would be proud.

– Albert Njoroge Kahira, Chair of the 2024 Publications Committee and long time organiser for the Deep Learning Indaba. May 2024.