On Saturday 22 March 2020, Zindi hosted the first ever pan-African inter-university hackathon, UmojaHack Africa. This groundbreaking event took place in extraordinary circumstances with the world in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless and in spite of escalating university closures as governments introduced safety precautions to counter the pandemic, students from 70 universities in 15 African countries competed for cash prizes, and seized the opportunity to collaborate and hone their machine learning skills.
The day kicked off with a brief address from Celina Lee, CEO of Zindi, as she welcomed the participants and sponsors to the event. Paul Kennedy, Zindi’s Community Coordinator, then followed with a recap of the competition rules. As each of the hackathon challenges was a machine learning problem, one of Zindi’s resident data scientists, Jonathan “Jono” Whitaker, took a few minutes to explain the background to each competition. He also provided some useful programming hints and guidelines on how participants could make their first submissions.
There were messages too from our sponsors, including African Bank and Microsoft. Lawrence Muthoga of Microsoft4Afrika was particularly enthused to see Africans working passionately to provide African solutions to African problems.
The diverse challenges on offer exposed competitors to a wide range of data science and machine learning techniques, often for the first time. They included a fire outbreak prediction challenge using data collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo; a challenge to classify marine invertebrates from images taken in South African waters (hosted by SAEON); and finally a challenge to predict customer’s purchasing behaviour for e-commerce customers in Uganda (hosted by Xente). Each challenge was chosen to have wide-reaching potential to make a positive impact within their respective domains while providing a unique challenge for the eager competitors.
And then the day more than 1000 eager students had been waiting for, began! The event was live streamed on YouTube with regular transmissions from the various locations around Africa. At the University of Malawi The Polytechnic, Zindi Ambassador Sam Masikini told us how excited their university was to be participating. “We’ve being looking forward to UmojaHack Africa for months here, and we’re so grateful to all the groups that have helped to make this possible, especially considering the coronavirus pandemic.”
With participants competing from the relative safety of their homes, Upendo Mchome from Tanzania summed up the feelings of the day. “Such a thrill knowing that students from over 70 African universities are working towards the same goal - solving challenges in Africa using Data Science,” she wrote on Twitter.
Participants worked tirelessly all day and made just under 2500 submissions across the three challenges. It was especially encouraging to see a significant proportion of women competing, as well as 164 submissions that came from people who were submitting a solution to Zindi for the very first time. After 7.5 hours of hard work, the winners came from Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, and the Higher School of Communication of Tunis (SUPCOM) in Tunisia. Thanks to sponsors and partners Microsoft, African Bank, Google AI, GIZ, Liquid Telecom, Alliance4ai, Instadeep, The Field Institute, and Data Science Nigeria, Zindi will distribute almost $20,000 in prizes to winners and their universities.
But it wasn’t only about the cash prizes. As long-time Zindian Lawrence Moruye of Multimedia University of Kenya said, “On Zindi you either win or you learn. There is no lose", and this was evident in the camaraderie of the students, the buzz and excitement on social media, and messages of gratitude and support that poured in from participants all over Africa.
At a time when communities all over the world face uncertainty and isolation, UmojaHack Africa was a glowing testament to the power of Zindi’s online platform and community, where hundreds of Africans could hold hands and collaborate joyfully across locked borders.
This post was written by Ekow Duker, COO of Zindi, MD of Ixio Analytics, and author of four novels about the brutality, love, fragility and hope of life in modern day Africa.