Volume 2023, Number January (2023), Pages 1-6
Innovation Leaders: A conversation with Grace IbukunOluwa Ufeoshi: Preparing African youth for the future of work in the IT ecosystem
Ubiquity's senior editor Dr. Bushra Anjum chats with Grace IbukunOluwa Ufeoshi, a data science professional and AI entrepreneur, about her passion for preparing the underprivileged African youth for the future of work in the IT ecosystem. They discuss IbukunOluwa's journey as a computer science educator and community leader, and her latest initiatives to equip young people with the requisite skills needed to apply AI in solving real social and business problems—especially in areas of socio-economic development across Africa.
Grace IbukunOluwa Ufeoshi is a certified data science and artificial intelligence professional and a freelance ML-Data Scientist. She was one of the city leads who championed the AI+ program in Nigeria at Data Scientist Network (DSN), a non-profit with a mission to raise one million AI talents in 10 years across Africa. She is an avid volunteer at building tech communities—promoting interests in STEM among kids and teens, mentoring girls/women, and early career professionals in the field of computing. She is a member of ACM's Local Mentoring Committee, where she provides help to organizers who are looking for introductions, creative ideas, facilitating meetings, and thought leadership. IbukunOluwa served as a quality assurance analyst in the aviation industry for four years before she ventured into the emerging field of artificial intelligence. She is also a tech entrepreneur on the verge of launching a startup that offers ad placement on premium digital signages with AI capabilities across Africa. IbukunOluwa can be reached via https://linktr.ee/graceufeoshi
What is your big concern about the future of computing to which you are dedicating yourself?
We are living in a period of accelerating change in the history of technology, with the hype around everything data, like the internet of things, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, metaverse, autonomous vehicles, and so on. With the rapid advancement in technology, a lot is changing, and this will further shape the lives of the younger generation. Young people represent the future workforce of any economy. As per a 2015 UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs' Population Factsheet, young people constitute one-sixth of the world's population, and their number is expected to grow by 7% to 1.3 billion by 2030. More importantly, among the 47 least developed countries, the youth population between the ages of 15 and 24 years is projected to increase by 62% over the next three decades, with Sub-Saharan Africa having the most increase of 89% by 2050. As per the UN State of the World's Youth, with this sporadic rise in the youth population in Africa, about 60% are unemployed, and most resort to taking up menial jobs, learning a trade, or going into small-scale business to make ends meet. While privileged youths go ahead to study for advanced degrees or level up their skills by auditing online courses to stay relevant in the competing job market. The question of whether the less privileged ones acquired the requisite skills needed from school to make them stand out in the job market is, therefore, an essential consideration for discourse.
With the advent of AI, it will become increasingly difficult for many youths to be employable in Africa in the coming years as the jobs that are being created are such that will require new skills that are yet to be included in the school's curriculum. There will be a skill gap for the successful integration of youths into the world of work, and if this is not addressed, it could lead to a growing youth population with a degraded economy contributing to a menace to the world at large. Young people have very creative minds when exposed to the right things. We cannot undermine their innovative prowess when they are made to understand computing concepts in artificial intelligence like computer vision, reinforcement learning, machine learning, etc. If these concepts and their applications are simplified and introduced to them at a young age, they will begin to reason like problem solvers and think about how to apply these concepts to problems inherent within society. These would also provide jobs for the expanding youth populace and produce many young entrepreneurs. These issues stimulated my interest in researching strategies on how to introduce youths to future technologies like AI and ensure they gain the requisite skills that will empower them to create solutions to support the expanding workforce and growing economy.
What originally sparked your interest in the field of AI? Also, what were your initial encounters with the underprivileged youth of Nigeria that fueled your interest in serving them?
My quest into the field of AI began while I was working as a quality assurance administrator and analyst at Med-view Airline. As an analyst, I worked with a large volume of raw data resulting from quality audits, mandatory occurrences reports, air safety reports, and lots more. I was fascinated by the links and connections that the data revealed, and this sparked my interest in data science. I was thrilled by how much the bottom line of a business can be affected by the proper interpretation and use of business data. As a knowledge-driven individual, in my quest for more, I began my research in the field of AI, the benefits it offers, and its impact on our society. While coming across an insight report published by the World Economic Forum in 2018 about the future of work and the fourth industrial revolution, I became convinced that AI was the game-changer. I pivoted into AI and machine learning (ML) with plans to solve problems, create solutions, and impart knowledge as a means of helping others find their path in the field.
My passion for reaching out to youths became ignited after graduating from college in 2011. I participated in a one-year community service program called the National Youth Service Program in Katsina, which is in northern Nigeria. My place of primary assignment was at a junior school for girls in a remote village called Mashi, where little or no effort had been made to improve the general standard of living. It was a community of happy people who lived in mud houses and rode on camels to transport produce from their farms. As I took up the role of a computer studies educator at the school, I encountered passionate youths who were eager to embrace new concepts and skills but were constrained to a mundane school curriculum and archaic social norms. As a result, some students, out of ignorance, would prefer to sneak out during school hours to sell in the markets, miss classes to attend to other family matters, or work on their parents' farmland. These actions were major issues facing other schools within the community.
What were some of the first projects where you combined your passion for community service and AI? What were some of the challenges and outcomes?
Besides my primary assignment at the school, there was a requirement to join a Community Development Service (CDS) group where corps members of similar areas of interest come together to solve a problem within the community under the auspices of different CDS groups. I joined the Information Technology Community development group and was assigned the function of the secretary-general of the group. As the secretary-general of the info-tech community development group, I set up a brainstorming session with my teammates on how to address the issues of students' attitudes to learning and lack of exposure to current technological trends. We decided to set out on an awareness campaign to schools within the community to sensitize students on societal needs, how they as individuals have a significant role to play by putting up the right attitude, and how to develop a solution-oriented approach to solving local problems within their community using technology. Then, we encountered a challenge, only two schools had a computer laboratory, and students were not granted access to them due to issues of theft and misuse of the laboratories. As such, the students did not know how to use computers but were good with theories of how they work. As a result, we met the management of the two schools to seek their consent to address the senior school students and organize basic hands-on training, and they embraced the idea.
The result of the program produced positive results as the students had a grasp of how to use computers and became resolute to put up a better attitude toward learning. My experience with the students brought to my awareness the fact that there are still some communities with knowledge gaps in technology, and empowering teens and youths is vital to community growth and development. After the conclusion of my service year, that experience stirred up a passion in me to reach out to young people and equip them with requisite tech skills to help spur development in their resident cities.
How are you continuing to groom younger African youths for the global tech ecosystem? What are some of your future plans?
According to the World Economic Forum in its 2020 report, artificial intelligence is one of the drivers of change that will possibly impact business growth. Also, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a large-scale shift to the remote and hybrid workplace. This will give a fair advantage to talents getting access to jobs without geographic barriers. Youth empowerment is, therefore, highly crucial in Africa to help alleviate societal decadence. During my time spent as the AI Benin City Lead at Data Scientist Network (DSN), I managed a team that mentored youths in data science and ML to equip them with the requisite skills needed to apply AI in solving real social and business problems, especially areas of socio-economic development. After the program, a nationwide Kaggle hackathon was organized by DSN, and five of DSN Benin community members came top 20 out of 241 participants across the nation. This proved that if youths are given the right opportunities, they will perform exceptionally well.
From my experience in community building, I observed that training is not self-sufficient, but mentorship, real-life application of learning, soft-skilling, career advisory, and entrepreneurship programs are key to helping youths succeed in their chosen careers. As such, in Q1 2023, I will be launching a six-month mentorship program that will reach out to 500,000 teens and youths over the next five years across Africa. This will help support the United Nations SDG 8 for decent work and economic growth. Participants will be trained in top skills of the future, like AI, ML, and cloud computing and undergo an intensive project-based mentorship program that will help them land their first jobs, freelancing gigs, or launch their start-ups. A snowballing mentorship approach will be used, such that the first cohort, self-sponsored by me, will consist of 20 participants who will be trained, mentored, and established. These will, in turn, mentor at least 3–5 persons for six months. This program aims to equip young people with AI skills, stimulate their curiosity, spur volunteerism, and ultimately provide a springboard for Africa's growth and development.
As a member of ACM's local mentoring committee, supporting community organizers of the local program, I plan to promote volunteerism among young people about ACM activities because volunteering is an opportunity to give back to the community, explore a world of possibilities, and produce astounding innovations. Volunteering will also provide the platform to showcase their talents, leverage relationships, and create transformational impact in the communities where they engage.
While doing community building, I am passionate about building a solution around what I love, to improve the local economy, and create jobs and opportunities for others. As such, I am working on floating a startup that offers MSMEs the opportunity to advertise their goods and services on premium digital signages using AI to automate scheduling, content screening, and other functionalities. I plan to bring on board other youths within my community who would like to apply their learning and hone their skills.
My thought on the true definition of leadership is about influencing the people around you and improving other people's lives through imparting knowledge. For those who would like to be a part of my program, I will be sharing further details about this on my website and LinkedIn page. You can reach me for more details here. For others with similar interests, I encourage you to keep investing in young people as this will provide a positive impact on the growth of your society and eventually improve the overall economy's GDP.
Bushra Anjum, Ph.D., is a health IT data specialist currently working as the Senior Analytics Manager at the San Francisco based health tech firm Doximity. Aimed at creating HIPAA secure tools for clinicians, she leads a team of analysts, scientists, and engineers working on product and client-facing analytics. Formerly a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan, Dr. Anjum served in academia (both in Pakistan and the USA) for many years before joining the tech industry. A keen enthusiast of promoting diversity in the STEM fields, her volunteer activities, among others, involve being a senior editor for ACM Ubiquity and the Standing Committee's Chair for ACM-W global leadership. She can be contacted via the contact page bushraanjum.info/contact or via Twitter @DrBushraAnjum.
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