The first time I met Bayo Adekanmbi was at the launch of Nigeria’s first data science and AI-focused hub, the Data Science Nigeria AI Hub at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) a few months ago. I had arrived late for the launch (thanks to worse-than-normal Lagos traffic) and they had almost rounded up when I got there. I managed to catch him, just as he was done explaining the benefits of situating the hub within UNILAG to some guests, and I introduced myself. He thanked me earnestly for coming before going on to patiently answer my questions not minding that I came late. He seemed calm and friendly albeit really tired and a few minutes later we ended the conversation with a firm handshake, a pat on my shoulder and another “thank you for stopping by,” before leaving to attend to other things.
Olubayo (Bayo) Adekanmbi is the Convener of Data Science Nigeria (DSN), a Nigerian non-profit organisation dedicated to accelerating Nigeria’s social and economic development through the solution-oriented application of machine learning/AI to solve social and business problems, “and to galvanize a data science knowledge revolution in Nigeria and beyond.”
He’s also the Chief Transformation Officer at MTN Nigeria where he is responsible for using big data, high level business intelligence and analytics to identify trends and posit new strategies. This involves tons of data sets (MTN is Nigeria’s largest telco with 57 million customers) and strategic, high-level applications of business intelligence (Nigeria is the MTN Group’s’ largest market).
I sat down with Bayo a few weeks ago and over the length of the 48-minute conversation we talked about his life, his motivations, his superhero power, Data Science Nigeria, the future of ML/AI/data science and much more. This is a condensed version of that conversation.
Bayo was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State, hometown of famous Nigerian politician and business mogul, late Moshood MKO Abiola, in “demanding” circumstances. He attended Lishabi Grammar School, a stone’s throw from Abeokuta Grammar School, which has produced the likes of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. “We grew up with parents who believed education is the best – and they struggled to give the best they could as average, hardworking, peasant Nigerian parent who had a dream for the best,” he said.
One time when he was 7 years old, his father brought him on a trip to Lagos which left an indelible mark on him. He recalled: “I knew it was an expensive trip for him just so I could come see so many different things. I saw Bar Beach for the first time in my life – I couldn’t believe it. I saw tall buildings – the best we’d seen were three-storey buildings. He said to me ‘Young man, you need to see beyond how far I’ve gone in life so you can build your own dream’ and that for me was a major moment.”
When they got back home in Abeokuta, his father presented him an atlas. “He told me to look at and said ‘I may not have travelled the world or be able to send you around the world but if you read your books, the world is yours’,” said Bayo. “That for me was that moment where, as a kid, it had to be the best of the best for me.” Many years later, in 2010, Bayo joins South Africa-based MTN Group as Head of Strategy and Analytics.
A year later, he was deployed back to Nigeria (MTN’s largest market) as Senior Manager, Insight and Information Management; rising to General Manager, Business Intelligence within two years. “Being General Manager of Business Intelligence meant you were in charge of data and making sense of the data of millions of customers, looking for patterns, behaviours – and then using that to drive business growth. But I really enjoyed myself and it was one of the best times in my career,” he told me, a reminiscent look on his face.
Bayo didn’t stop there. He won the top staff award at MTN, the Yello Star, in 2014 and shortly after he became Chief Marketing Officer of MTN Nigeria before taking a two-year break from his career to get a PhD in data science/AI and analytics. “I was really into data you know, so I had to take those two years off for my PhD research at City University in London. There I did a lot of data science and then went into artificial intelligence and found myself building solutions, especially because I came from the industry. I wasn’t only doing the academics, I could also see the business relevance of these solutions because I came from that place in the industry,” he said. “The effort was worth it as it culminated in a data science patent in my name on a social pricing recommendation algorithm on final approval at the US parent office.”
The Idea for Nigeria’s First AI and Data Science Hub is born
During a trip to over four countries to study the effects and applications of something called “social pricing”, a concept that aims to upscale supply-side strategy by studying how to price things for the poor using their social networks.
“I was in Bangalore, India as part of my four-country trip because this thing [social pricing] requires massive amounts of data and there I saw young chaps, in maybe secondary school or just getting into the university, doing data science projects, building AI solutions for foreign companies. I looked at the roads, the power, the circumstances and thought this is not different from what we see in Lagos so why can’t we have these skills in Lagos? I’d found another way to apply my passion for data science,” said Bayo of the experience that inspired the birth of Data Science Nigeria, the AI/data science-focused non-profit he founded.
Bayo returned to Nigeria in October 2016 after his PhD and by January 2017, he’d launched Data Science Nigeria (DSN). According to Bayo, the motivations for DSN are to drive conversations around AI as a platform for social and economic development as well as the development of local innovation. The organisation also aims to underscore a movement to provide new levels of insight for businesses to accelerate incremental growth.
Fulfilling the purpose of DSN wasn’t just going to be a walk in the park. As Bayo had found out during his research, academia, the developer community and industry – which play key roles in the advance (or regress) of AI innovation – are super isolated in Nigeria and they don’t interact with each often enough to spur a cataclysmic change in the segment.
“There is a lot of brilliance in Nigeria, trust me,” said Bayo. “I mentor a lot of PhD students and I am wowed all the time. The problem is that there is no platform for these guys and other young chaps out there to validate or test their ideas. So there must be a platform driven by people who are respected to be able to allow for a synergy of those three disparate groups in a mutually beneficial ecosystem that is transparent and designed to serve the public good. Those are the KPIs for Data Science Nigeria.”
Since then, Data Science Nigeria has grown rapidly. They’ve organised bootcamps, a big data summit, a mentorship program, and they are working on an inter-university competition. Between July 2017 and June 2018, over 11,000 people participated in DSN’s offline and online learning initiatives, it grew its mentor network to over 100 PhD-level academic and industry practitioners, supported 4 Nigeria-centric data science products and secured 38 direct job placements for Nigerian data scientists.
Back in June, DSN launched Nigeria’s first AI and data science hub at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) from donor funding and a partnership with the University. In terms of funding, DSN is funded by donations and according to this DSN report, Bayo and his wife, Toyin, are DSN’s biggest donors with total contributions of N14 million (~$38,000).
Superhero power: multitasking
Bayo believes he is a “being of higher purposes” and his super power is multitasking. The latter part is easy to believe because between his responsibilities as Chief Transformation Officer at MTN Nigeria, convener of DSN and his family, I was amazed when he told me he still competes actively on Kaggle, a sort of competition platform for data scientists. He’s even atop the leaderboard of one of the competitions – he’s been leading for 7 months.
He said he’s also lucky to have a very supportive family (his wife is at every DSN event).
Bayo hopes to take DSN beyond Nigeria and into the rest of Africa. The organisation will be looking at expanding its capabilities, training more people, leading conversations in the space and focusing on health systems, smart cities and social impact. He also envisions a future where data science and AI applications can be leveraged to create wide-reaching ripple effects that enhance both the social and economic prospects of Nigerians.
According Bayo, there was a 3-,5-,10 and 20-year plan for DSN before it launched and good progress is being made on those plans. Of DSN’s 11-point agenda for its 3-year plan, which it’s currently in, its already hit 9 of them. They are building a data crowdsourcing platform, planning an “AI Village,” among many other projects.
Apart from the sheer brilliance of the man, one of my biggest takeaways from my conversation with Bayo Adekanmbi was his firm belief in the responsibility of his privilege. In his word, “I can just sit here and enjoy the fruits of my labor but somebody has to do it. It’s not convenient, its expensive and it takes a whole lot of time but somebody has to do it. I am a person of strong faith in God and I believe that great privilege comes with great responsibility and this is what sustains the momentum to give back.”