October 8, 2020

Creating a New Generation of African Data Scientists

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TECH TOOLS :

“We are on a movement to create 1 million African analytics talents and connect them to decent work by 2030.” — Blossom Academy

The Economist, in a 2017 article, said, "The world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data." 

Fueled by big data, A.I., and machine learning, the demand for data science skills is growing exponentially as companies hope to apply analytics to drive product innovation. The relatively new, interdisciplinary field of data science is a blend of statistics, computer science, mathematics, engineering, and subject matter knowledge. 

With significant demand and insufficient supply of African data scientists, most businesses from financial institutions too high growth startups look beyond the continent's shores to hire data scientists that can meet their analytical needs. 

In the spirit of creating a self-sufficient continent where data is not only generated here but also gathered and analyzed, Jeph Acheampong is paving the way for a new generation of African data scientists. 

Founded in 2018, Blossom Academy, a technology talent accelerator, is creating a pathway where top talent across Africa can build the knowledge, skills, and abilities to contribute to the global economy and position Africa for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I spoke with Jeph Acheampong, Blossom Academy's founder about training data scientists in machine learning and data engineering, his vision for Blossom, and the desire to serve Africa's neglected tech markets.

 

How did your journey lead you to create Blossom Academy? 

A lot inspired Blossom Academy, but it first started with this nonprofit that I launched in college. Our mission centered around giving orphans life skills through entrepreneurship, and we successfully worked with orphans in Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Ghana. 

We used The Alchemist as our curriculum, which helped them understand and uncover their personal legend. 

During that experience, I learned a valuable lesson — the only reason why I was in front of the class, and it wasn't the other way around was because I had an opportunity. When I was 10, my father passed away. But I had an opportunity to go abroad for school, cultivate the right networks, and raise money to come back, so I felt blessed to be in my position.

During my trip, one of the recurring things I heard from a lot of the kids we served was they wanted to move abroad and that they didn't want to be in Ghana. Some of them didn't even want to go to school because they felt like even if they did, they wouldn't get jobs.

However, their plight didn't resonate with me until I connected with one of my childhood friends that I went to middle school within Ghana. He was the smartest guy in our school. He even finished university early because he skipped several grades, but still, he could not get a job. 

I wondered, why can't Peter, secure employment? He's the smartest guy that I've ever encountered.

Fast forward, I graduated, and I went to the financial district to work at Experian. During my time there, I was handling a lot of data, and advising multinationals like McDonald's and Target on their data strategy, and how to utilize data for strategic decision making.  

Concurrently while working there, I also helped launch an app called Esusu Financial. It was there that I realized how much data businesses generate. Still an early-stage company, we couldn't necessarily hire a full-time data scientist. But between Esusu and Experian, I kept seeing the value of data, and I thought, "there's something here."   

So I interviewed hundreds of companies on the continent and realized that the data buzz was something that was not just happening in America, but it was also happening in Africa. Unfortunately, African businesses were outsourcing the data they collected to data scientists abroad.

To better understand the problem, I decided to move to Kenya through Princeton in Africa and worked for a data collection company. While I was in Kenya, I spoke to startups who raised millions of dollars, and they confirmed that, indeed, we have all this data. However, we cannot find data scientists good enough locally, so we are hiring people from the Bay Area for over $100,000 a year to analyze our data.  

Looking at all these problems and remembering Peter's story, it just made sense. I could identify more people like Peter who finished university but couldn't, for whatever reason, gain employment, upskill them to acquire the data science skills, and connect them to companies looking to employ data scientists.  

Blossom Academy started with first seeing the supply side years ago, then coming to understand the demand side from my experiences in corporate and moving to Kenya. And it just made sense to bridge the gap.  

What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired Blossom Academy? And why are you the one to address this problem?

There were three things I noticed before I started Blossom. 

  1. All companies are somehow generating data. 
  2. IBM predicted that the demand for data scientists is going to soar by 28% by the year 2020. 
  3. In Ghana, 250,000 young people graduate every year, and only 2% find employment in the private sector.

Seeing all the data companies were generating, the demand for data scientists, and the lack of opportunity of Ghana's youth, I wanted to design a solution to the problem.  

Now, why am I the right person to undertake this? 

I'm cautious about saying that I am the ultimate right person because other stakeholders will play a tremendous role in solving this problem, like the government. I like to say I'm a catalyst for getting the conversation started and leading people into the field.

Also, something that I openly share is that I'm not a data scientist. I'm on the business side, but that didn't stop me from gathering the resources to launch Blossom. 

Interestingly enough, when I reflect on my journey, it seems like the stars were aligning from the very beginning. Studying economics in college was not my plan, I was initially a pre-med major. But by studying economics, I learned a lot about analyzing data in classes like econometrics. Then working in the financial district in New York, where I helped companies create a data strategy, data continued to be a recurring theme in my story.

 

What are the Blossom Academy Programs?

We have four different offerings, two flagship programs (our immersive programs), and two short courses. The immersive programs are in machine learning and data engineering. We decided to focus on those because I realized that companies here, especially the banks, were looking for data scientists with those skills, and our programs are based on market demand.

To create them, we partnered with Datacamp, Microsoft, and Datalab.cc because they already have the resources. We figured out how to put everything together and upskill the youth in our region. 

For our two short courses, data analytics, and business intelligence, those are popular amongst our corporate clients. We upskill corporate's staff to understand how to analyze data better or use the data they have to make intelligent decisions.  

 

Can you share a story about how an alumnus is leveraging the skills they learned in Blossom Academy in their career or to enhance Africa's tech ecosystem?

When students go through Blossom Academy and graduate, automatically, they're making four to six times the average salary of a Ghanaian.

Our placements are usually with banks, the government, high growth tech startups, and telecommunications companies here in Ghana. When they get hired, we tend not to have a lot of visibility as to what they're doing, but the good thing about our model is that after you go through Blossom Academy, we still provide you with remote work opportunities. 

Our network has access to on-demand data projects, whether it's creating a dashboard, analyzing their data, or building a machine learning model for a client. And we've served companies in Bangladesh, South Africa, Kenya, and many more countries in and outside Africa. 

We've had students launch startups and create consultancies.

One student launched an A.I. platform called Diagnosify, which helps detect skin diseases. Another student from our first cohort received a $15,000 annual grant from a Texas institution to pursue a Ph.D. in data science. 

All our students are doing some really amazing things. What I like most is that they are all blazing their own path. At Blossom, what we are good at is making sure we deliver the best training experience to participants, so they have the freedom to choose their career path.

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What are the keys to being a data scientist in Africa?  

When I think of the data science landscape in the context of Africa, three things come to mind.

  1. Data Gathering 
  2. Analytics
  3. Insights

Data gathering is essentially going into businesses and building software or systems to help them gather their data better. Data could be in silos, and you're helping them get it into one place. This allows you to do number two, analytics, which could be building a machine learning model or data pipeline. Finally, number three is how you communicate these insights to a CEO. 

I think numbers one and three are the most critical for any data scientist here on the African continent. For analytics, we're starting to see that people are building software to analyze data. However, to gather and communicate the data, it requires some human intervention. 

That's why I'm always reminding my team that the hard skills will get you into the door, but the soft skills will keep you in there. Soft skills include communication, critical thinking, and knowing where to gather the data.  

I think it's imperative for African data scientists to master data gathering and understand how to communicate the data even more proficient than any software or tool can.  

 

How do you see Blossom Academy evolving in the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make? 

People put Blossom Academy into many brackets, some people think we're a nonprofit, others say we're a social enterprise, and a few ask if we are a business. But to me, what it boils down to is community. What makes Blossom different is our people, we spend a lot of time finding the best people to join our network. People who are not only talented but share similar philosophies.  

Once we perfect this model, the idea is to scale to other parts of West Africa. I'm thinking about Francophone African countries and other countries where a lot of people aren't going. 

When you think about Nigeria, it's great, a lot of people want to start a business there and it's attractive to investors because it's a big market, but what about these markets that are neglected? Where there is talent as well, but it hasn't been tapped yet. That's number one.   

Number two is to expand our course offerings. We're focused on data science right now because I believe that young people who can communicate data will help push Africa forward. However, I also believe there are other emerging skills that can help them partake in the fourth industrial revolution, like cybersecurity, robotics, and software engineering.  

These are the skills that we want to provide once we perfect our model, and I keep stressing that because we are learning every single day. We are still a long way away from where we want to be. People look at Blossom and may think otherwise. But I think that we have a lot of work to do.

Number three is to streamline our on-demand job process. We want to build a strong demand pipeline and seamlessly integrate it with our community. So that anyone who's gone through a Blossom Academy program, can take their laptop and work on data science projects without being judged because they are African, but judged because they went through Blossom Academy.

We aspire to eliminate that barrier to entry. Right now, a lot of Africans who go on freelance platforms find it tough to get jobs because people think they're not capable of getting the job done, simply because they are African. We want to change that stigma, and I think it's possible through building a strong community and complementing that with a demand pipeline.   

 

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you? 

The phrase "Built In Africa" reminds me of this story I read a while back about these three bricklayers. Someone walked up to the bricklayers and asked, what are you doing? The first bricklayer said I'm laying bricks. The second responded I'm building a church. And the third said I'm building the house of God.

The first bricklayer has a job, the second has a career, and the third has a calling. 

When it comes to doing business in Africa, there are so many challenges and problems, so many regulations, and at the same time, no regulations at all. So if you don't fall into the category of the third bricklayer, you will end up quitting. It's just that simple.

When I think Built in Africa, I think calling. I think solving a problem that aligns with what you're truly meant to do in this world. 

I believe that's the reason why when people make it in Africa, it's so vibrant and amazing. It's because they've tapped into what they're truly meant to do or at least are taking steps towards their calling.  

When I'm working on Blossom Academy, regardless of the problems that we face, whether it's trying to raise investment or find the right caliber of students for our programs, I remember that this aligns with my calling. So, there is no room for giving up or quitting.

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