Intel Software Innovator Tejumade Afonja: Making a Difference in Nigeria

A thirst for knowledge is what has brought Intel® Software Innovator Tejumade Ajonja to where she is today. She has a drive to not only continuously learn, but to also continuously prove that women can be in the forefront of technology. As Tejumade continues to gain more skills and further her own pursuit of understanding artificial intelligence (AI) she is also working to promote building up the AI community, for both men and women, in Nigeria.

Tell us about your background and what got you interested in technology.

As a child I had an insane love for math and one thing was certain: I wanted to be an engineer. Then movies like Star Wars and Transformers played their role in making machines cool to me. The truth is, I’ve always had a thing for wanting to know how things are built coupled with the fact that I also wanted to prove to my friends and family that particular fields aren’t just for men.

Mechanical engineering felt like the perfect pick. Initially, I was offered an admission to study pure and applied science, but I applied for a change of course in my 2nd year and that is when my mechanical engineering journey started. Technology would come later.

There I was in my 2nd year just settling down in my new department on a quiet Saturday doing some studying when the student member Institute of Electrical Electronics Engineers (IEEE) group happened to hold their weekly meeting in my chosen reading venue. Everyone else left the area so that they could hold their meeting, but I demanded to stay so I could continue studying. To cut the long story short, I ended up participating in their discussion which happened to be about NASA’s Curiosity Robot on Mars. I was so amazed at the possibility of things like that which existed beyond the movies I’ve seen. I thought to myself, ‘Yes! I’m going to be a Roboticist!’ That would come to be slightly improved.

After that I became a student member of the IEEE group and during my years at school we discussed advanced technological improvements happening in different fields. Fast forward to my 4th year when I took an Introduction to Robotics through a massive open online course (MOOC) from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Honestly, after the course, I was fully sold on “The Technology Dream”. Everything else felt ordinary – technology felt like magic! I wanted Magic. Although, I went on to graduate with Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, I knew that was just the beginning.

For my final year project, I worked on a robot vacuum cleaner prototype with two colleagues, which was both challenging and exciting. It was challenging because I had no programming knowledge, but thankfully one of my partners did. It was exciting because we kept hacking our way to get a desired results. Here we were, a bunch of countrified final year students trying to make something cool. It was then that I knew I was deficient in the programming knowledge required for my next adventure which was to understand how machines think.

So, post-university I started learning how to code. My first internship job as a graduate was in a bot startup company called kudi.ai. I had the opportunity to work closely with the machine learning expert on the team to help build the natural language model of the bot. While I was learning on the job, I audited a couple of online courses on web development, machine learning, NLP, etc. and some of the courses I completed and others I abandoned, but my learning is continuous.

Tell us about your AI Saturdays Lagos Workshops.

AI Saturdays (AI6) is a 14-week global initiative organized by the brilliant people from nurture.ai. AI Saturdays Lagos is a community of AI enthusiasts which I co-organized with Femi Azeez. At AI6 Lagos, we share a common goal of advancing our knowledge about artificial intelligence and kick-ass in AI by synergizing every Saturday for 16 weeks to nurture our knowledge about AI.

Each week we go through deep learning materials through fast.ai, discuss what we learned over lunch, and then go through Stanford’s convolutional neural networks for visual recognition (CS231n) followed by looking at research papers from Stanford, and end with team discussions. All of this helps the group to get more familiar with different AI topics, get comfortable reading research papers, and better understand deep learning topics.

What projects are you working on now?

At one of our brainstorming sessions at AI Saturdays Lagos, we thought it would be cool if we could correctly classify different Nigerian delicacies and that was how ChowNet was born, it’s like an ImageNet, but for local food.

Moving forward, I want to continue my work with getting the AI6 program across Nigeria through virtually supporting, organizing, teaching, and blogging for it. While also moving towards getting a Master’s degree in artificial intelligence.

Tell us about a technology challenge you’ve had to overcome in a project.

I think for me, programming itself was the challenge. Transcending into programming from a hardcore mechanical engineering background was not exactly rosy. When I first started out, I spent a huge chunk of my time being frustrated, but I’ve been able to overcome that by simply never giving up and telling myself how I’m getting better at it every day. I’ve come to realize that it’s a journey – a learning journey – that never ends and to enjoy every stage of it.

How are you planning to leverage deep learning technologies in your work?

One application of deep learning that I find intriguing is the aspect of recommendation systems. I find this particularly interesting because of how much it can help companies better understand their customer’s interests. Notable examples of companies already using these systems in Nigeria are the e-commerce companies like Jumia and Konga. I see these recommendation engines being used in certain industries like e-commerce, digital media, and maybe FinTech eventually.

How do you see Intel helping people succeed?

Intel can have a big impact by providing an environment where it’s easy for students and developers to connect with industry experts. Things such as providing mentorships, sponsoring conferences, summits, and workshops – especially for students. Also, organizing both physical and virtual workshops, as well as hackathons, to enable education of the available tools that Intel has to offer.

For myself, I’m looking forward to partnering with Intel to continue support for organizing the AI6 workshops across different cities in Nigeria. I believe this is how we can truly build a community of AI experts in Nigeria.

What impact on the world do you see AI having? And do you see yourself as part of it?

I believe AI is set to impact every field eventually. In this era of endless innovation, you can rest assured that the future will look very different from today and I see myself as being a part of that. I am looking forward to how we will use the knowledge of AI to solve some of the most challenging problems in Nigeria including traffic control, government accountability, power supply, and better infrastructure.

What has your experience been like as a women working in technology?

My experience in tech is ineffable. I like to think of my journey into tech with respect to Napoleon Hill’s quote “There is one quality that one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.” My advice to women considering this field is that when it gets tough, as it sometimes will, rest if you must, but don’t quit.

Want to learn more about the Intel® Software Innovator Program?

You can read about our innovator updates, get the full program overview, meet the innovators and learn more about innovator benefits. We also encourage you to check out Developer Mesh to learn more about the various projects that our community of innovators are working on.

Interested in more information? Contact  Wendy Boswell

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