Repatriating Talent Lelapa brings AI talent back to Africa.

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African startup Lelapa logo

A South African startup aims to lure talented engineers who left the continent to work abroad.

What’s new: Johannesburg research lab bills itself as a haven for African AI engineers who want to work on challenges that aren’t on Silicon Valley’s agenda, Wired reported. The company purports to focus on languages such as isiZulu that big-tech natural language models don’t accommodate.

How it works: Lelapa develops AI models for other businesses and nonprofits. The company has raised $2.5 million from institutions including Mozilla Ventures, Africa-centric investor Atlantica Ventures, and private investors including Google AI chief Jeff Dean. Current projects include:

  • Vulavula, a service that provides multilingual intent detection, translation, and transcription
  • An unnamed data-mining service for Open Restitution Africa, a nonprofit that retrieves African artifacts held in overseas museums
  • A machine translation service that helps mothers connect with healthcare professionals

Behind the news: Lelapa’s founders include some organizers of Deep Learning Indaba, a machine learning conference most recently held in Tunisia, and Masakhane, a nonprofit that promotes open-source models and datasets for African languages. Co-founder Jade Abbott was profiled in DeepLearning.AI’s Working AI blog series.

Why it matters: Over 74 percent of foreign-born students who receive a PhD in AI from a school in the United States remain in the U.S. after graduating, last year’s State of AI report found. Lelapa’s founders hope their project will help Africa reclaim some of this talent, nurture native AI startups, and address systemic inequities in AI development.

We’re thinking: Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 15 percent of the world’s population but fewer than 1 percent of AI patents and conference publications, according to the State of AI report. Organizations like Lelapa can help the region realize its potential.


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