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Emerging Tech

Hot startup of the month: Data science marketplace Zindi

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Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data science are becoming more and more prevalent across industries as diverse as financial services, health and manufacturing. Yet when it comes to accessing skills in this space, especially in Africa, where do you go?

The answer is Zindi, a professional network for data science in Africa, where aspiring data practitioners go to learn data science, grow their skills, connect with peers, compete for prizes and get professional opportunities.

"Companies from startups to corporates come to Zindi to access world-class crowd-sourced AI solutions, source hard-to-find data talent and promote their products, tools, and brand to our community," explained Celina Lee, co-founder and CEO of Zindi.

Formed in Kenya in 2018, Zindi was launched in response to its founding team’s observation that African data scientists did not have a place to come to learn and develop their skills. It first launched as a competition platform – a 'Kaggle for Africa', if you like – but has since grown and evolved into a broad community where those who want to become data scientists congregate to learn and grow together and then get opportunities.

"First, we source custom-built machine learning solutions from our incredible community through data science competitions. Second, we help companies in need of data talent to find it on the Zindi platform," Lee said.

"Last, we give tech companies and corporates a way to access the single largest community of high-value data professionals in Africa in order to promote their learning products and software tools or position themselves and their brand as an employer or service provider of choice."

Some of the Zindi team. (Source: Zindi).
Some of the Zindi team. (Source: Zindi).

According to a recent report, global demand for data science talent grew by almost 300% in 2021, and Lee said the size of the opportunity in Africa is huge.

"Africa's working-age population is growing faster than any other, and there is this remarkable groundswell of interest in data science as a career for smart young Africans. Tens of thousands of young people across the continent are teaching themselves data science on YouTube or through MOOCs [massive open online courses]," she said.

However, these young people are still looking for a chance to sharpen their skills on real-world problems, to connect with their peers and to find career opportunities. Zindi is providing a home for these people and others in developing economies across the globe.

"There are other data science platforms, but they focus on providing certain services to the market, whether MOOCs, gig work, employment or hackathons. While we have elements of these services, fundamentally what Zindi is focused on is creating a specialized online professional network for data professionals where people build up their professional profile and grow their networks," said Lee.

"We don’t consider ourselves to have much competition – no one else is building a professional network for data science at this scale, and certainly no one else is focused on uncovering the vast untapped potential of data science talent in Africa and other emerging markets at this scale."

Investor interest

The startup’s uniqueness has drawn investment from Shakti Capital, InstaDeep, Launch Africa Ventures and Founders Factory Africa, as well as a number of industry leaders in Africa and Silicon Valley who support Zindi as angels.

"We are in fact entering a fundraising round right now which will enable us to keep growing the community to its full potential. We have great plans for Zindi, including improvements to how people learn and connect, developing user profiles to improve vetting and measurement of skills, and a talent portal to allow organizations to source talent directly from the platform," said Lee.

The Zindi community is growing strongly, with 100% compound annual growth since 2019. The startup is South Africa-based but has users in 45 African countries, and almost 200 countries are represented on its discussions and leaderboards. Zindi’s revenue has grown at a 130% compound annual growth rate since 2019.

"We are in a period of solidifying our product-market fit and scaling our community to a million users and beyond," added Lee.

"We are proud to have commercial partnerships in place with tech giants like Nvidia and Microsoft. We count Google, Deepmind, InstaDeep, Facebook, Uber, Nvidia and Absa amongst our clients. We also have amazing community reach, with 80 community leaders across Africa serving as ambassadors, and strong ties with African data science and AI communities like Data Scientist Network, Deep Learning Indaba, AI4D, Alliance4ai, AI Expo Africa, and Masakhane."

Global appeal

Zindi’s focus is currently on Africa, but Lee said there are clear signs of interest from several developing regions, particularly India and Eastern Europe.

"We certainly have global ambitions, but we believe there is so much more potential to be unlocked in Africa, so we are in no hurry to expand just yet. In terms of our clients, we have focused on African corporates and startups, but we have some great traction with global tech looking for impact in Africa, and we are certainly looking to expand to serve clients from all over the world," she said.

Lee believes it is an exciting time for AI in Africa, both in industry and in academia.

"In agriculture, language, finance, health, trade – the list is endless – AI is having an impact by allowing organizations to leapfrog forward in the development of the continent. There is a lot of grant funding for AI research and applications, there are fantastic conferences and meetups, and there are game-changing AI-powered and data-driven organizations like InstaDeep, Flutterwave and Jumia coming out of Africa," she said.

"Perhaps the most exciting part of AI in Africa is the grassroots nature of the community here - nowhere else in the world can you find communities bootstrapping themselves in this way and playing such an integral part in the development of the industry."

Want to know more about African startups and new innovations on the continent? Check out our Innovation Hub here on Connecting Africa.

Lee believes Zindi's impact is potentially huge, given AI and data science can add value to almost any project, organization, or initiative, as long as there is data to work with.

"This means that as volumes of available data increase, data science holds the key to remarkable improvements in social and economic development across all sectors in Africa. But that improvement relies heavily on the workforce having the skills, creativity, and determination to make a difference in the areas they are passionate about. That’s our mission at Zindi," she said.

"African companies – especially startups – know that they should be taking advantage of data science and AI in their organizations, but don’t necessarily have the knowledge or skills available to make that happen. My hope is that they will turn to Zindi as they see some of the successes from our clients," she concluded.

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*Top image is of Celina Lee, co-founder and CEO of Zindi. (Source: Zindi).

— Tom Jackson, co-founder of Disrupt Africa, special to Connecting Africa

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