Saturday February 20, 2021
Abdigani Diriye was included in a recent ranking of the top 200 young African economic leaders by Institut Choiseul. Born in Somalia, Diriye is passionate about using science to unleash innovation in Africa, and says his research is closely aligned with that goal. CREDIT: BRET HARTMAN / TED
Over the past decade, the tech industry in Africa has witnessed explosive growth. According to Briter Bridges, the number of tech hubs on the continent has almost doubled over the past few years. Countries on the African continent have the potential for profound economic change — change that will be driven by technology.
Abdigani Diriye has spent several years contributing to that transformation as part of a career spent thinking about how technology can help accelerate economic development. That commitment led to his inclusion in a recent ranking of the top 200 young African economic leaders by Institut Choiseul. The Paris-based think tank, which is dedicated to the analysis of contemporary strategic issues and international economic affairs, recognizes leaders age 40 and younger who are projected to play a leading role in Africa’s economic future.
Born in Somalia, Diriye moved to England in 1989. He is passionate about using science to unleash innovation in Africa and said that his research in academia and at companies like Amazon is closely aligned with that goal.
“I’m humbled to be included among CEOs and other business leaders in the rankings released by Institut Choiseul,” said Diriye. “I’m also excited that they are beginning to include scientists on the list, and recognizing the prominent role science will have to play in accelerating economic development in Africa.”
Today, as a research manager in Alexa’s Text-to-Speech team in the United Kingdom, Diriye helps develop new models that enable Alexa to talk with users more naturally. Neural text-to-speech models used by Diriye’s team enable Alexa to sound more natural, and change speaking style to match different interactions.
In a conversation with Amazon Science, Diriye spoke about his journey in becoming a scientist, his contributions to furthering innovation in Africa, and how science is poised to change the economic landscape in Africa in the near future.
Q. How did you develop an interest in science?
My first significant interaction with technology was quite literally an electrifying one. I was seven years old and was living in Somalia at the time. My uncle had a transistor radio in his home. I was fascinated by the device, and how this small box could bring us voices and music from faraway countries. I took the radio apart to see how it worked. To this day, I vividly remember the electrical shock I received while reassembling the parts. The shock was thankfully a mild one, and I was able to move on from assembling transistor radios to math and coding.
Q. Why did you decide to persist with science after moving to England?
Throughout my career, my motivation always remained the same — to move beyond developing technology for technology’s sake, but to understand how it can be used to help humans forge connections with each other, and improve our lives.
The early 2000s saw an explosion in the world of big data. This was also a time when we saw a plethora of machine learning tools released, which in turn enabled us to make sense of all this data. I pursued research in data mining and modeling while obtaining my bachelor’s degree (at the Queen Mary University of London), my master’s degree in advanced computing from King’s College London, and a PhD in computer science, focusing on information retrieval and human-computer interaction, at University College London.
I was also incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to pursue people-focused science in the United States. During a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute, I worked with my colleagues to conduct research on how people can build on each other’s learning as they look up information online. This increases the speed, as well as the depth, of their sensemaking — the amount of information a person can glean about a particular topic online – across a variety of fields. I also contributed to research that created classifiers to understand why users abandon searches and designed systems for multi-session, exploratory search systems.
Q. How has some of your work in academia and the industry contributed to economic development in Africa?
I’ve always had a deep emotional connection to Somalia and Africa at large, and have consciously focused on the many ways science can be used to accelerate economic development in Africa.
In 2016, I helped develop a system tailored to underbanked individuals that helped determine the creditworthiness of consumers based on mobile phone usage patterns. We’ve white-labeled the platform, and made it available to banks, government institutions and businesses in Africa. Determining the eligibility of a person to receive credit is especially applicable in many emerging economies, where there is a paucity of consumer data. More than 2 billion individuals around the world are unable to access financial services like credit lines, savings accounts, and insurance because they aren’t able to establish a credit score or pass a KYC check (Know-Your-Customer). This prevents millions of people from forging a path out of poverty.
I’m also on the board of directors for Innovate Ventures, a Somali startup accelerator. In this role, I have been fortunate to have worked with so many talented people such as the team behind e-commerce shopping company Muraadso. The platform combines e-commerce services with brick-and-mortar stores, so that customers in a country with limited internet access are first able to see products in person before buying them.
I remain tremendously energized about the opportunity to shape the lives of people using science and technology in Africa.
Q. What are some of the ways you see science accelerating economic development in Africa?
We are at the beginning when it comes to leveraging science and machine learning to better the lives of people on the African continent. I’m particularly excited about three discrete application areas.
The first is related to leveling the playing field when it comes to education. When a child is able to ask a smart assistant a question in her local language, and get an answer, she now has access to the same information as a child in Europe or America.
Fintech also represents another massive area of opportunity in Africa. Over 60% of the adult population in Africa doesn’t have access to formal banking. I’m awed by the innovative ways countries in Africa have tailored science and technology to meet their unique needs and enable financial inclusion. This is not something that’s particularly well known outside Africa, but more than 40 million people in Kenya today — some of them without bank accounts — use a digital currency called M-PESA to buy goods and services via credits stored on their mobile accounts.
Lastly, Africa is such a large continent. The continent is larger than the United States, China, India, Mexico, and many countries in Europe combined. Given the current state of infrastructure in many parts of Africa, I see innovations like drones playing an increasingly important role in delivering goods and services to people. The revolution in transportation and logistics is already well underway. To give just one example, Rwanda is starting to use drone delivery for its transfusion blood supply. A hospital can place an order for blood and receive delivery within an hour of placing the order.
Amazon is working on many similar problems – be it leveling access to information, developing new ways of paying for goods and services or new ways to ship products to customers. I love working at Amazon for the same reason that I got interested in pursuing a career in science. At Amazon, I’m able to work on projects that have a tangible benefit on the lives of millions of people. As humans, we all have aspirations no matter where we are, and technology can be shaped to help us meet those aspirations.