The Deep Learning Indaba Report

AuthorHerman Engelbrecht
Affiliation: MIH Electronic Media Laboratory at Stellenbosch University


Given the focus on deep learning and machine learning, there is a need to address this problem of low participation of Africans in data science and artificial intelligence. The Deep Learning Indaba was thus born to stimulate the participation of Africans within the research and innovation landscape surrounding deep learning and machine learning. This column reports on the Deep Learning Indaba event, which consisted of a 5-day series of introductory lectures on Deep Learning, held from 10-15 September 2017, coupled with tutorial sessions where participants gained practical experience with deep learning software packages. The column also includes interviews with some of the organisers to learn more about the origin and future plans of the Deep Learning Indaba.


Africans have a low participation in the area of science called deep learning and machine learning, as shown by the fact that at the 2016 Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS’16) conference, none of the accepted papers had at least one author from a research institution in Africa (

Given the increasing focus on deep learning, and the more general area of machine learning, there is a need to address this problem of low participation of Africans in the technology that underlies the recent advances in data science and artificial intelligence that is set to transform the way the world works. The Deep Learning Indaba was thus born, aiming to be a series of master classes on deep learning and machine learning for African researchers and technologists. The purpose of the Deep Learning Indaba was to stimulate the participation of Africans, within the research and innovation landscape surrounding deep learning and machine learning.

What is an ‘indaba’?

According to the organisers ‘indaba’ is a Zulu word that simply means gathering or meeting. There are several words for such meetings (that are held throughout southern Africa) including an imbizo (in Xhosa), an intlanganiso, and a lekgotla (in Sesotho), a baraza (in Kiswahili) in Kenya and Tanzania, and padare (in Shona) in Zimbabwe. Indabas have several functions: to listen and share news of members of the community, to discuss common interests and issues facing the community, and to give advice and coach others. Using the word ‘indaba’ for the Deep Learning event connects it to other community gatherings that are similarly held by cultures throughout the world. The Deep Learning Indaba is about the spirit of coming together, of sharing and learning and is one of the core values of the event.

The Deep Learning Indaba

After a couple of months of furious activity by the organisers, roughly 300 students, researchers and machine learning practitioners from all over Africa gathered for the first Deep Learning Indaba from 10-15 September 2017 at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. More than 30 African countries were represented for an intense week of immersion into Deep Learning.

The Deep Learning Indaba consisted of a 5-day series of introductory lectures on Deep Learning, coupled with tutorial sessions where participants gained practical experience with deep learning software packages such as TensorFlow. The format of the Deep Learning Indaba was based on the intense summer school experience of NIPS. Presenters at the Indaba included prominent figures in the machine learning community such as Nando de Freitas, Ulrich Paquet and Yann Dauphin. The lecture sessions were all recorded and all the practical tutorials are also available online: Lectures and Tutorials.

After organising the first successful Deep Learning Indaba in Africa (a report on the outcomes of the Deep Learning Indaba can be found at online), the organisers have already started planning the next two Deep Learning Indabas, that will take place in 2018 and 2019. More information can be found at the Deep Learning Indaba website

Having been privileged to attend this first Deep Learning Indaba, a number of the organisers were interviewed to learn more about the origin and future plans of the Deep Learning Indaba. The interviewed organisers include Ulrich Paquet and Stephan Gouws.

Question 1: What was the origin of the Deep Learning Indaba?

Ulrich Paquet: We’d have to dig into history a bit here, as the dream of taking ICML (International Conference on Machine Learning) to South Africa has been around for a while. The topic was again raised at the end of 2016, when Shakir and I sat at NIPS (Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems), and said “let’s find a way to make something happen in 2017.” We were waiting for the right opportunity. Stephan has been thinking along these lines, and so has George Konidaris. I met Benjamin Rosman in January or February over e-mail, and within a day we were already strategizing what to do.

We didn’t want to take a big conference to South Africa, as people parachute in and out, without properly investing in education. How can we make the best possible investment in South African machine learning? We thought a summer school would be the best vehicle, but more than that, we wanted a summer school that would replicate the intense NIPS experience in South Africa: networking, parties, high-octane teaching, poster sessions, debates and workshops…

Shakir asked Demis Hassibis for funding in February this year, and Demis was incredibly supportive. And that got the ball rolling…

Stephan Gouws: It began with the question that was whispered amongst many South Africans in the machine learning industry: “how can we bring ICML to South Africa?” Early in 2017, Ulrich Paquet and Shakir Mohamed (both from Google DeepMind) began a discussion regarding how a summer school-like event can be held in South Africa. A summer school-like event was chosen as it typically has a bigger impact after the event than a typical conference. Benjamin Rosman (from the South African Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), Nando de Freitas (also from Google DeepMind) joined the discussion in February. A fantastic group of researchers from South Africa was gathered that shared the vision of making the event a reality. I suggested the name “Deep Learning Indaba”, we registered a domain, and from there we got the ball rolling!

Question 2: What did the organisers want to achieve with the Indaba?

Ulrich Paquet: Strengthening African Machine Learning

“a shared space to learn, to share, and to debate the state-of-the-art in machine learning and artificial intelligence”

  • Teaching and mentoring
  • Building a strong research community
  • Overcoming isolation

We also wanted to work towards inclusion; build a community; confidence building; affect government policy.

Stephan Gouws: Our vision is to strengthen machine learning in Africa. Machine learning experts, workshop and conferences are mostly concentrated in North America and Western-Europe. African do not easily get the opportunity to be exposed to such events as they are far away, expensive to attend, etc. Furthermore, with a conference a bunch of experts fly in, discuss the state-of-the-art of the field, and then fly away. A conference does not easily allow for a transfer of expertise, and therefore the local community does not gain much from a conference. With the Indaba, we hoped to facility a knowledge transfer (for which a summer school-like event is better suited), and also to create networking opportunities for students, industry, academics and the international presenters.

Question 3: Why was the Indaba held in South Africa?

Ulrich Paquet: All of the (original) organizers are South African, and really care about development of their own country. We want to reach beyond South Africa, though, and tried to include as many institutions as possible (more than 20 African countries were represented).

But, one has to remember that the first Indaba was essentially an experiment. We had to start somewhere! We benefit by having like-minded local organizers :)

Stephan Gouws: All the organisers are originally from South Africa and want to support and strengthen the machine learning field in South Africa (and eventually in the rest of Africa).

Question 4: What was the expectations beforehand for the Indaba? (For example, how many people did the organisers expect will attend?)

Ulrich Paquet: Well, we originally wanted to run a series of master classes for 40 students. We had ABSOLUTELY NO idea how many students would apply, or if any would even apply. We were very surprised when we hit more than 700 applications by our deadline, and by then, the whole game changed. We couldn’t take 40 out of 700, and decided to go for the largest lecture hall we could possibly find (for 300 people).

There are then other logistics of scale that come into play: feeding everyone, transporting everyone, running practical sessions, etc. And it has to be within budget!! The cap at 300 seemed to work well.

Question 5: Are there any plans for the future of the Indaba? Are you planning on making it an annual event?

Ulrich Paquet: Yes, definitely.

Stephan Gouws: Nothing official yet, but the plan from the beginning was to make it an annual event.

[Editor]:  The Deep Learning Indaba 2018 has since been announced and more information can be found at the following link:  The organisers have also announced locally organised, one-day Indabas to be held from 26 March to 6 April 2108 with the aim of strengthening the African Machine learning community. Details for obtaining support for the organising of an IndabaX event can be found at the main site:

Question 6: How can students, researchers and people from industry still get and stay involved after the Indaba?

Ulrich Paquet: There are many things that could be changed with enough critical mass. One, that we’re hoping, is to ensure that the climate for research in sub-Saharan Africa is as fertile as possible. This will only happen through lots of collaboration and cross-pollination. There are some things that stand in the way of this kind of collaboration. One is government KPIs (key performance indicators) that rewards research: for AI, it does not rightly reward collaboration, and does not rightly reward publications in top-tier platforms, which are all conferences (NIPS, ICML). Therefore, it does not reward playing in and contributing to the most competitive playing field. These are all things that the AI community in SA should seek to creatively address and change.

We have seen organic South African papers published at UAI and ICML for the first time this year, and the next platforms should be JMLR and NIPS, and then Nature. There’s never been any organic Africa AI or machine learning papers in any of the latter venues. Students should be encouraged to collaborate and submit to them! The nature of the game is that the barrier to entry for these venues is so high, that one has to collaborate… This of course brings me to my point about why research grants (in SA) should be revisited to reflect these outcomes.

Stephan Gouws: In short, yes. All the practical, lectures and videos are made publicly available. There is also Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and we hope that the discussion and networking will not stop after the 15th of September. As a side note: I am working on ideas (more aimed at postgraduate students) to eventually put a mentor system in place, as well as other types of support for postgraduate students after the Indaba. But it is still early days and only time will tell.

Biographies of Interviewed Organisers

Ulrich Paquet (Research Scientist, DeepMind, London):

Ulrich Paquet

Dr. Ulrich Paquet is a Research Scientist at DeepMind, London. He really wanted to be an artist before stumbling onto machine learning while attending a third-year course taught at University of Pretoria (South Africa) where he eventually obtained a Master’s degree in Computer Science. In April 2007 Ulrich obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge with dissertation topic “Bayesian Inference for Latent Variable Models.” After obtaining his PhD he worked with a start-up called Imense, focusing on face recognition and image similarity search. He then joined Microsoft’s FUSE Labs, based at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he eventually worked on the XBox-One launch as part of the Xbox Recommendations team. From 2015 he joined another start-up in Cambridge, VocalIQ, which has been acquired by Apple before joining DeepMind in April 2016.

Stephan Gouws (Research Scientist, Google Brain Team):

Stephan Gouws

Dr. Stephan Gouws is a Research Scientist at Google and part of the Google Brain Team that developed TensorFlow and Google’s Neural Machine Translation System. His undergraduate studies was a double major in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). His postgraduate studies in Electronic Engineering were also completed at the MIH Media Lab at Stellenbosch University. He obtained his Master’s degree cum laude in 2010 and his PhD degree in 2015 on the dissertation topic of “Training Neural Word Embeddings for Transfer Learning and Translation.” During his PhD he spent one year at Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and 1 year at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms where he worked closely with Yoshua Bengio. He also worked as Research Intern at both Microsoft Research and Google Brain during this period.

The Deep Learning Indaba Organisers:

Shakir Mohamed (Research Scientist, DeepMind, London)
​Nyalleng Moorosi (Researcher, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa)
Ulrich Paquet (Research Scientist, DeepMind, London)
​Stephan Gouws (Research Scientist, Google, Brain Team, London)
Vukosi Marivate (Researcher, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa)
Willie Brink (Senior Lecturer, Stellenbosch University, South Africa)
Benjamin Rosman (Researcher, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa)
Richard Klein (Associate Lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa)

Advisory Committee:

Nando De Freitas (Research Scientist, DeepMind, London)
Ben Herbst (Professor, Stellenbosch University)
Bonolo Mathibela (Research Scientist, IBM Research South Africa)
​George Konidaris (Assistant Professor, Brown University)​
​Bubacarr Bah (Research Chair, African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, South Africa)

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