My Journey into Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Belona Sonna

Belona realized how knowledge about Artificial Intelligence (AI) was lacking in the African Francophone community and decided to be a solution to that. She started an initiative aimed at teaching Cameroonian youths the benefits of AI;

Hi Belona, it is wonderful to have you with us today. I am excited to finally meet you
Hi Winnie, it is nice to finally meet you too. Thank you for inviting me.

Please give our audience a brief introduction about yourself
My name is Belona Sonna from Cameroon. I am currently an Engineering and Computer Science Ph.D. student at the Australian National University, in Canberra, Australia. My love for Computer Science made me do all my undergraduate studies in computer science, at the University in Ngaoundéré, Cameroon.

During my first master’s, I discovered artificial intelligence (AI). I remember doing my final project on image analysis using ordinary computer science methods. Two weeks before the deadline of my project submission, I landed on a paper that was covering the same topic, but with a different approach – AI. This discovery amazed me but it was too late for me to incorporate it into my work.

After a discussion with my supervisor, I submitted what I had done but included the AI part in my recommendations for future work. I immediately started reading about AI but, without direction, I did it the wrong way. I focused more on the potential benefits of AI, rather than understanding the mathematics behind it.

This is how my journey in AI began. I started attending conferences and was lucky enough to join the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) under their AMMI program in Rwanda. It was a fully funded [by Facebook and Google] 12-months program that focused on AI.

This was not an easy experience at all! I was Francophone, not even bilingual, attending a program in English! The only thing I knew was greeting and here I was, studying AI, level master 11 in a language I had never spoken! I liked the environment though because we were surrounded by other Africans who were speaking English. This helped me learn faster. I was studying AI and learning English at the same time.

Realizing the potential of AI in Africa, especially in the healthcare system helped me to not give up. I also learned that for us to positively benefit from this new technology, we needed to use it the right way. For example, if we build a wrong model for healthcare, it’s going to cause more harm than good. That’s why at the end of the program, I decided to specialize in AI ethics, especially in the healthcare system.

This is my background about how I joined AI.

From what you have explained, does this journey lead to the birth of the BELS AI Initiative?
This journey impacted what I am doing now. I remember when I returned to Cameroon, I wanted to improve things for younger Francophone people. People who didn’t have access to the Anglophone content I was taught in Rwanda.

I didn’t know much about AI yet – I was just a beginner – but wanted to share my little knowledge with others. I took the time during the Covid pandemic to go through the program, again and again, to have enough knowledge to start the initiative.

Once I was confident about the knowledge I had, I started teaching young girls around my town. This was unofficial business, just doing what I loved, with the people I knew needed it. I got a lot of support from my mates that I had met in Kigali. They invited me to events in Senegal, conferences in Ghana, and other AI gatherings. These were opportunities for me to present my knowledge in AI and also gain my confidence in the field.

I realized that I could extend my help to more people who were not in my immediate circles; people outside my town. That’s how the Be Educated and Learn skills in AI (BELS AI) initiative was started. My first target was to reach Francophone people only but the demand extended to both languages, given the nature of Cameroon.

Your story reminds me of Tatiana’s journey. You ladies have done very well and we are very proud of you!

Apart from this language barrier, which other challenge have you faced on your AI journey?
My other challenge was not having a strong Mathematical background when I started AI. I chose Computer Science in level 1 of my undergraduate studies, meaning that I only did basic mathematics that I needed for my course. I started AI with some knowledge about Statistics but not predictive Statistics, which is something strongly needed in AI. Understanding this level of Mathematics was harder than the language, haha.

I realized that orientation is also very important because my problem was about my background. If we are to include AI in the curriculum of education, we should be able to teach the required courses at the beginning levels.

At BELS AI, we have this package called “academy” where we focus on having our customers understand the basics of what they are doing. AI is not only programming and coding, it’s also Mathematics.

Another challenge I faced was the gap between the education in normal universities and AIMS. It was extremely difficult for me to approach the lecturers or even address them by name! I had a lot of problems in the beginning but didn’t dare to approach the lecturers and explain my challenges. This way of teaching makes students free and confident in themselves and makes it easy for them to ask when something is not clear to them.

What’s that one thing that keeps you motivated even when things seem extremely hard?
I didn’t apply to the AMMI program just to get a master’s degree. Before starting AMMI, I started a program in Cameroon to help people with chronic diseases with their diet. The only solution to make this program work was through AI. I went into AMMI knowing that at the end of it, I had to be able to continue with my project. Whatever happened there wasn’t going to stop me from achieving my goals. 

Another thing was the support of my Cohort friends. Especially Abigail Annkah, Kobby Panford-Quainoo, Marianne Njifon, and my lovely roommate Ines Birimahire were a strong support system for me. I remember there were days I felt so low because of the language and they did their best. They even reached a point of using Google translate, just to help me say what I wanted to say correctly. I am very grateful for those people.

I also had that inner motivation. It didn’t make sense for me to leave my country, go to a place where I could learn everything I needed, and just choose to give up! It was almost like I didn’t have any choice but to understand.

Let’s talk about times when your work has been prestigiously recognized and awarded
The first thing I can say is the AMMI program. I didn’t know anything about AI but was selected for a program that’s sponsored by Facebook and Google! We were taught by the best minds in AI from all over the world. I produced the best project on a very difficult topic during the program.

I also got a 2-month internship with Montreal AI Ethics Institute. This was a very exciting opportunity for me, given my passion for AI ethics.

My project was also accepted in the Women in Machine Learning Workshop in Vancouver, Canada. I had just started AI that year and was already going places in 10 months! It was another wonderful moment for me.

Officially starting the BELS AI Initiative was another amazing moment and my recent feature among African women that are doing great in AI. Another thing that makes me happy is seeing myself grow with all these amazing women in a field that was initially cited as a man’s world.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
During my free time, I go to YouTube and look for anything fun that I can watch and laugh at. I also like watching models in traditional clothes. Organizing weddings is another thing I enjoy doing and watching. I also used to like doing sports and singing but haven’t done those two in two years.

Do you have a favorite quote?
Yoshua Bengio once said at the end of a conference that; “AI is good as long as we do it in the right way”. I like this quote very much because it represents everything I stand for in AI.

The second quote that I like is, “AI itself is not magical, it’s people that make it magical” ~ Murat Durmus. I use this on all my slides.

What’s your word of encouragement for a young African girl in STEM?
Have a strong source of motivation; something more than what you want but why you want it. Don’t just want STEM, want it for a reason that personally speaks to you.

Surround yourself with people who share the same motivation as you. Following these people and their stories will help you aim higher.

Lastly, I advise them to be courageous in everything they do.

It was wonderful speaking with you, Belona! Thank you for all that you are doing for Africa. We appreciate you and wish you more success.

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5 Responses

  1. Wow. Amazing story. I like the fact that she is sharing her AI knowledge with the young ladies back in her home country.

    1. Thank you for reading, Samiiha! You guys should get in touch with each other and bring us some cool AI things. We love seeing like-minded women win at this thing called life.

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