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Derguene Mbaye : “AI breakthrough in Africa will come through local languages”

Derguene Mbaye is one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence in Africa. Since 2018, this young Senegalese, an engineer in natural language processing (NLP), has been working in the field through Baamtu technologies and GalsenAI. Portrait.

By Dounia Ben Mohamed

First and foremost, he is passionate about technology. But that’s not all. What motivates young Senegalese Derguene Mbaye is the impact that innovation can have on the lives of his fellow citizens. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he quickly became interested in artificial intelligence (AI). He was already passionate about technology at university and was actively involved in extracurricular computer-related projects. An IT project manager at university, he is now secretary general of the Senegalese unit of the Internet Society and co-founder of GalsenAI, the largest community of data science and artificial intelligence (AI) enthusiasts in Senegal, with currently two thousand active members. “Our goal is to carry out activities to promote and popularize AI in Senegal. This is a mission close to our hearts, and we are working in partnership with key players such as Google to build capacity and promote AI in our community,” says Derguene Mbaye. 

A research engineer in natural language processing (NLP), Derguene Mbaye works at Baamtu, a group of companies specializing in software engineering, process automation and data enrichment. He pursues his passion for AI while contributing to the development of its ecosystem in Senegal. At the same time, he is pursuing a PhD in computer science at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD), working on dialogue systems in Wolof, one of Senegal’s languages, which could ultimately make a significant contribution to reducing the continent’s digital divide. If we can get these people to use these applications in their own language,” he says, “it could bridge the gap and have a huge impact in terms of digital inclusion and financial inclusion.

AI must be the result of collective intelligence

As a result of his expertise and commitment, Derguene Mbaye was asked by the Senegalese authorities to help develop the national AI strategy. “I’m very active in my country’s ecosystem, especially in the outreach work we’ve been doing with the association since 2018. AI must be the result of collective intelligence, involving experts, decision-makers and entrepreneurs to integrate all opinions into a coherent strategy.”

This national development of AI must include support for local actors, especially young people, in terms of skills development, funding and equipment. “Strengthening training for young people in digital technology and AI is an important issue. We are working on concrete programs with partners such as Expertise France to meet this growing demand for skills.”

When it comes to debates on ethics and sovereignty, Derguene Mbaye takes a pragmatic approach, highlighting the benefits of openness while remaining aware of independence issues. “Is it possible today to do without the gafams (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft)? Just look at the European Union’s Gaia X, a project that claims to be sovereign but ended up integrating Microsoft. I think there are disadvantages as well as advantages. Openness is interesting as long as you are aware of what is at stake in terms of sovereignty,” he argues. Should we slow down and ask ourselves ethical questions? Derguene’s answer is clear: “Those who want to slow down are those who are already ahead. Let Africa catch up and we can slow down like everyone else.

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