At 28 years old, George Jojo Boateng became one of 35 innovators under the age of 35 in 2021 to be lauded in the MIT Technology Review magazine award. His award was for creating a start-up that teaches African students how to code using smartphone technology and artificial intelligence.
The Accra-born engineer, who is a university PhD candidate and doctoral researcher in Zurich, Switzerland, explains how he turned a tech challenge into an opportunity that resulted in him co-founding the platform SuaCode.ai.
Piece written by Phina Dziso and Abena Serwaa
How did you get interested in tech and AI?
I’ve always been interested in science, technology and engineering since I was a child and would read anything I could find about it. After primary and junior high school in Winneba, I went to Mfanstipim High School in Cape Coast, and continued my further education at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire in the USA.
I gained a BA in computer science and a MSc is computer engineering there and worked in the university’s computer science department for a year before moving to Switzerland for my PhD at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH) in Zurich. I am also a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
What is your PhD in?
I am doing my PhD in Applied Machine Learning and work in a research group called the Centre for Digital Health and Intervention. We try to come up with digital biomarkers, smartphone and smartwatch-based approaches to develop an emotion recognition system for couples managing diabetes. From October 2022, I will be working on a post doc project that is personal to me that uses smartwatches to improve the wellbeing management of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
And you have your own business too?
Yes, I am also an entrepreneur, and co-founded SuaCode.ai, Inc with Victor Kumbol. SuaCode.ai is an EdTech AI (education technology artificial intelligence) start-up that aims to democratise science and technology education across Africa using smartphones, and training and mentoring students to solve problems around them.
We teach coding to people with little or no programming experience online, using smartphone technology. Students have assignments, quizzes and coding exercises to complete and their work is graded. Those that successfully complete the exercises receive a certificate.
How did you come up with the idea?
We run a not-for-profit organisation called Nsesa Foundation, which aims to create a culture of problem-solving and innovation among Africans. Since 2013, we have run an annual three-week innovation bootcamp called Project iSWEST which mentors high school and university students in Ghana in areas such as programme to develop a solutions to resolve them.
While running our fourth edition of the project in 2017, laptops that had been donated to us broke down. We initially considered renting laptops but it was so expensive. We then decided to pair students without laptops with those that did.
However, that was challenging because a quarter of the students didn’t have laptops. All of them had smartphones, however, so we modified the coding course to work on smartphones instead.
The students were learning coding and programming and by the end, could all build a pong game (basic computer game) on their phones on their own. At that time, I didn’t know of any other platforms in Ghana that were doing this - we were the first.
How did this innovation become SuaCode.ai?
We decided to make the bootcamp available online so that it could reach more people and ran a pilot of SuaCode online after securing funding.
In 2019, we won the African Union Education Innovation Prize, so had some money, which we used to hire part-time developers and designers to work on the platform.
I was named one of the 2021 MIT Technology Review 35 Innovators Under 35 and finally launched the app at the start of January 2022. We currently have about 1,400 platform users and our biggest membership base is from Ghana and Nigeria.
What challenges have you faced?
I was grading the assignments by hand because I wanted to give students detailed feedback so that they could improve. This was really burdensome and not scalable so thanks to some funding, a mentee worked on building an automated grading software we called AutoGrad in 2019.
We were getting a lot of questions on the platform and so developed an AI-powered teaching assistant in 2020, to answer students’ questions. We named it after Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah because of his vision for a developed Africa.
Some of our students were Francophone -speaking, which we didn’t initially plan for. My French isn’t that good, so a friend helped to translate the course material into French. We now have an amazing community of French and English speakers that translate for each other on the platform’s forum.
Have any of these students been able to apply their knowledge?
A student in Ghana, who took part in the very first version before it became SuaCode.ai in 2017, wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. But after our course, she fell in love with computer science. She is currently at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading computer science.
Another student went to study at the university of Miami and recently got into Google and another went to Yale University.
A former student in 2019, who only learnt to code that year, came back to become a facilitator for our 2020 course. He was always proactive in helping students so I decided to mentor him in machine learning, which is my area of expertise. He developed a plagiarism detection tool, which was one of the challenges we had in 2020, and we worked together to have it published and presented one of the international AI conferences in 2021. He is now a SuaCode.ai employee.
George tells us a bit more about life in Switzerland
Tell us a little about Switzerland and the Swiss people
They are generally nice people to interact with. Switzerland has four official languages French, German, Italian and Romansh, and is one of the most advanced places. The quality of life is good and it has amazing amenities. The one thing I appreciate is the transportation.
But as a Black person in Switzerland, you are more likely to be stopped by the police. There was a time I went to Geneva and I was stopped and searched like I was a criminal. It was just terrible. I wrote about my experience on LinkedIn and the post went viral. Unlike my experience in the USA where people are more vocal about racial discrimination, the Swiss tend to be more neutral.
What do you do in your spare time there?
Switzerland is known for the Alps, which are beautiful and scenic and one of the tourist destinations I have been to with my research group. I’ve also been mountain biking around Graubünden (the Grisons) in eastern Switzerland.
What’s the food like?
I’m a picky eater so there is not something in particular that I really like. There are no Ghanaian restaurants around but there is a Nigerian restaurant that serves Nigerian jollof (which is not the same as Ghanaian jollof!). But there is this popular celebratory national dish eaten in Switzerland called fondue, which is bread dipped in melted cheese.
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