Africa Women in Data Science - Creating Vital Connections


Anelda Van Der Walt and Nomalungelo Maphanga of Talarify

In March 2022 DARA Big Data (in collaboration with partners SARAO, OAD and IDIA) hosted the Africa Women in Data Science event. This online event, held to mark International Women’s Day, celebrated female data scientists across Africa with a view to encouraging more women on the continent to feel confident about entering the field. Women from a variety of backgrounds spoke about their careers and their experiences, both positive and negative, and offered advice to others interested in working in data. The day also featured a panel discussion between six inspiring women where they talked at length about the challenges women face in data and discussed ways to make the field more accessible to all, answering various questions from participants. 


One of the panel speakers was Anelda van der Walt from South Africa, who had reached out to DARA Big Data to ask if those with a non-STEM background could attend the event. Organisers were very happy to include all women with an interest in data science whatever their background, and with this in mind asked Anelda to join the panel discussion to widen its remit. Anelda founded a consulting and research company called Talarify in 2015, which supports researchers to grow their digital and computational skills and networks, leading to more efficient and impactful research. Anelda, who comes from a Bioinformatics background, has been heavily involved in human capacity development work throughout her career and has worked with organisations across Africa to effect change using digital skills and community building. 


Anelda is conscious that many data science opportunities and programmes tend to have a focus on building capacity only within the sphere of STEM. However these skills are relevant to many other fields as well which tends to be overlooked. One of the projects that she works on (ESCALATOR) aims to promote the adoption of digital research methodologies and practices in Humanities and Social Sciences. She thinks that many other research fields should include computational skill development to aid progress and allow students from different backgrounds to be part of a wider data science skills network; ‘If scholars are not invited to be part of the data science conversation through inclusion in mentorship programmes, capacity development initiatives, and funding opportunities, how can their expertise be incorporated to develop systems and platforms that can be good for people?’


During the Africa Women in Data Science event one of the participants, Nomalungelo Maphanga, reached out to Anelda by email to ask her some further questions about mentorship, careers and development. They then met over Zoom and Anelda was sufficiently impressed to ask Nomalungelo to do a trial week of work as a consultant, where she excelled. Nomalungelo was then appointed as a full time Project Manager at Talarify, with an important additional role as a Data Science Mentor. This is an excellent outcome of the Africa Women in Data Science event!


When asked why she created a Data Science Mentor role Anelda replied, ‘Talarify’s projects almost always focus strongly on researchers, students and professionals new to data science (or digital and computational research methodologies and approaches). We’re incorporating mentorship in most of our projects as we think it is a critical component for success. We’ve collaborated with various mentorship programmes, looking at successful implementation from multiple perspectives. We also wrote a peer-reviewed, open-access article that could be useful for people interested in developing mentorship programmes; Ten simple rules for establishing a mentorship programme.’


Throughout the whole day of the Africa Women in Data Science event there were many requests from participants for mentorship; feedback received after the event also reflected this. Nomalungelo sees her new role as vital and is excited to help women to make progress in data, ‘There is a big need for mentorship in South Africa and Africa as a whole. There are many resources and tools that our people can use to better their skills and workflows throughout the research life cycle, or anything else they may be working on. A mentor steps in to provide guidance in the mentee’s learning journey, exposes them to relevant available resources and supports them to ensure that the mentee achieves the desired goal.’


Nomalungelo comes from a Chemical Engineering background and during her studies used Python to optimise and intensify chemical processes. She has prior project management experience and has also worked as a teacher and tutor, ideal experience for her new role. She has a genuine passion for data science and is keen to impart this to others, ‘Data can be used to predict trends and keep track of trends which can then be used to make data-driven decisions to solve a problem. I find this to be a very beautiful process. The fact that this is true for many fields makes it even more beautiful. It is amazing to see how a table with thousands of data points that takes more than a day to go through can be transformed into a visual that can be understood in as little as five minutes.’


Anelda and Nomalungelo have the potential to greatly expand the pool of digital skills talent in South Africa and beyond. Anelda sees some encouraging signs for women in data science but fears that without the right support and encouragement they may not achieve their full potential, ‘Looking at the field there are many opportunities for women in Africa to become part of data science communities where they can learn skills and grow their professional networks.  At the same time, any particular woman in Africa interested in moving into a data science role may find herself isolated and without role models, mentors or peers in a learning community/study group. These resources are often taken for granted in regions where data science skills are more ubiquitous. For women in Francophone Africa, this may be even more difficult as most of the world's data science resources and learning opportunities are available mainly in English. This is one of the findings from a project we’ve been working on since early 2020 (afrimapr). A lack of active communities of practice, accessible infrastructure and appropriate support at institutional, local, regional or national levels can make it very difficult to move from acquiring new skills through online learning, participation in global community events and attending conferences to implementing them in your day-to-day work.’ 


The above story shows the importance of women reaching out, asking for support and making important connections whenever the opportunity presents itself. There is still a lot of work to do to take down barriers to entry for women who would like to move into the tech/data sphere, but Talarify and other similar organisations across Africa are already making a vital difference. DARA Big Data is pleased to have been able to play a part in connecting these two inspiring women and will watch their progress with great interest.