I'm Leaving Planet Earth: An alumna's experience at the Nairobi IRL

by Fadhila Yusuf (Equitech Scholar '21, Kenya)
March 20, 2023

I whispered to my friend in the car with a sly smile, "I'm leaving planet earth."

His eyes widened, taken aback by my seemingly out-of-this-world statement. "What do you mean?" he asked, clearly intrigued.

"Just wait and see," I replied with a mysterious twinkle in my eye, as I slung my bag over my shoulder and strolled confidently towards the entrance of the international airport in Nairobi.

As I made my way through the bustling crowds, my heart raced with excitement. I was about to embark on an adventure that was truly out of this world. It all started with Equitech Futures, the revolutionary tech program that had transformed my life over the past two and a half years.

As I arrived at the hotel, I was greeted by a sea of friendly faces - alumni from around the world, and the brilliant faculty members who had helped shape my journey! Krittika, Thomas, and Abhilash were all there along with staff like Yash and Laasya, welcoming alumni from other cohorts and catching up with old friends.

It felt surreal to me; after seeing these faces for six weeks in a tiny square screen on Zoom, I was suddenly able to appreciate everyone’s expressions without struggling to look directly at my computer camera (like I often did in the Speaking Lab course since Thomas assured me it was nearest to the virtual eye-to-eye experience).

But this was no ordinary reunion! This was the first-ever Equitech Futures IRL (In Real Life) conference in Africa, and it was clear that something special was about to happen.

Over the next few days, I found myself swept up in a whirlwind of activity and inspiration. We listened to a keynote speech from Abhilash, who shared intriguing insights on applied AI and the future of tech.

I remember a moment while I was in the Equitech Scholars program when Abhilash asked why I personally wanted to learn data science and my answer was, “To give the trees a voice.” Well, at the IRL, we learned about new alumni-founded companies like Measuring Carbon that did exactly that. By measuring carbon output using satellite data, they could detect forest fires easily and, in some way, could hear the trees shouting for help.

NawiriTech, another start-up venture founded by alumni, was truly inspiring. It was beautiful to see how they were bridging the gaps in the tech industry by providing quality education in data science across Africa. I was reminded of why I had joined Equitech Futures in the first place: to make a difference and provide education to people who might not have had access to it otherwise. Seeing how NawiriTech was carrying on this mission and expanding its reach filled me with hope for the future of tech education on the continent.

But it wasn't all business! We also had a blast bonding over fun activities like group projects, Teachable Machine models, and even a seminar from Dr. Nikita Kaushal on evolution. Being paired with members from a different program cohort than I was in, it was fun interacting on a behavioral model with new faces. At first, we tumbled through all sorts of ideas but finally decided to try to solve a problem of disaster management since the recent earthquakes in Turkey were on our minds. Using our teachable model, drones and aircrafts flying low over the scene of an earthquake would easily detect an arm or a hand that belonged to someone struggling to be rescued. As we literally fleshed out the details of our idea, it was exhilarating to see how our individual strengths came together to create something truly remarkable!

Each project group had a unique take on a teachable model, from devising a way to understand musical notes in speech to categorizing human expressions into emojis. It was mind-boggling to see the sheer creativity and talent on display.

Every day of the IRL gave me an opportunity to have a deep and meaningful conversation with each member of the faculty. In particular, an impromptu conversation with Abby, Equitech’s Alumni Network Manager, left me in tears. We discussed the links between technology and religion, and we both shared personal stories that led us to where we were now. As unexpected as it was, it gave me a lot to think about! I also had coffee and a memorable chat with Krittika, whom I personally admire. We discussed life after university and took a long stroll through a Nairobi bookstore, talking about Kenyan books and culture. It reminded me of her online class on creativity and writing, but of course we were “in real life” this time around.

As the IRL drew to a close, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the organizers who made it all possible. During our final dinner together, I joined my fellow Kenyan alumni to serenade the room with a short song that meant a lot to us. In 2007, after the post election violence that rocked Kenya to its core, the song “Daima Mkenya” (Always Kenyan) held a special significance in that it described the true patriotism of being Kenyan. 

Naishi, Natumaini
Najitolea daima Kenya
Hakika ya bendera
Ni uthabiti wangu
Nyeusi ya wananchi na nyekundu ni ya damu
Kijani ni ya ardhi, nyeupe ya amani
Daima mimi mkenya
Mwananchi mzalendo

Leading the performance of this song held a special significance to me, because the song and its meaning always makes me cry. Being able to share that with the rest of the alumni and faculty was truly special. It was a bittersweet ending, but one that left us all feeling inspired and invigorated. Looking back on it now, I can't believe how lucky I was to be a part of such an incredible experience. Equitech Futures truly had taken me on a journey that was out of this world - and I couldn't be more grateful for it.

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