Women In Tech: Tlamelo Makati


When Tlamelo realized the endless possibilities presented by the field of Artificial Intelligence to not only better her own life but society in general, she knew that she had found her career calling. In this interview, she takes us through her journey in AI from the challenges presented by women underrepresentation in the field to how she has managed to surmount those to become the trailblazer that she is.

In your own words, tell us who Tlamelo Makati is

A Mechatronics Engineer, Drone Pilot, Ph.D. Candidate, AI Researcher, Writer/Poet & Gender Activist. Apart from her aspirations and goals, the weird friend and sibling who lives in her bubble. Enjoys reading, writing, anime, Asian dramas, and just anything that takes her out of this reality just for a little while.

Briefly take us through your journey to a career in Machine Learning & AI

I came into the scene a little late I think, after completing my Form 5, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My friend had mentioned before that her father said there was a new course that was the topic in the engineering world; Robotics. At the time, my mind just thought of Transformers but after watching some teenage movie on Disney, I was hooked. Hence me choosing mechatronics. Unfortunately, it wasn't based on some “smart” thought process, just pure instinct and the love for venturing into the unknown and challenging myself. The course opened my eyes to a whole new world; Robotics, Artificial Intelligence(AI), Control and Automation, and Software Design. With AI, I came across it during my second year, my friend suggested we should just try it. It was offered as an elective in the computer science department. The rest is history, after that course, I knew then that AI was my calling

What motivated you to pursue this career path?

Apart from being curious and my need to challenge myself, the endless possibilities I saw from it. To me, it offered a platform to change the world and impact it in a way that is beneficial to both myself and society at large. I am a firm believer in doing what makes one happy. So finding love in my career and also being able to make a world I only read about in fiction books, a world I only dream about, was just too good to just ignore

Unfortunately, the participation of women in AI & Machine Learning is still low with some research showing a paltry 22% and 12% representation in both fields respectively. What have been your experience and what challenges, if any, have you faced as a result of such unbalanced representation?

Having few women to look up to, especially in Botswana. It is always nice to see someone who looks like you and who you can relate to living your dream. When you don’t, you tend to doubt yourself, and sometimes being one of the few is not all that exciting, no one to understand and help you navigate the path. But I think my number one challenge has always been self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Sometimes it kicks in and I still feel I’m a fake and somehow managed to convince everyone I am who I say I am.

On the other hand, what has been the upside of being such a trailblazer in your field?

Getting to teach others and sharing knowledge. I’m always more than happy to talk about my career, AI, and the importance of research and understanding these technologies as Batswana

You are involved in various social initiatives including being an ambassador of “WomenTechMakers Gaborone” as well as being a co-organizer of “Women In Machine Learning & Data Science”. In your opinion, how important are such initiatives in growing women's participation in tech?

Very important. If it wasn’t for such communities I would have taken a longer route to get where I am. They offer companionship in navigating the ever-changing tech world, they offer opportunities, guidance, and mentorship. I encourage everyone interested in having a career in tech to join them

From being involved in such initiatives for a couple of years now, how would you gauge their effectiveness, and if there is a need to, what can be done to improve this effectiveness?

Very effective. From my experience, they are a must-have in your many ways of getting to where you want to go in your career. More engagement from our side could help, we mostly have events that cater to people already familiar with the tech world and who are already sure of their career paths so more engagement to cover a diverse group of people could help. 

Botswana has big ambitions of being an active part of the 4IR but adoption of AI & Machine Learning technologies, which are core components of the 4IR, is still very low and slow. What do you think can be done to speed up the rate of adoption?

Research. I believe everything starts from there and currently, our R&D is still lacking behind as we are quick to implement results from other people’s research studies instead of carrying out our own. Systems will continue to fail and be down unless we create for ourselves and allow young local talents to take up the lead in driving this change.

Most young people, women and otherwise, shy away from learning AI and ML because they are “hard” and have a steep learning curve. As a professional in these, what advice can you give to those who want to succeed in these fields?

Do them because you love them and because they excite you. Hard work can only take you so far but if you venture into these with the mindset of just being a hard worker, they will drain you. So enjoy yourself, enjoy the learning process, and most importantly ask questions, be curious.

Apart from the aforementioned, please tell us anything you are currently involved in the fields of AI & Machine Learning

Currently, I am the research lead at Anton Tech, an agric-tech startup here in Botswana that uses 4IR technologies to improve the state of agriculture in Botswana and Africa. I am also working as an engineering intern at UNEP under the disaster risk and management division, also working on AI, robotics, IoT, and Drone technologies in Disaster management. Personally, most of my projects are on hold at the moment but next year I will have something concrete to share

From your own experiences, what advice can you give to women who are interested in pursuing your career trajectory despite the current obstacles that unfortunately work against women in these fields?

In whatever you do, be your authentic self, be loud, be daring, don’t shy away from having your voice heard, even if you do it trembling and crying(Been there!), be your number one fan, and trust that voice inside your head that tells you are above everything and everyone, I know some view it as being boastful or “go rata dilo” but it helps on days when you feel like giving up. The Goddess in you will never fail you

Lastly, please share with our readers where you can be reached if they are interested in getting in touch

Email: melokreations@gmail.com or tmakati04@gmail.com

NB: Interview has been edited for clarity

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