In Conversation: Senatla Keloneilwe (Machine Learning Engineer & Artificial Intelligence Researcher)

Imagine getting internship offers from companies such as Google and NASA and PhD offer letters from some of the best universities in the world. Senatla does not have to imagine all this. It's the reality of his life! In this interview, he takes us through his amazing and inspirational career path and gives us a hint of what more is to come.

In your own words, tell us who Senatla Mike Keloneilwe is

Senatla Keloneilwe is not only a dreamer but a doer. A Machine Learning Engineer, Robotics Automation Specialist, Computer Engineer, AI Researcher and implementer. A multi-time scholarship winner and a recent Chevening alumni class of 2020-2021. Also an Honours Degree in Computer Systems Engineering from Botswana Accountancy College in collaboration with the University of Sunderland, a Masters of Research (MRes) Robotics from the University of Sheffield and a Masters of Science (MSc) in Intelligent Systems & Robotics from De Montfort University, UK.

Briefly take us through your tech career journey

My first corporate world exposure was at Debswana where I worked as an Information Management intern as part of my degree industrial exposure requirement. I went on to work at a few companies as an intern as a Software Developer but left to seek better opportunities beyond our borders. In 2018, I got my first big opportunity at a FinTech company called Cellulant Ltd Kenya which I got after being noticed by a recruiter from Kenya on LinkedIn (amazing right?) to work as an Implementation Engineer in which my main duties was to develop Financial Technology (FinTech) solutions in the form of mobile applications and websites applications in collaboration with different banks and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) that cater for both the banked and unbanked customers. 

I later went on to be one of 4 people recruited by First National Bank Botswana for their International Graduate Program. I immediately joined FNB South Africa and went for intensive training as a Solution Specialist and for Robotics Processing Automation in which the goal was to bring this to the bank in Botswana and have capacity in these fields. I went on to work as a Junior Machine Learning Engineer for NASA National Space Centre in the UK as an intern while studying MSc Intelligent Systems and Robotics from De Montfort University, UK.

What inspired you to pursue this career path?

Let's take a step back to where it really began. When I was in year 3 of my undergraduate degree, I did a module called Intelligent Systems which was composed of mostly AI. For some reason, this module really sparked my interest. When I went to my final year, I did a module called Artificial Intelligence and from there I knew what I wanted to do. Being the best student and the only student to get a distinction in that same module was more like a confirmation/sign that this was it….. this is my calling. I also wanted to be different and stand out. So I intentionally looked for opportunities from companies that I felt are ready to embrace such technologies locally. That didn’t work out as I anticipated and I looked for opportunities beyond our borders. When I got my first opportunity at a FinTech company in Kenya, I knew that was my chance to learn as much as possible what FinTech really is and be hands-on in implementing real-world solutions. This one breakthrough exposed me to different areas such as automation, fraud detection with AI, social data analytics using AI (customer behaviour), and technological data analytics and so on. This culminated in fueling my interest in AI and its related areas such as Data Science, Robotics and so on.

Intelligent Systems and Robotics, Machine Learning and related areas are still very nascent fields in Botswana. Was this a motivation when you decided to take them up as a career path?

The biggest motivator for me was the hunger to be “hands-on” and less of an idealist. There was too many theoretical concepts on these buzzwords but very rare to see actual implementation. I also wanted to be able to solve different problems in any sector be it banking, agriculture, education, mining and the likes. This was to avoid limiting myself to just the tech space.

You are currently in the process of deciding where to pursue your PhD. Tell us more about the PhD itself and about how that process of making a decision from numerous top university offers is currently going.

I have numerous PhD offers in topics like Computational & Theoretical Neuroscience with Machine Learning, Deep Learning Architectures for Complex Data Fusion and Integration, A Framework for Quantifying the Privacy/Utility Trade-off in Generative Model-based Synthetic Data, SwamBots just to name a few. However, I have proposed my own PhD topic to different top-ranking universities around the world which is in relation to using AI in agriculture for disease and pest detection as this is something applicable anywhere including Botswana. Awaiting response which I am expecting very soon.

You are also a Machine Learning Engineer with NASA National Space Centre. That sounds quite exciting. Please tell us more about what the role entails

The role depends on what project one is assigned to. So I will be generic on what the role entails. The role is all about:

-       Design, train and evaluate machine learning – deep learning models that expand.

-       Developing new and applying established data analysis/modelling techniques to create services for better data classification, recommendation systems, and proactive detection of data problems.

-       Research in areas like Natural Language Processing (NLP).

Big data concepts like AI and machine learning are vital components of the 4th Industrial Revolution which Botswana is trying to partake in. As a professional in these, what is your opinion on the rate of their adoption in Botswana both in the private and public sectors?

Unfortunately, the rate of their adoption is still very low. I believe there is too much idealization and less thorough research and implementation. Where actual implementation is done there are usually so many loopholes due to lack of R&D. I also feel there is too much outsourcing instead of allowing local talents to take charge in this. For instance, in the area of Data Science, most datasets used are outsourced while we could actually compile our own datasets specific to our geographical area to accurately solve local problems. However, I will give credit where credit is due. There are some companies locally that are really pushing the 4IR and embracing Digital Transformation and actually acting on it.

What do you think can be done to speed up the rate of their adoption?

Reliable and fast Internet should be a focus area. While at it, we also need to transform our education system starting from primary school level. Most people get exposed to current and future technologies and concepts for the first time at university level. For instance, I got my first ever exposure to computer programming in 1st year. From my observation abroad, children get exposed to areas like robotics, software development, hardware configurations from a very young age. By the time they reach their teenage years, they are already equipped with basic programming skills to actually develop real-world solutions. Countries like Kenya have changed their education structure by exposing children to such technologies from primary school level and are at the forefront of technological innovations in Africa and are often referred to as Africa's “Silicon Savannah”.

Our country is notoriously known for being efficient on theorizing policies but very slow on their actual implementation. What do we stand to lose if we drag our feet in the adoption of big data technologies in our quest for 4IR participation?

When we talk about 4IR, there is no way we can leave out Big Data as it is the core element of 4IR. Without the Big Data, 4.0 technologies would not have been able to decipher and extract value from all that information in order to learn, generate predictive analysis patterns and operate autonomously and in such a precise manner. Therefore, without Big Data, there would have been no 4.0 industry, nor the intelligent technologies that support it. Big Data identifies variables that can affect performance, at no extra cost, guiding corporates in identifying the problem. Therefore without Big Data, we will be unable to solve social problems, accurately identify huge opportunities and potential risks. The global competition in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be highly intensive, as it will be competition to manage with the incomparably rapid progress of AI, IoT and Big Data. We must be more creative than ever in formulating growth strategies in such a rapidly growing digital market. So by dragging our feet in the adoption of big data technologies in our quest for 4IR we definitely have a lot to lose while the rest of the world moves forward leaving Botswana behind.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Tough one to answer because I have plenty of big moments I am very proud of. I’ll just list 3 moments.

1.    Getting an internship offer at Google and NASA National Space Centre which was a big deal.

2.    Being asked to be a key speaker by FirstRand Group on World Creativity and Innovation Day 2021 on the theme of “Moving Africa Forward In Robotics”.

3.    When I was working for a FinTech company and completed an electric bill payment solution in collaboration with one of the major banks in Botswana in only 5 months. This project had been pending for about 3-4 years so coming in as the new guy and completing this in just 5 months meant something to me.

What’s something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

Failure is part of the process. Failure is part of growth. It's how you deal with failure that matters.  

If any, what is the best advice you have received in your career?

1.    To not limit myself to local opportunities but to also go beyond our borders.

2.    To not let a degree limit my career path.

3.    To be the best I can be but putting my mental health first.

Career-wise, where do you see Senatla in the next 5-10 years?

Founding my own data analytics company that leverages AI concepts and implementing real-world solutions and network with international organizations. 

What advice can you give to young people who are interested in pursuing a career in tech?

Today’s world revolves around technology. Our daily lives depend on technology one way or the other. There is a misconception that tech areas like AI, Data Science and related areas are only for those with a Computer Science and related background. The truth is, AI and its subclasses are applicable to any person in any field. The tech field has no limits as these concepts are applicable in almost every sector and provide a lot of opportunities around the world. For instance, I have been in different sectors such as FinTech, Banking, Mining, Education, Aerospace and still more to come. In one of my masters’ projects in my first semester, I diverted to the Health sector by developing an expert system that acts on behalf of a Cardiologist. This system was a Coronary Heart Disease that used fuzzy-logic approach and was able to diagnose patients with a high risk of having CHD. I therefore highly encourage young people to go ahead and pursue their desired areas in the tech field.

On the other hand, I also would like to encourage females to take charge in pursuing such fields. It is no secret that the tech field is male-dominated but we have seen females out there doing big things in these areas. Young women like Tlamelo Makati, Angela Matlapeng, Refiloe Matlapeng, Tamara Lottering just to name a few who have already proven that females are as good.

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


LinkedIn: Senatla Mike Keloneilwe

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity
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