Data Analytics

Meet Africa's next­-gen data scientists

Published on November 15th, 2015

Isazi Consulting specialises in machine learning and data optimisation. The word Isazi means 'bearer of knowledge' or 'scientist' in isiZulu, and reflects the three-year-old startup’s fundamentally scientific approach to tackling various business problems.

In October 2015, AlphaCode hosted a pitching event in partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In front of a heavyweight panel that included the likes of Dominique Collett, RMI Senior Investment Executive, Richard Gush, CEO of Merrill Lynch SA, Sonja Sebotsa, founding partner at Identity Partners and Vusi Thembekwayo of Dragon's Den fame, 11 BBBEE startups were invited to present five-minute pitches. Isazi Consulting, which specialises in machine learning and data optimisation, was among the recipients of R1 million in Enterprise Development funding.

Founded by three university friends, Ashley Anthony (Geophysicist), Dario Fanucchi (Algorithmist) and Obakeng Moepya (Data Scientist), Isazi is on a mission to become Africa’s machine learning hub. The company currently employs 12 people, most of whom have expertise in computer science, biomedical, information and electrical engineering, physics, applied and pure mathematics and financial mathematics. With its unique company culture (Monday is an off day, as they have traded Monday in for ‘think tank’ Saturday), Isazi is attracting a new breed of mathematically inclined, highly creative and independent young thinkers.

But first, let’s rewind to the beginning…

As Fanucchi, Technical Director, explains, it all really began at a Wits University study group, which he attended along with Moepya for several years.

“The Wits Mathematics and Industry study group was a forum for the industry to come and present problems, which the students then needed to solve by applying academic thinking,” says Fanucchi. “One year the police came with a question around optimal roadblock placement, and we developed an algorithm for the optimal placement of police patrol cars (to help catch the bad guys).”

Sadly, the patrol car algorithm was never applied, but Fanucchi said the project (and the study group) planted the seed for Isazi.

“We realised that there was an opportunity to bring academic and scientific thinking to the real world, because in most cases, these kinds of solutions are never really implemented,” he adds.

Isazi Consulting was officially founded in 2012, and began operating in 2013. Anthony, Managing Director, notes that it is 100% owned by the three partners and has been profitable since year one. Although Isazi initially had to take on some clients at risk, it has quickly become an established African leader in the field of machine learning and optimisation.

“Essentially, we combine computational power and human intuition to solve complex problems,” explains Anthony. “Our biggest differentiator is that we write and develop algorithms from scratch – we don’t use prepackaged tools. Every solution is tailor made for the client, and not many companies can do that.”

For example, Isazi has developed pattern recognition algorithms around customer retention and customer behaviour. The team then creates predictive engines that provide practical suggestions and action steps for clients. From predicting accidents to evaluating the flux in property prices, Isazi is able to apply its scientific, data-driven approach to any number of industry challenges.

“We are industry agnostic, and take pride in being able to apply our thinking across the board,” says Anthony.

As the company continues to grow, he maintains that their biggest challenge is finding people with the right skills.

“We need individuals who have strong mathematical, scientific and programming skills, combined with a creative approach to problem solving,” he explains.

Having recognised that these skills are in short supply in SA, Anthony says that Isazi will ultimately offer training and guidance for aspiring data scientists.

In the interim, the young founders will be using their R1 million cash injection, courtesy of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, to enhance Isazi’s existing service offering…

“We are looking to make the experience more visual and interactive for clients, so we will use this funding to develop a visualisation tool that essentially allows clients to ‘touch their data’ and really understand it,” says Anthony.