Carnegie Mellon University
April 22, 2017

Carnegie Mellon Africa Students Attended Facebook Conference

Four students from Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU-Africa) attended the Facebook Developer Conference F8 in San Jose, Calif., where they showcased their messenger bots to some of the world’s top tech developers.

Lenah Chacha, Aimable Rwema, Joshua Ocero and Davy Uwizera were selected to attend the conference after distinguishing themselves during a CMU-Africa bot party and hackathon competition last month.

A bot for Messenger communicates with customers using the Messenger platform and combines aspects of artificial intelligence to learn from that interaction. Bots are applications that typically perform tasks that are structured and repetitive at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human, such as Sephora’s Virtual Artist, which matches an image sent by users through Messenger to the lipstick closest in color in Sephora’s stock.

The bot party and hackathon at CMU-Africa was one of 33 taking place in Africa and the Middle East, but the only bot party in the region that was followed by a 24-hour hackathon. During the bot party, students could interact with the team from Facebook to gain insight on Messenger’s technology. The team included Jennifer Fong, the strategic partnerships manager from Facebook U.S., and Proud Dzambukir, the strategic partnerships manager from Facebook South Africa. In the hackathon competition, students had 24 hours to come up with their own Messenger bots to address a local issue.

“We built the hackathon into our event because we wanted to provide an opportunity for our students to showcase their technical abilities and encourage them to submit their bots to the regional Middle East and Africa Bots for Messenger Challenge,” said Bruce Krogh, director of CMU-Africa.

The winning team was Chacha and Rwema, both of whom are pursuing a master’s degree in information technology at CMU-Africa. The two built BiasharaBot, which enables merchants, who do not have access to expensive inventory software, to catalogue inventory on their platform and connect them with buyers. The bot also facilitates the buying process by presenting buyers with all available options for items they are looking for on demand.

Information technology master’s degree students Ocero and Uwizera emerged as the runners-up with FARMBOT. Their bot connects farmers (or cooperatives) and buyers to sell or purchase produce while estimating crop price by location based on the bot interaction, which helps stakeholders react accordingly. In the long run, the bot can give early warnings on food security by location and can help plan transportation in rural areas based on the data collected by the bot.

“The bot party and hackathon showed me the importance of building a business or idea on a social media platform,” Rwema said. “Messenger is used by over a billion people worldwide, so building your business model on something that accesses such a huge market is something that will help you reach your goals once you start a company.”

The winners, as well as the other 15 teams that participated from CMU-Africa, will have the opportunity to submit their bot for Facebook’s global Bots for Messenger Challenge on April 28.

“Attending F8 is a great opportunity to mingle with Facebook developers from around the world and to view their perspectives — but even more exciting is having the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley, where people’s dreams become reality,” Ocero said.

Facebook and CMU Host Bot Party and Hackathon Day 2