Zim whizzkids develop an artificial intelligence service


The sky is never the limit for Zimbabwean whizzkids Alessio Simoya, Samuel Henderson and Tamuda Chimhanda, who are determined to push solutions that can transform the lives of Africans through technology. The trio just released Penpal, a mind-blowing AI writer capable of writing anything you ask it to.

A few weeks ago, international tech news was dominated by news that Microsoft had acquired Open AI in a partnership that was described by the Microsoft CEO as: “A partnership around a shared ambition to responsibly advance cutting-edge AI research and democratise AI as a new technology platform”. Microsoft’s move has been calculated by some tech analysts to mean that Microsoft could revolutionalise online search like never before, as AI could now be integrated into Microsoft’s Bing search, which for years had played second fiddle to Alphabet’s Google search.

The integration of AI with Bing online search was to give Alphabet a run after its money with its Google search, which has dominated the browser’s search functions. But Google also showed signs that it was not to be outdone so easily to give up its dominance in search.

A few weeks after Microsoft announced its patnership with OpenAI, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), launched its own version of AI service called Bard to rival Chat GPT, created by OpenAI, Microsoft’s partner. Google said that “their service would use the information from the web to offer new, high-quality responses".

With this rush for AI, it definitely will be a dog-eat-dog scenario as the tech rivalry intensify in the short-to-medium term. Whoever wins this race still remains a mystery, but one thing that is certain is that the online search will never be the same again with the coming in of AI.

While it is usually so common to witness tech wars or space technology in the developed world, Africa and much of the developing world usually plays a spectator role, playing second fiddle to most technological advancements.

We have seen the space rivalry between the USA and Russia in the 90s. We have also witnessed the fight between Huawei and Samsung, Google and other Western companies, however we have never really seen significant emerging tech giants from the African continent.

This has led to the African continent being labelled a laggard when it comes to tech, as most technologies only get to reach Africa years after they have already been launched in developing countries such as the United States, Europe and nowadays also from China, which is leading in several technologies such as 5G technology.

But not this time around. Zimbabwean talents around the world are working hard to bring modern technological trends closer to home and at a much faster pace than ever before.

This is the case with artificial intelligence. An example is PenPal, an AI writing assistant built with OpenAI technology, developed by Simeya, Henderson and Chimhanda. Penpal is aimed at making AI programmes such as ChatGPT functional in Zimbabwe and other areas where it was initially inaccessible.

According to Tamuda, they are determined to spreading AI to the far ends of the world.

Tamuda is a computer science student at the University of Rochester in New York. He is a former student at the Jesuit-run St Ignatius College in Chishawasha in Zimbabwe. It is there on the hilly terrain of Chishawasha that the youngster’s dreams were nurtured.

St Ignatius College has a vision that says it “devotes itself to continuing to lead in the provision of a transformative 21st-century education that develops distinctively competent, committed, compassionate and conscious men and women with and for others who are creative and critical thinkers. In Chimhanda, there could be enough testimony that the school’s vision is right in sight.

Penpal is not the only achievement by Tamuda. In 2022, he was among the 30 finalists in a Game Changers Techpreneurs programme, where he competed for a share of the US$1,5 million prize and business mentorship. Tamuda has also started several tech businesses such as Dot, a fintech start-up, and Glimmer Virtual Reality, a virtual reality travel company.

For the Penpal project, Tamuda worked with equally talented individuals Samuel and Alessio. Samuel attended the prestigious Hellenic Academy before moving on to study at UWC Robert Bosch College and eventually studying computer science at the University of Rochester in New York. His expertise in the tech industry has earned him numerous accolades, including a position at Google.

Alessio, on the other hand, was awarded a scholarship by Mastercard for his exceptional abilities in software engineering and is currently working at Apple. With their combined skills and experience, the trio behind Penpal is well-equipped to drive innovation and bring emerging technologies to Zimbabwe and beyond.

So what exactly is Penpal, and how does it help?

With its advanced AI technology, PenPal is an intelligent writing assistant. The app can help in writing almost anything, from composing an outline for a research paper, or writing an essay, to composing a professional letter.

The app can get you started with an outline or a skeleton of writing which you can then edit, saving time. Penpal eliminates writer's block and empowers users to achieve their full writing potential.

The founders of Penpal believe that the application represents a major step forward for the technology industry in Zimbabwe and are eager to share this exciting new tool. But according to Samuel, “this is just the beginning.”

He goes on to say that they are working on more tools to revolutionise how people live and work in Zimbabwe. “We believe that technology has the power to create positive change, and we are committed to using it to do just that,” said Tamuda from his United States base.

Penpal was built by a team of founders based in the United States who bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the table. With backgrounds at tech giants such as Google and Apple, the team says that it is committed to bringing the latest and greatest in AI technology to Zimbabwe and beyond.

With AI, the future of work or school will be revolutionised. AI will undoubtedly make life easy for the most part. It will increase speed, increase accuracy, provide free assistance anytime and anywhere.

Joseph Ndondo is a lecturer at Masvingo Polytechnic. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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