Maths institute keeps African talent in Africa

African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) students, from left, are, Reagan Okumu, 25, from Kenya; Masego Malatji, 24, from Pretoria; and Anas Awadalla, 23, from Egypt.

The old Hotel Rio Grande was the first building in Muizenberg to have a lift, but the once posh hotel is now home to an institute that is taking maths in Africa to the next level.

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) offers a one-year postgraduate Master’s degree in mathematical sciences.

The three-storey, pastel green Art Deco building, a stone’s throw from Muizenberg’s beachfront, was built in 1931 by Charles McCarthy, of McCarthy Contractors, one of the most prominent building contractors in Cape Town at the time, according to Michael Walker’s book, A Statement in Stone. It is now home to 68 students from across Africa.

“Students live on the top floors of the building and are taught in lecture halls in the same building. They live, eat, socialise, and study together without any cost to them,” said spokesperson Noluthando Sithole.

The institute is also home to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Schools Enrichment Centre (AIMSSEC), a not-for-profit organisation that helps to train teachers from rural and township communities and elsewhere in Africa to teach maths and science.

AIMSSEC academic manager Dr Sinobia Kenny said many of the courses the trainees attended were held at partner universities.

“At the end of the day, they spell their names in mathematics,” she said.

AIMS was founded by Professor Neil Turok, the son of the late anti-apartheid activist and politician Professor Ben Turok, in 2003, as a partnership project with UCT, Stellenbosch University, UWC, the University of Cambridge, Oxford University, and Université de Paris Sud XI.

South Africa’s Master’s degree qualifications from AIMS are formally conferred by the local universities.

AIMS now has institutes in Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, and Rwanda, and more than 2 200 students – a third of them women – have graduated from AIMS centres since the institute’s inception, according to administrative officer, Gina Fourie.

Anas Awadalla, 23, a student from Egypt, completed a BSc in computer engineering with a minor in communications engineering at Alexandria University, and is now working on a Master’s degree in mathematical science with a focus on artificial intelligence science – a new programme that had its first intake of students in September last year.

As a child, he said, he had dreamed of becoming a pilot and then later a computer-games developer, and at some stage, he even wanted to become a handball player.

While studying computer engineering at university, he discovered AI and was immediately hooked.

In 2002, he completed a software engineering internship with a machine learning team in Scotland and knew that it was what he wanted to do.

He came across AIMS by chance while looking for opportunities and applied for the programme.

He said he loved Cape Town and the beach and living in the building with other students.

“There are always discussions about interesting topics, and you get to interact with many other students from across Africa and get to know their cultures. AIMS has opened the door for cultural interaction and it is keeping African talent in Africa.”

Masego Malatji, 24, from Pretoria, completed a BSc in mathematical sciences and a BSc Honours in statistics at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Ga-Rankuwa, but after “sitting at home” for eight months, she changed direction and enrolled at AIMS for the structured Master’s programme in mathematical sciences.

“I love Cape Town and South Africa but would love to go to Canada,” she said.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity AIMS has given me. I get to interact with people from other cultures and make new friends. We are like one big family. It has also taught me a lot about myself. I always thought I didn’t work well under pressure, but I do. It is an amazing place.”

Reagan Okumu, 25, from Kenya, has a BSc in applied mathematics from the University of Nairobi and learnt about AIMS after he applied for a scholarship offered by the French Embassy in Kenya.

“Even in the job market, If you tell them you are from AIMS, it opens doors for you,” he said. “I’ve met so many people at AIMS, and it is a place where dreams come alive.”

Professor Turok, now the Higgs Chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Edinburgh, said the idea came to him in 2001 while taking a sabbatical in Cape Town so his daughter could spend some time with her grandparents in Muizenberg.

After several discussions with local academics, he learnt that one of apartheid’s legacies had been to create a scarcity of maths and science skills, which had become a major strategic problem in the country.

On a Saturday morning, he discussed the idea of an institute that would recruit students from all over Africa and lecturers from all over the world with his father, and, to his surprise, his father said “okay” and insisted he write down what they had discussed before watching the rugby that afternoon.

“So I spent an hour typing a page about AIMS in his office and then forgot all about it.”

Without his knowledge, his father faxed the document to everyone he could think of and then encouraged him to follow up.

After discussing the idea with the department and faculty at Cambridge, where he worked at the time, he was told: “Go do it, and we’ll come and teach.”

His father then told him about a dilapidated building in Muizenberg that was available.

While he had no intention of buying a building and wanted to start AIMS on a university campus, the old hotel was ideal and with the help of his brothers, he bought the building and the rest is history.

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African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) students during a lecture.
This 1931 Art Deco building is home to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)
Students and staff during a lunch break.
African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) students with English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking at the opening of the AIMS Research Centre in 2008.