Camille-Louise Kouba Mbayo

Computer Science, MS’22

When it comes to deploying her computer science skills, Camille-Louise Mbayo MS’22 is already looking far beyond the halls of academia. Both a global thinker and a master’s student at Columbia Engineering, Mbayo wants to change the way people think of technological development in emerging markets around the globe.

“If you aren’t from a place or if you haven’t really lived and experienced a group or a people, you can’t really know what the solution to their problems may be,” she said. “Maybe your solution isn’t something that people care about, or it’s something that won’t be accepted, or a solution just won’t work with existing infrastructure.”

For Mbayo, an avid saxophonist, there’s an artistry to engineering, and the best of both the arts and sciences are grounded in a deep understanding of the world around us.

That idea has motivated Mbayo throughout her academic career. She attended Tufts University where she earned her bachelor’s in computer science and mechanical engineering in 2018, which led to her first job with the startup Fraym, a market research company that gathers health, economic, and educational data on countries that have been traditionally passed over by other research firms. This includes many African nations, which she said for too long have remained data sparse. Wanting to focus her skills directly on impacting emerging markets, she applied to Columbia and was accepted in 2020.

Columbia, she said, has already expanded her outlook on where the policy and engineering ends of technology collide. She’s looking for funding to do an ethnographic study over the summer on how WhatsApp is used in Zimbabwe.

As she works through the final year of her master’s degree, Mbayo spoke of how she marries real world experience and academics, how she thinks technology should evolve to level digital playing fields, and just how closely art and engineering are related.

How did your unique experience growing up inform the way you see global technology?

I’ve lived in seven different countries, spending somewhere around two years in each. All of them, except the U.S., were emerging markets like India and Rwanda. I witnessed firsthand the failure of technological solutions designed without cultural context.

That was the kind of stuff that first got me into engineering. And not to mention that as we were moving, we would switch between French speaking countries and English speaking countries. So in class, the only subjects that always made sense to me were science, math, and art because they didn’t really have that large of a language barrier. It’s incredible to be in a field that is so rich and touches everything, and to then be able to tap into it and understand it globally.

I got to see a lot of tech innovations that didn’t necessarily take into account how the technologies would work in emerging markets, as well as some that did. They tried QR polling with computer vision in India, but while the tech ended up working it didn’t perform well with the workflow of the teachers so it wasn’t used. But then there was M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transferring system that contributed to an increase in micro-financing services in Kenya and enabled as many as 2% of Kenyan households to move out of poverty over six years.

Have your current studies at Columbia expanded your interests?

My parents are both Congolese, and as the first child I was going to be either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. My first engineering degree was for them, but through my second at Columbia the experience has been really fun. It’s the first time where I’ve been able to take advantage of the fact that I’ve lived in all these different places.

I loved my first class I took with Professor Henning Schulzrinne about computer networks. It was perfect in the way he was talking about networks as the bridge between society and how people use the internet and tech. Last semester, for my Internet Technology, Economics, and Policy class project, I got to explore the evolution of telecommunication services in Sub-Saharan Africa, merging my interest and love of emerging markets with my passion for computer science. The project discussed the legacy of colonialism and its impact on network infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa and the economic models that have to change in non-traditional markets. It talked about the nitty-gritty of the structures and types of wires used while also discussing the cultural impact and government involvement, tieing technology to the humans it serves.

Honestly, anytime I walk around campus and realize that I deserve to be here has been a positive experience for me. Remembering and honoring all the people who had to sacrifice things for me to be here is a privilege.

As a black woman in STEM, there are obviously moments where I just say, “Wow, there aren’t that many of us.” At the same time, I think of my great grandma Anne Miandabu, who we usually called Kakou Miandabu, and this was her wildest dream to have a little grandchild studying these things in an elite institution. She passed away, but it’s just really amazing to know this would make her so proud.

How do you see tech best evolving in these emerging markets?

I believe that innovations should be grassroot, and that they should not be forced upon people. The term that we have is, don’t be a safari researcher. It’s important to actually go there and live there and just listen and observe.

But there’s more to that. The internet infrastructure in the U.S. and in a lot of Western countries is based on telephone infrastructure that existed decades ago. Whereas if colonies and colonizers didn’t invest in that kind of infrastructure 100 years ago, that technology is not going to be there for these places. In SubSaharan Africa, mobile is the main source of internet. For several former French and British colonies in African countries, the main internet providers are private companies that broke off from those countries’ governments. These companies create bundles for a reduced fee which limits users to certain sites and social media platforms. That creates an asymmetrical dependency which leads to the centralization of the internet and limits what people in these countries can access and accomplish online.

I also think that the biggest barrier to growth in emerging markets right now is tech literacy. In the U.S., the infrastructure is based on things that existed dozens of years ago, so you’re able to build on that existing knowledge. Many people don’t actually understand how all of these things interact with one another, and, therefore, the innovations that people in developing countries can do are limited. That’s what I want to work on long term. I want to work in tech literacy and really bridge that gap. Once you give people the tools they can do whatever they want and really start to innovate.

What do you think is the connection between the arts and sciences?

My favorite book is “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” by Jonah Lehrer, which talks about how artists often discover certain concepts sometimes hundreds of years before science does. I personally think that is because artists are often observing their world with a firm connection to humanity. And obviously, music is very mathematical. The chords and progressions, and what sounds good are all math equations.

I also draw, I paint, I dance, I do all these things as art has very much been a part of how I understand and view the world. I think I got to see really early on how big the world is and how sometimes one thing that’s acceptable in one place is completely unacceptable in another. I think it’s made me very open minded.

But I’m also working with friends on what we’re calling an Immersive Nomad experience. We want to merge tech and education and teach it to people in a way that is accessible and low tech. It’s a traveling museum that fits in a kind of container or something else that can easily travel. We would want to take this all over the world to places that normally don’t get to experience such things. I don’t think you can just narrow it down to “just art” or “just math.” With all things, we’re all trying to understand how they work.

Student Spotlight

I think that the biggest barrier to growth in emerging markets right now is tech literacy. That’s what I want to work on long term. Once you give people the tools, they can do whatever they want and really start to innovate.

Camille-Louise Kouba Mbayo
Computer Science, MS’22