NAIROBI, Kenya – IBM recognizes the huge potential of the African market and the role of smarter systems in changing the way business, government and society acquire innovative solutions to address challenges. As such, the global organization continues to expand its operations across Africa to increase its presence in major growth markets and its innovative effort has seen the development of IBM Research Lab, IBM Innovation Center and Smarter Cities Challenge.
IBM Research Lab
Early this year, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, announced the opening of IBM’s research laboratory in Nairobi-its first research lab in Africa. IBM is currently the largest and only commercial research organization in the world, with 12 global labs in six continents.
It expects to network and connect with the rest of IBM’s labs around the world to build skills, solve important problems and issues, and create opportunities in Nairobi. It hopes to develop Nairobi’s “next generation government” and future workforce talent.
“The lab’s research agenda includes the development of cognitive computing technologies that can be applied to address issues in public health, education and agriculture.” Several projects in the areas of water, energy, agriculture, transportation, healthcare, human mobility and public safety, have already commenced.
His Excellency, the President of Kenya, Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta officially opened the commercial technology research lab in Nairobi at an inauguration ceremony on November 8.
He said, “My government is proud that Kenya, and Africa will benefit from the presence of one of the most advanced research facilities, with some of the world’s most talented people, using some of the most powerful technologies to develop solutions in Africa for Africa.”
IBM has already seen its first success story on creating innovative solutions in the area of digital advertising for small businesses. IBM partnered with local firms Flashcast and Kuza Biashara, to develop a budget solution for small businesses to reach out to their customers through their mobile phones. By developing an interactive multimedia mobile phone app and SMS service, IBM has empowered 25 small businesses in Nairobi to leverage Flashcast’s advertising platform. This allowed businesses to transmit multimedia, location-based ads directly to mobile phones.
“The Kenyan technology is so fast and so vast. We believe that we are going to create an innovation city in Nairobi and Kenya that will enable people to continue to create for the world,” said Julian Kyula, entrepreneur and CEO of MoDe.
IBM Innovation Center
The IBM Innovation Center in Nairobi positions Kenyans to connect, collaborate, develop skills, and access IT and business resources across the continent and the rest of the world.
One of the greatest challenges for local stakeholders such as educators and businesses was the lack of access to the state of the art tools. The development of the IBM Innovation Center, however, has helped overcome this issue.
“The IBM Innovation Center and the trainings offered there will really help professors like myself stay up to up to speed with IT innovations,” said AnnRita Njiru, professor at Strathmore University.
Dorcus Muthoni, CEO of Openworld and IBM business partner, said, “Getting together with other partners around the world helped us learn how to build a global project.”
Smarter Cities Challenge
IBM executives worked on a comprehensive traffic management plan with city officials as part of its biggest philanthropic initiative called the Smarter Cities Challenge. IBM hopes that the results of the partnership with Nairobi’s government will become a showcase around the world.
The upside of Kenya’s growing economy is the growth of the middle class. Families are buying a second car and some a third car. However, the downside of growth is that it consigns the city with the challenge of resolving heavy traffic congestion and transportation issues.
Samuel Kimaru, deputy commander of Kenya traffic department, said, “As a department we would like to see a city free from [traffic]jams. A city with well constructed transit system, a city with a good monitoring unit and a city with a well planned infrastructure.”
Nairobi’s current traffic challenge comprises several issues such as roadways that were built for a city 10 times smaller; taking an average of 31.7 minutes to find a parking spot; and 75 percent of the 1.5 million daily commuters drive alone. It is estimated that Nairobi is losing $500,000 per day in terms of productivity and fuel consumption.
“Reduce commute time from four hours to one hour. Encouraging more efficient law enforcement through the use of IT. Making public transportation safe and more reliable and more predictable. Those are the things that we hope will resonate with Nairobi,” said Wendy Lung, director of IBM Venture Capital Group, on Smarter Cities Challenge.
IBM Country General Manager of East Africa, Tony Mwai, highlighted that while there are similarities to the traffic situations among the various cities in Africa, there are subtle differences when one compares Africa to the mature markets like London and New York.
The IBM team stayed in South Africa for a month and conducted in-depth interviews with local stakeholders responsible for the traffic issues. Their research, however, showed that some traffic initiatives were already on its way.
The Smarter Cities Challenge team has made several long-term and short-term recommendations including creating a Smarter Challenge Authority, developing a Smarter Challenge Platform and specialized ops center, using analytics to integrate traffic data from multiple sources and providing mobile devices for police to monitor traffic.
Dr. Cyrus Jiru, Permanent Secretary of Kenya Ministry of Transport remains optimistic for the future.
“We want to turn this [traffic]challenge into a business opportunity,” said Dr. Jiru, “It is not a transport problem, but a business opportunity.”
– Flora Khoo