IBMers in Action

IBM Research – Africa: A Lab Aimed at Boosting Social Progress

By Steve Hamm

Charity Wayua grew up in rural Kenya and did not use a computer till she was 17. Through hard work, Charity excelled academically and landed a scholarship from the Zawadi Africa Education Fund, which provides support for disadvantaged African women pursuing university educations. She got her undergraduate degree from Xavier University and a PhD in chemistry from Purdue University, both in the United States. Now she’s back in Africa—a fresh hire at the newly opened IBM Research lab in Nairobi.

Charity Wayua, IBM Research – Africa

Charity Wayua, IBM Research – Africa

She always planned on returning home after completing her studies. “I wanted to come back to be part of creating solutions for the continent, doing work that would make a difference for people here,” she says.

Charity got what she wished for. She is on the ground floor of an effort by IBM to do something important for Africa—develop sophisticated and commercially-viable technologies that have an immediate impact on people’s lives. The newly refurbished lab building, which formally opened its doors today during a visit by Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, has a diverse staff including research experts from 12 countries. Seventy percent of the employees are Africans. Nearly half are women—a rare occurrence in the tech industry.

Most of the researchers are like Charity. They grew up in Africa, got their university educations elsewhere, and have returned to give back to their homelands. Another is Eric Mibuari. He grew up on a small farm 200 kilometers north of Nairobi. He later got his undergraduate degree from MIT and his masters from Stanford. Eric had helped with a project at IBM Research – Almaden while he was studying at Stanford. When the scientists he associated with learned of IBM’s plans to open its first lab in Africa, they hooked him up.

Eric Mibuari, IBM Research – Africa

Eric Mibuari, IBM Research – Africa

The lab is one of 12 IBM Research facilities in 10 countries. IBM has done basic scientific research since the 1940s, and typically maintains a mix of short-term, mid-range and long-term projects. The Africa Lab is a bit different than others—with its focus on developing commercially-viable technologies that have immediate impact. The lab works closely with government, university and business leaders to identify priorities. Then the lab forges partnerships with organizations in Africa and elsewhere to create solutions to African problems. That includes linking up with other IBM labs and adapting technologies they have developed to the needs of Africa.

The initial set of priorities for the lab include education, energy, water, agriculture, healthcare, financial inclusion, human mobility and public safety. Common to all the research areas is the ability to harness big data to understand how the world works and to make systems and organizations work better. “These are our grand challenges—projects that will lead to solutions for 1 billion people,” says Uyi Stewart, chief scientist, IBM Research – Africa.

Eric Mibuari’s focus is on financial inclusion. He’s working on one of the signature initial projects, called Matangazo, which is Swahili for advertising. In partnership with local digital advertising firm Flashcast, IBM researchers have developed technology that enables small businesses in the Nairobi area to advertise in a pin-point fashion to potential customers who are riding buses.

The business owners set up an account with Flashcast and then use text messaging on their cell phones to arrange for ads to run on electronic displays on the front interiors of the buses. The technology combines mobile communications with location-based services and data analytics. “By working with local startups and knowing the situation on the ground, we can come up with new solutions for Africa that somebody working far away could never think of,” says Eric.

Charity Wayua is leading the lab’s effort to bring cutting-edge technology to bear on agriculture in Africa. The focus is on using data analytics to address the problem of wastage. It’s estimated that about one-third of the crops that are harvested in Africa become unusable between the field and the dinner table. Charity plans on developing systems that optimize the processing, storage and transportation of food.

She’s working closely with farmers and non-profits to target the teams efforts when they can have the greatest impact. “We’re co-creating solutions together,” says Charity.

That captures IBM’s approach to doing business in Africa. It’s forging partnerships with governments, businesses, universities, non-profits and entrepreneurs to build new fundamental capabilities. Ultimately the goal is to harness technology so Africa and Africans can leapfrog developed economies and prosper like never before.

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Virtual Recruiting Event

Scientists from IBM Research – Africa will be hosting a live virtual job fair on December 5 to talk about several open positions. For more details, visit http://bit.ly/ibmjobfair