By Christopher Sciacca.
Abdigani Diriye, Meenal Pore and Oliver Bent have very little in common. They come from different backgrounds, were educated at different universities, and have career aspirations in different scientific fields. But they do have one thing in common — they recently told their family and friends that they will be moving to Africa to work as full-time scientists at IBM’s latest research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya.
The new lab’s research agenda includes the development of cognitive computing technologies that can be applied to address issues as diverse as public health, education and agriculture. A number of projects in Africa are already underway, such as the development of traffic-dodging mobile app Twende Twende (“let’s go”).
Before making the trek south, the three IBMers have spent the last few weeks at one of IBM’s most established labs located in Zurich, Switzerland. As they pack their bags they answered a few questions.
What made you apply for a position at IBM Research – Africa?
Oliver: I heard about the mission of IBM Research – Africa during a conference at Oxford University. I was sold on the proposition which emerged: to not just leverage existing technology for social impact but provide something new, which would have traction through commercial viability.
Abdigani: I read about the new lab and, being born in Africa, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to return and contribute to the continent’s future success.
Meenal: Uyi [Stewart],the chief scientist, gave a lunch-time talk at Cambridge University and his enthusiasm got me hooked. He emphasized the need to be on the ground where the challenges are in order to have an impact — which resonated with my previous experience working in India. The project I worked on in India was innovative technology, but cultural differences weren’t taken into consideration in the design, and as a result it wasn’t used by the local community. It’s one of the reasons I want to work in Nairobi — you need to live with the challenges to have the right perspective.
What will you be doing?
Oliver: My initial area of focus is around education, particularly around personalized learning, novel tools for data collection and extending access to education for a mobile population.
Abdigani: I’ll be working on financial inclusion. One of the biggest challenges in Africa is that people don’t have access to financial services, like savings accounts and loans. We want to develop mobile technologies to help facilitate access to these services for all citizens. Another project is around developing digital identities for all citizens so they can have access to more public and private services.
Meenal: My focus is on healthcare. Our vision is a cognitive system which can be used to predict and mitigate health risks. For example, if water quality and weather data combined with a disease model could be used to predict outbreaks of malaria in real-time, it would allow local health authorities to allocate resources for maximum impact.
What has surprised you the most about IBM in your first 30 days?
Oliver: Openness to collaboration and the direct access I have to this world-class global network to use as a sounding board for ideas.
Abdigani: The freedom and the empowerment we have to collaborate — with those inside and outside the lab. I also appreciate that while we may initially be solving local problems in Africa, we want to scale up whatever we do to have a global impact.
Meenal: Coming from a small lab, the global resources of IBM Research are incredible and everyone welcomes the chance to help and get engaged.
So how did your friends and family react to the news?
Oliver: I guess there was an initial element of surprise, but this was not an out-of-the-blue decision. I had spent two months the previous summer working in Tanzania, and the rest of my degree and spare time devoted to technical projects in an African context. I think they now understand the scale of the opportunity of being located in Africa and working with IBM Research.
Abdigani: For me it’s a huge step as an African who has been living abroad for the last 25 years. So it’s an opportunity to go back and to contribute to the huge potential of Eastern Africa. Nairobi is also becoming a tech hub akin to what Silicon Valley was like 50 years ago. The names that are linked to the early days of Silicon Valley are synonymous with success. I hope we can say the same decades from now about the “Silicon Savanna.”
Meenal: My family was initially surprised, but once I explained the opportunity they fully supported me and are very excited for me — and of course, want to come visit for a safari adventure.
Have more questions for the team? Or do you have an interesting idea for a collaboration?