Turning Africa into a leading economy will require the use of science to solve the continent’s decades-old challenges.
7.31.2016 / By Benjamin Siele
Africa’s traditional problems—among them, drought, hunger, disease, underdevelopment, and youth unemployment—continue to plague the continent. It has been a major recipient of international aid and research funding, but those efforts have not secured long-term solutions. The approach to African development has been one designed, formulated and implemented by experts, many of them living outside Africa.
The establishment of an IBM Research Lab on the continent aims to develop solutions for Africa, in Africa—that is a departure from the way business has been done. IBM’s operations in Africa span 24 countries—the company’s 12th global research lab, and the only industrial research facility on the continent, was only established in 2013 in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Another research facility has since opened in South Africa.
Set up at a cost of US $20 million in a joint venture between IBM and the Kenyan government, the Nairobi lab is already attracting some of Africa’s best brains. The primary mission of the lab is to leverage science and technology to focus on challenges that have hampered economic growth in Africa. At the core of its operation will be the collection of data from several African countries. The lab’s researchers will work on developing commercially viable solutions that could impact the lives of more than a billion people.
For example, IBM’S Watson Internet of Things platform could be the key to easing Nairobi’s traffic congestion, which costs an estimated $600 000 per day in lost productivity. The company’s “Living Roads” researchers in Nairobi have mounted smart devices on the city’s waste collection vehicles that gather real-time data: not only about the fleet, but also about the condition of Nairobi’s streets and the location of traffic delays due to potholes, speed bumps, flooding, and other obstructions. Using such data, the researchers are able to generate scientifically viable solutions for the city’s traffic congestion problems. The initiative is seen as a positive step in the right direction for Nairobi, which is seeking to enhance its image as a lucrative investment spot in Africa.
IBM is also working to empower Africa’s farmers with technology. Scientists at IBM Research-Africa have designed the EZ Farms app to address water supply issues, which limit crop yields. The application utilizes IBM’s Big Data and Internet of Things platforms to collect and stream up-to-the-minute insight about current and predicted soil-moisture levels to the smartphones of farmers and water providers. Farms are equipped with water tank sensors, soil moisture sensors, and infrared light sensors (to monitor health of plants). Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank and former Nigerian Minister for Agriculture, recently predicted that Africa’s future millionaires and billionaires will make their money from agriculture—the EZ Farms app may be just the type of breakthrough to see that prophecy come to fruition.
IBM Research-Africa has adopted an approach that engages the local people: to seek their priorities, thereby giving them an opportunity to participate in their own development. That makes sense to Dr. Dayo Elegbe, a digital entrepreneur in Lagos, Nigeria. “Homegrown technology solutions are the best types of solutions,” he says. “Nobody really understands Africa’s problems as well as African people.”
Dr. Kenneth Chelule, director for research, technology and innovation at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, expresses optimism about the potential impact of IBM Research-Africa. “This initiative is likely to spur healthy competition with our existing research infrastructure and institutions while, at the same time, providing potential areas of collaboration,” he says. According to Dr. Chelule, IBM could help by exposing existing innovations and research output to the wider world and increasing the value of innovations designed for Africa—by repackaging them for broader adoption. “That is a quick win—a low hanging fruit that does not require investment.”
Benjamin Siele is a senior Forensic Science major at Southern University – New Orleans and a 2016 HBSciU fellow.
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