BusinessExecutivesResearch to resolve the grand challenges in Africa


Posted on Tuesday, 05 November 2013 12:54

Research to resolve the grand challenges in Africa

By Marshall van Valen

Kamal Bhattacharya, Director, IBM Research-Africa labUnited States-based technology firm IBM is launching a lab in Kenya to work on researching technological solutions to development problems. Kamal Bhattacharya, the director of IBM Research-Africa, argues that tech companies must be based in Africa and work closely with government to find solutions to development problems.


The Africa Report: What is the importance of the new research lab to be opened in Nairobi in October?

Kamal Bhattacharya: We had been looking into our strategy in Africa from a research perspective. We had for many years addressed the issue of how are we going to innovate, especially in our growth markets. IBM is a company which has a very strong innovation culture traditionally, and we decided last year that we are going to move a research facility onto the African continent...

The idea behind it is is that we want to research for Africa in Africa with people who are passionate about Africa. So it is not towards IBM technologies, it is really towards the contexts of what the grand challenges in Africa.

"We want to research for Africa in Africa with people passionate about Africa"

We have identified four strategic focus areas, the first one being smarter cities. Issues of cities dealing with urbanisation, in transportation, water management, sanitation and energy, all problems around cities. The next area is the next-generation public sector, really trying to understand how we increase through technology the transparency of government and the interaction of government with citizens. The third area is around human capacity development.

Here we are looking at both sides, both what are sort of new ways of engaging through IT [information technology], engaging and creating work, and also skills and education. The second thing is how to we address challenges or impediments to human capacity development through for example infectious diseases, the healthcare level. The fourth area is on financial inclusion so we are now looking into what mechanisms can we use, what technology can we invent that will enable Africa to address the problem of the 80% of the population being unbanked.

The final thing that I want to mention is that what we are going right now is that we are hiring top talent, world-class researchers or researchers that we think have the potential to become world class and have already had a tremendous track record through their PhDs in various different fields such as computer science or environmental engineering or chemistry and bring them as employees at the research lab where I think we are making very good progress. We have seen tremendous interest across around the world to join us so we are hoping that will continue.

Does the lab have an ideal size?

By the end of this year we are targeting, by the end of this year to have a core team of about 20 people in Kenya but in terms of the longer term structure, we haven't made any decisions about how we are going to grow, how fast we are going to grow.

What was behind the idea to set up operations in Kenya?

We have seen Kenya being a hub not just in East Africa but also across Africa for innovation. Kenya is very serious about its transformation, and we believe that it is an attractive location for many other reasons as well, logistically and others. But the drive that we saw around in terms of innovation, in terms of moving forward, in terms of change in society and using technology...we felt that this is the right place for us to start this effort.

How is the agenda set and which problems get first priority?

We all understand that every African country is different from any other African country, right? So we see two things, there are different types of economies. Nigeria is not very diversified but on its way to diversification, Angola is an oil-producing country, Kenya is diversified but very agriculture heavy, etc. But you look at some of the challenges that you see in these countries, they are similar – healthcare, education – and so what we see is the discussions especially with city governments are very similar. We just had the Smarter Cities launch in Accra, and the discussions that we had with the mayor of Accra are very similar to the discussions that we have with the government in Nairobi. So we see especially in the areas of transportation, energy, water, the discussions to be very very similar. The realisation will be different because policy frameworks are different, but I think from a technology perspective that we are getting to a point where we understand what can work and what cannot work.

Many technological solutions are driven by data, so what is your engagement with the quality of data that African governments produce?

There is an interesting thing because this is one of the first discussions that we had with the government of Kenya and almost like the first request that we got was look, we have done the open data initiative. We believe in open data, what we don't know is how good it is. We source it from various different government entities, but it is not just how good it is, but is it useful, have we exposed the right kind of data. So the only way how we can do this is to look at it from the perspective of how is this data going to be used.

So for example we looked at a very simple thing: how do you get your national ID? In Kenya, you can't do anything without your national ID, but still there are four to five million people who do not have a national ID. So we did a project where we built a mobile application, which is not hard, but we figured we wanted to use as much open data as we can. And where we don't have data that we think is essential to give a person anywhere in Kenya, even in rural areas, the ability to find out exactly what kind of information do they need to bring to the right location for them without having to make this trip several times.

We have seen challenges, you know. We have mentioned this to the government as well. We see that sometimes data is not available, sometimes we find the data is somewhere else, but that is also a thing of how we need to talk to governments. What are the services that you want to offer for citizens that make the most sense, and let's work backwards. It's the data that you have: Is it available? Is it exposed? Can we track the processes? Can we create transparency? Because if not, then we are back to the drawing board or you really need to understand if you are serious about this.

IBM worked with French telecom Orange in Côte d'Ivoire on a transportation project using data from the company. Is there a trend for companies to be engaged in these sorts of projects?

Yes, I think companies want to do that. The thing that we are very strong on is to say that we have had this discussion is to say you have a commitment to the society, especially if you are a telco, especially if you are in an industry segment that has access to a lot of useful data, you have a commitment to doing something that is good for the betterment of the society that you are serving. However, the reality of any commercial business is that we are all profit driven. So the question that we are extremely interested in is how do we create innovations that impact people's lives but do this in a commercially viable way.

So I have discussions sometimes with business leaders who say this is a great idea to give this data away. Are you going to be able to cover the costs of infrastructure, for change requests, for systems management, for 24/7 support? Because people will innovate against it, they will provide and build applications on it. Are you willing to do that? Because if you are not willing to do that, then you will run it and the next time your quarterly result goes down, that system will be the first one to go. People will just cut the costs. So I think there is a tremendous excitement and opportunity especially in Africa to do this. And I will also say a lot of industry in Africa is very very connected to people. They are very concerned about society, but we need to help them to understand how to actually make it commercially viable. I think that is very, very important.

What are the timeframes for setting up things like integrated city management centres?

The main thing is that if you take any African city and you want to go in there and set up a full-fledged operation centre like I could do in Tokyo or like I could do in London and want to have all of those things...realistically, that is not affordable. In London, the operation centres we have were not created like this. It was a very gradual evolution. I think for many African cities the question is how do we start. Where do we get started? Do we get started with better traffic cameras?

Do we start with finding better or more sophisticated ways to analyse city planning? Do we start with revenue collection? What are the services that we need to address to manage the city better? What is our biggest problem? And when you look at some of the work we are doing at IBM with the Corporate Service Corps and our Executive Service Corps, that is what a lot of the Smarter Cities engagements are about. Go to the government, as we have done in Accra and in Nairobi. You know, give the government a plan how to deal with traffic, give the government a plan to deal with revenue collection and identify together with them what is one of their top problems right now. How they realise it then is a matter of identifying what is the best thing to do to get started.

How does the research programme fit in with IBM's larger Africa strategy?

[IBM chief executive officer] Ginni Rometty said something that I thought, it actually hit me when I heard it. I was at the CEO summit that we organised in Nairobi. At the Smarter Planet summit in Nairobi in February. She actually mentioned to all of the CEOs who were sitting there. 'You have to understand we are committed to Africa, and one approach of us to prove it is that I am giving you my most precious gift, which is the research lab, because research is so core and fundamental to the way we work. I could not think of anything else that demonstrates my commitment more to Africa than presenting you with a research lab.' I, of course, think of this as one aspect in terms of our business strategy. We all publicly say the growth markets are our focus area. We have exercises in India and China. We report the results for the growth markets. Growth markets, clouds, smarter planning, these are strategic areas for us. And of course we want to grow in Africa, but we also understand and the business understands that we need to learn. We are not the kind of company that goes into a region and says 'Sure, we are IBM, you should know about us. Just buy my boxes.' Right? So that's not what we do. We develop the skills, we develop the teams on the ground to understand how can we help African customers the best with their specific unique challenges.

Are you finding that there is enough talent out there to recruit? What sort of mentorship programmes will the research centre have?

Mentorship, especially in many ways. We, for example, my favourite example is that we just started and one of our friends from Strathmore University, which is a small school mostly with bachelor's students, came to me and said: 'Look, you know, for some bachelor's students there is a requirement in some of our programmes that they have to do what they call an industry attachment.' So I said to him, 'Look, we are IBM Research, we do not take bachelor's students.' And he said: 'You can get 100 students if you want.'

I thought about it for a day and then I went back to him and said 'You know what, actually, why don't we try this. So we said that we can't obviously take 100 people because we are still setting up, but why don't we just look at 20 and take whatever, six, seven, eight students and even though they are not ready, even though they are not at the level that would even grab them an internship in IBM Research. We said let's have them work for three months with our researchers, you know from Tokyo, from Haifa, from god knows where and the local ones, let's have them and see how it goes.

I would think that even for whatever is going to come out...and first off, they work very hard, they are excited about it. They are getting, from my perspective, the experience of a lifetime and if I just see them walking around the IBM building then I think that that was the right decision. So mentorship at that level is something I think that we are going to do in a much more extended way than any other research lab is doing.

The other thing is for the researchers that we hire. They are all new, they are all young, they are just graduating. They are going to come in, they are going to work for a company called IBM with 3,000 plus engineers and scientists and have no clue how to work there. So what we are doing is that we are connected to our system everywhere in the world and we will integrate them into projects where they can work with others who have been in IBM for 10-15-20 years, already established researchers and people who these newcomers will look up to just by CV and role in that context. Learn a little bit about the IBM machinery, but not too much, but really learn how to do high-quality research and apply it here in Africa.

Will IBM be followed by other companies?

We are the first ones to make such a strong commitment to the continent in terms of the resources, in terms of the research facility. Do I want other companies to set up research facilities in Nairobi, as the lab director of IBM Research-Africa? Absolutely. 100%. Because otherwise I would not believe in the value of research, science and technology for the betterment of the countries and the continent...However, I think it will take some time, and I think we are really early. We have taken this step at a time when even companies that I have spoken to are still hesitant.

What is your medium-term planning?

I think there is a much more interesting challenge. I call it the Africa operating model. You see, realistically speaking, no company will be able to set up a high-skilled institution in every single country or let us say 60% of all the countries in the various different markets in Africa. That is economically not feasible. So I think part of the innovation that we need to work on is to define an operating model for us to operate across the continent and it will not just be with IBM, it will be through partners in Ghana, through partners in Nigeria. But we will support them with research members who will maybe even stay there for a year...but we will create different types of models that will allow us to scale across the continent. So the number of people that we will eventually have is a difficult question. Look, research today, industrial research has changed significantly over say the last decade that I have been in research. Today the problems I have are in the field, they are happening with the clients, that is where the research is happening.



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