US tech giant IBM will on Friday open its first research laboratory in Africa in Nairobi, highlighting Kenya’s growing status as the continent’s tech hub.
The facility will be tasked with developing and deploying innovative IT applications to tackle challenges such as inefficiencies in public procurement, water and sanitation, energy management, financial inclusion, traffic congestion and food insecurity which have hampered economic growth in Africa.
The IBM Africa Lab is located at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Lang’ata campus, in Nairobi and will focus on three key research areas which include digitisation of public service through e-governance solutions; urban development and planning; and ICT skills training.
President Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to preside over the function. The New York-based firm said it will use cognitive computing — using computer systems to analyse and process data to help people make decisions — to come up with commercially-viable solutions for Africa’s challenges.
“IBM believes that cognitive computing will be essential in Africa’s goal to leapfrog, especially in addressing the continent’s grand challenges and opportunities such as financial inclusion and healthcare delivery,” said Kamal Bhattacharya, director at IBM Research – Africa.
Dr Bhattacharya will lead a team of IT experts made up mainly of Africans with doctorate degrees in IT and engineering.
The Nairobi-based research facility becomes the 12th in the world after those in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Switzerland and the US.
The new lab cements Kenya’s position as Africa’s silicon savannah; given that Nairobi already plays host to innovation hubs such as iHub, Columbia Global Centre, Nokia Research Centre and the World Bank-funded Climate Innovation Centre.
Kenya has gained global reputation with the innovation of mobile money service M-Pesa and the mass adoption of mobile cash transactions which topped Sh1.2 trillion or a third of GDP as at August this year.
The Nairobi IBM innovation hub was announced in August last year is a partnership between the Kenya ICT Board and the American tech firm.
The Kenyan government will invest $2 million (Sh170 million) for the next five years while IBM will provide the hardware, software and high-end scientific expertise from its global $6.5 billion (Sh551 billion) research and development budget.
IBM laboratories have been credited for many innovations in information technology, including the invention of floppy disks, hard disk drive, magnetic stripe card, Universal Product Code (bar codes) and the SABRE airline reservation system, among others.
The initiative is part of IBM’s strategy to grow its dominance in Kenya and the African region, where it sells solutions in 20 countries including Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria. IBM plans to spend Sh33.9m ($400,000) to develop IT solutions to help tackle Nairobi’s traffic and urban planning problems under the Smarter Cities initiative.
IBM said it has already recruited a team of scientists who have begun work at the laboratory, but declined to disclose neither the total number of employees nor the terms of service for the techies and researchers to be based at its Nairobi research lab.
“We are continuing with its global recruitment campaign in line with the lab’s expansion and increased scope,” the company said in a statement.
In December last year, IBM turned to US varsities seeking highly skilled techies holding doctorate degrees in fields such as computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics or physics to be employed as mobile apps developers or data scientists at the Nairobi lab.