Last September, when IBM was on the verge of signing a landmark agreement to provide information technology services for Bharti Airtel in Africa, our chief executive, Sam Palmisano, insisted on flying to Kenya on short notice to participate in the press conference announcing the deal. He wanted to demonstrate his personal commitment to the economic future of Africa.
IBM’s task is to not only manage Bharti Airtel’s information technology but to transform the 16 different IT environments serving the company’s African operations into a single integrated system. “At IBM, we see this kind of transformation through the lens of what we call ‘building a smarter planet,’” Palmisano said at the press conference in Nairobi. “By integrating much of the continent… this new infrastructure will enable systems of all kinds, from commerce to government services and more.”
Just a few months have passed since that historic day, but, already IBM has begun fulfilling the promise of bringing its Smarter Planet agenda to Africa. Our company is opening new subsidiaries in multiple countries, including Ghana and Senegal, while expanding its footprint in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
IBM realizes that in Africa our approach to doing business is at least as important as the portfolio of products and services we offer. If we can provide ideas and solutions that help the governments and businesses of Africa perform better, we will improve the economic climate for citizens and for businesses alike. The market for goods and services is growing rapidly, but it remains small by global standards. “In Africa, it’s not a matter of taking a slice of the pie. You have to help make the pie first,” says Anthony Mwai, general manager of IBM East Africa.
IBM’s Smarter Planet agenda forms the foundation of our approach to doing business all around the globe. The world is increasingly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, thanks to advances in sensors, networking, telecommunications and analytical software. These new capabilities enable organizations to manage the complex systems of the world so they run more efficiently and effectively. From water management, agricultural supply chains and environmental protection to public safety, education, energy, banking and health care, there are abundant opportunities to use technology to make the world work better.
In Africa, because of the relative immaturity of the physical, governmental and economic infrastructures, Smarter Planet solutions have the potential to produce even greater impacts than they have in more developed countries. Indeed, Africa can skip steps along the traditional development path—leapfrogging some of the world’s more advanced economies. Those more mature societies are mired in out-of-date systems for electricity, water, transportation and the like. African countries have the opportunity to include instrumentation and information-gathering capabilities from the start as they build out new systems and services.
Mobile communications is a prime example: Already, Kenya leads the world with the mobile money applications from M-Pesa and other telecommunications services. (The technology underlying the M-Pesa service is run by IBM, by the way.) Now, think of each mobile phone as a node on a vast information network. This powerful new source of connectivity makes it possible for citizens to access a wide array of commercial and government services. At the same time, it enables governments and businesses to serve their clients in ways that would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago.
IBM is just beginning to think through the details of how its Smarter Planet solutions apply to Africa. Already, one thing is clear: It will not do to simply take solutions that have worked well in developed nations and try to force-fit them to situations in Africa. Instead, IBM stands ready to collaborate with African governments, universities and businesses to adapt and, indeed, co-create, solutions that will be effective here. Collaboration begins with listening and discussing. Our goal is to engage with leaders in Africa and to begin establishing deep relationships, which, we hope, will yield meaningful results for all stakeholders over the long haul. “Smarter Planet means we can solve problems by bringing in modern technology. We can look at an issue and bring in our technology, processes and analytics to create a solution that is better, more reliable and cheaper,” says Taiwo Otiti, general manager, IBM West Africa.
Our efforts at capacity building in Africa have already begun. We can point to important projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa that demonstrate our Smarter Planet capabilities and point to great developments to come. Here are a few examples:
SMS for Life, Tanzania: Using cell phones, Web sites and SMS technology, health workers in remote parts of Tanzania track inventories so they won’t run out of five life-saving anti-malarial drugs. The data is gathered and monitored in a central repository and supplies are sent out immediately in response to looming shortages. The system was developed by IBM, Novartis and Vodafone.
Land Registration, Egypt: In one of Egypt’s most prominent e-government initiatives to date, IBM helped the government establish a new digital land registration system. Earlier, government officials and citizens relied on paper records and it took many visits and an average of 193 days to complete a typical registration. Today, the work can be done online and the entire process takes less than 30 days.
Health and Welfare systems, Nigeria: IBM has helped the government of Cross River State develop processes and technology for managing two social welfare programs—free health care for women and babies, and subsistence support for poor families. The technology includes such advances as electronic medical records, smart identify cards and biometric identification.
IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, Kenya: A team of 12 IBM volunteers recently completed a month-long visit to Kenya. They helped government agencies with new ideas for improving the high-end technology talent pool, for beefing up e-government services and for diversifying and revitalizing Posta Kenya.
In the past, the Corporate Service Corps, which was modeled on the U.S. Peace Corps, was seen primarily as a way to develop teamwork and cultural sensitivity among up-and-coming IBMers. But, increasingly, the teams are taking on vital strategic projects that align with the national agendas in the countries where they serve. The Kenya team was one of those. “IBM is helping us with our strategic direction in the investments in ICT in this country,” said Dr. Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary, Kenya ministry of information and communications.
These are collaborative engagements. The heads of government agencies define the projects that they want the teams to work on. Then the teams perform deep market research and produce detailed analyses of problems and potential solutions. Their proposals include a wide array of options, starting with actions that government leaders can take immediately and including strategic initiatives that might take years to accomplish.
The IBM team’s work on e-government in Kenya is a good example of how these strategic engagements take shape. Dr. Katherine Getao, ICT secretary, Directorate of e-Government, aims to dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government services by better gathering and sharing information internally and by making services available to citizens via computers and mobile phones. She asked the IBM CSC team to help her come up with a legal framework for organizing government data management systems and enabling citizen access.
The team surveyed legal frameworks worldwide and proposed a set of principles and actions that could place Kenya at the leading edge of e-government policy and practice. “The CSC team has been helping us tease out the issues and develop a legal framework for citizen services,” said Dr. Getao. “This is a very important area for us because we believe with the right kind of legal framework we can really quickly start to roll out services to our citizens, we can begin to share data and share systems a lot more than has been happening in the past.”
One by one, underdeveloped regions of the world have emerged to share more fully in the economic bounty made possible by the advance of technology and the globalization of business; first China, then India, then Brazil, then Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Now, many believe it is at last Africa’s time. IBM shares that belief. Sam Palmisano proved it when he rushed to Kenya to announce the Bharti Airtel deal last year.
IBM understands that these improvements won’t come overnight. Real progress takes courage and determination and a long-term view. Also, progress won’t come unless the interests of citizens are taken into account, and people are empowered. A dynamic economy requires the participation of all stakeholders. IBM stands ready to work with African government, business and non-profit leaders—and the people of Africa–to help fulfill their soaring aspirations.