By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
When Osamuyimen (Uyi) Stewart left his native Nigeria 23 years ago to attend graduate school at Cambridge University, computer science was still just a concept in Africa. Although Stewart had learned some programming languages in college, he had never actually used a computer to develop an application.
This year, Stewart will return to a very different Africa, moving his family to Nairobi, Kenya to serve as chief scientist at IBM Research-Africa, IBM’s first research lab on the continent. In his new role, which he officially started in August working from the T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, Stewart spearheads innovation for a vast emerging market that is rapidly growing and embracing new technologies.
For Stewart, who previously worked at the IBM Services Innovation Lab and was responsible for technical strategy and program management across eight global labs, his return to Africa is filled with meaning and emotion. Whereas a quarter century ago using an actual computer was just a dream, today Stewart leads development of advanced systems to help solve some of Africa’s most pressing challenges.
Furthermore, one of the mandates of the lab is to nurture IT skills and provide opportunities for young Africans, helping lay the groundwork for Africa to become a global IT leader.
“There is a massive wind of change going on in Africa right now,” Stewart said. “This is my chance to give back and make a difference.”
A lab to leapfrog the competition
Today IBM has locations in more than 20 African countries. IBM Research-Africa is the latest sign of Africa’s importance as a market and potential as a seedbed of innovation. The lab is not only IBM’s first in Africa, but one of the first research facilities for any major IT company on the continent.
“This lab gives us a foothold to develop local solutions to Africa’s challenges in an African way and truly leapfrog the competition,” Stewart said. Solving challenges in an “African way” means understanding and working with African governments; appreciating the nuances of African cultures; and, above all, delivering solutions on a mobile platform.
“Many people don’t have PCs in Africa. They have mobile phones — and only a fraction of those are smart phones,” Stewart said. “How do you innovate and deliver solutions with such infrastructural constraints? That’s the challenge we face and I am so excited about it!”
Eager to innovate on a mobile platform
IBM chose Kenya for this lab because the country is eager to support innovation and has a strong information and communication technology (ICT) policy and history of mobile technology innovation. Nairobi is a key hub for IBM’s business coverage of East African countries.
Kenya is home to the revolutionary M-Pesa mobile payment system, which is used widely across East Africa. Stewart hopes to build upon this foundation of innovation to provide solutions for a host of Africa’s challenges, including water shortages and traffic congestion.
One of Stewart’s first solutions as chief scientist exemplifies his concept of a uniquely African problem and solution. The e-government solution provides crucial information, via mobile phones, about obtaining a Kenyan national ID. The solution also empowers citizens to report corruption in the ID application process.
For Stewart, the opportunity to lead innovation of this nature is a pinnacle of his career. “Everything comes together in this role as chief scientist,” Stewart said. “My focus has always been the interface between human and computer, and now Africa provides a living laboratory to do this work.”
Keeping talent on the continent
Leaving Africa to study or find work in the United States or Europe, as Stewart did years ago, has often been the norm for bright young Africans. IBM Research-Africa is committed to help reverse this exodus of talent through initiatives like its Resident Science Program and collaboration with local universities, government agencies and companies.
“We want to train Africans, help them innovate and keep them here,” Stewart said. “I’m already getting unsolicited emails from Africans in the diaspora who want to come back and be a part of this lab.”
To illustrate the significance of this one new research lab on a huge, complex continent, Stewart cites a southern African word, Ubuntu, which means, “All for one and one for all.”
“As an African, I know that we have 54 countries, but there is truly a shared feeling across the continent of each country being part of a greater whole,” Stewart said. “With IBM Research-Africa, I’m able to return home and be an agent for change. My goodness, I am living out the true African spirit!”
Read more about IBM’s commitment to Africa.