Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

Steve Hamm, IBM Writer

Steve Hamm, IBM Writer

By Steve Hamm

Amid the chaos of civil war, Abdigani Diriye’s family fled Somalia in a rush when he was just five years old. Diriye and his sister escaped to London in the care of a 19-year-old aunt; his father flew to Sweden; and his mother made her way through the battle zone to Kenya.

Diriye’s childhood experience was common for Somalis of his generation. Many people had it much worse. But Diriye stands out in another way:  After living in the UK and the US for 25 years, he’s returning to Africa next month to help solve its many problems—as a new member of the team at IBM Research – Africa. “It could have easily been me still in Somalia living on $2 a day with no access to clean water,” he says. “It’s my social responsibility to go back and give back.”

He’ll arrive at the lab just in time to participate in a major new initiative aimed at doing just that. Project Lucy is a 10-year, $100 million effort by IBM to work with governments, universities and development organizations to address Africa’s grand challenges. A key element will be harnessing IBM Watson, which beat two grand-champions on the TV game show Jeopardy! IBM announced the initiative today while Chief Executive Ginni Rometty and members of her senior executive team were meeting with government and business leaders in Nigeria.

IBM established its first African research facility in Nairobi, Kenya, last year, and plans on expanding to other countries. Even now, the Watson capability, which is delivered as a cloud service, will be available for projects wherever IBM does business on the continent.

IBM Research Director John Kelly promised to bring Watson to Africa in a meeting with business and academic leaders one year ago. He urged them to propose ambitious projects that would require using the most advanced cognitive computing technology in the world. The lab took input from local leaders and, as a result, expanded its mission to target Africa’s grand challenges—agriculture, water, energy, education, healthcare, financial inclusion and public safety. “When we looked at the scope of the challenges, we said, ‘We need Watson for this,’” says Osamuyimen Stewart, the chief scientist for IBM Research Africa, a native Nigerian who lived for 23 years in the United States.

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The team chose “Lucy” as the name for the project because of the significance of the discovery of her fossilized remains in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley in 1974. Just as Lucy was a precursor to humans, scientists see Watson as an early example of cognitive computing. The lab’s leaders hope that big data analytics and cognitive computing will provide breakthroughs of similar magnitude.

These technologies could help transform the economies and societies of Africa. Michel Bézy, associate director of Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, says Africa needs to take advantage of the big data explosion to fulfill its potential. “From a scientific and research point of view, it’s a great thing to have Watson. Now we need to make sure we can make good use of it,” he says. At CMU’s Rwanda campus, faculty members are working with students on projects that are intended to have a direct impact on small and medium-sized businesses—which many believe will be the engine for economic growth across the continent.

There will be a multitude of uses for cognitive technologies and big data analytics. In any situation where humans struggle to gain insights from large quantities of data or to make important decisions, Watson can help. Two of the focus areas will be healthcare and education.

Abdigani Diriye, IBM Research

Abdigani Diriye, IBM Research

Healthcare: The people of Sub-Saharan Africa are dealing with a wide range of diseases, including HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Yet, many get medical treatment from community health workers in clinics. With access to Watson’s cognitive intelligence, doctors and nurses in clinics will get help in diagnosing illnesses and identifying the best treatment for each patient.

Education: Nearly half the adult population of Africa is illiterate. Schools are understaffed and educational materials are lacking. Social and cultural pressures contribute to missed days of school and poor performance by students. Watson can help school systems evaluate all of the circumstances that are contributing to poor outcomes, identify root causes of problems and suggest solutions.

To help fuel an ecosystem around cognitive systems and big data analytics, IBM has established a pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD). The goal is to combine forces and collaborate with research partners such as universities, development agencies and IBM clients in Africa and from around the world. By joining the center, IBM’s partners will be able to gain access to Watson. “I see a great opportunity for research partnerships between companies alike IBM and African organizations bringing together the world’s most advanced technologies with local expertise and knowledge,” says Prof. Rahamon Bello, vice chancellor of Nigeria’s University of Lagos.

Indeed, new models for collaborative research may emerge. One can envision a powerful triad of complimentary organizations working together–corporations and universities providing world-class research, local development organizations providing real-world expertise, and funding organizations finding ways to have a more direct impact on solving Africa’s problems. The Center also plans to engage with Africa’s emergent startup communities.

Will approaches like this work? Wolfgang Fengler, who was until recently the lead economist for the World Bank in Nairobi, sees merit in them. “It has to be interdisciplinary,” he says. “But it won’t be enough to have technology and money. You will need people who can analyze data and make sense of it.”

IBM’s Stewart believes another skill set will be essential, as well: the ability to figure out, sometimes through trial and error, how technologies will be most useful to Africa’s people. “We have to Africanize innovation,” he says.

That’s where people like IBM researcher Abdigani Diriye come in. With a PhD from the University of London in human-computer interaction and his interest helping the common people, he’s attuned to the necessity of producing technological tools that adapt to the needs of people—rather than trying to force people to adapt to computers. As a graduate student, he learned how to make Web search technologies more useful to people in developed economies. Now, in IBM Research – Africa, he can help transform lives and society. “The potential to have an impact is enormous,” he says. Coming from where he does, he wouldn’t settle for anything less.


To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.



To see other photos in the The World is Our Lab photo contest, click here.


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July 6, 2015
9:16 am

A good update on the changes taking place in Africa and more specifically in Somalia. We also need to remember that besides “Project Lucy,” Somalia is in dire need of stability as few developmental initiatives can thrive in an unstable environment.

Posted by: Dr. Amadi
October 12, 2014
7:47 am

Project “Lucy”? I hope the actual initiative with Watson in Africa works out better than the name that was selected for it. “Lucy”, the ape-like fossilized remains found in 1974 that is promoted to be the missing link between humans and pre-human beings has been proven just to be what it really is: just a plain-old monkey.

Posted by: Bill
July 22, 2014
8:54 pm

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Posted by:
February 12, 2014
3:41 am

There is huge potential In mining Industry/ Oil and gas (Nigeria) centric Technologies. China is hugely investing in mining rare metals from Africa, We also need to concentrate on this front. Other Important aspect is Utilities, Ethiopia is planning huge Dam on Nile Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has huge potential of 6000 Megawatt power capacity. There is huge potential for Meter reading order- Device management for Electricity consumption, Water Supply management centric initiatives.

As highlighted in the blog about 60 percent uncultivated arable land, there is huge potential for Food supply chain management technologies for efficient eradication of nutrition related deficiencies in Africa.

Posted by: Naveen Myla
February 11, 2014
5:15 am

Hope this proposed Model for Africa will not apply across, I propose different approaches based on Cultures and Colonial legacies. its evident that English speaking colonies in Africa have a zeal to innovate and move forward contrary to French Speaking Africa which is taking us backwards. I strongly anticipate the Innovation center will take this into cognizance in order to ensure IBMs success in the Continent. Proud to be an IBMer

Posted by: Veryena
February 11, 2014
4:13 am

Nigeria is an English speaking country but many African countries are French speaking. In agriculture, medicine, Watson interacting and thinking in French will be probably necessary.

Posted by: Jean-Claude Jesionka
February 10, 2014
5:19 am

“Project Lucy is a 10-year, $100 million effort by IBM to work with governments, universities and development organizations to address Africa’s grand challenges” What you do not realise is the first major problem in Africa is corruption. How will these money to the roots where you have agents of corruptions in the all government structures, How best can this project be managed what is the innovation around management of such project in a corrupt society.

Posted by: Buxi
February 10, 2014
2:38 am

Great initiative by IBM. Proud of being a IMB’er… All the very best for project Lucy and Watson..

Posted by: Achutha
February 8, 2014
6:28 am

OK this is a great idea. Thanks for remembering your route. But I hope where Nigeria is involved that this project will succeed and not coined over to the benefit of the already wealthy and prosperous.
Looking forward to a great and better Africa!.

Posted by: Amarachi
February 7, 2014
7:51 pm

Great Initiative!

Posted by: Silvia
February 7, 2014
6:09 pm

I am trying to understand how it will be used, not necessary from high level, but details. Is there examples of Watson working in medical field? working with actual doctor to solve the real problem.

Posted by: Dennis
February 7, 2014
3:10 pm

Amazing Story!

Posted by: Aisha
6 Trackbacks
October 13, 2014
12:53 pm

[…] months later, we marvel at the progress that has been made. Beyond the beginning of Project Lucy in Africa, clients in South Africa have now joined our cause. Organizations across Australia, New Zealand and […]

Posted by: Salus Digital - Healthcare innovation
October 7, 2014
11:02 pm

[…] months later, we marvel at the progress that has been made. Beyond the beginning of Project Lucy in Africa, clients in South   Africa have now joined our cause. Organizations across Australia, New Zealand […]

Posted by: Taking Watson Global « A Smarter Planet Blog A Smarter Planet Blog
February 6, 2014
1:30 pm

[…] Project Lucy: Confronting Africa’s Grand Challenges – with Watson’s Help A Smarter Planet … […]

Posted by: What I’m Reading on 02/06/2014 | Blog | Bob Sutor
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