By Kamal Bhattacharya
Kala Fleming grew up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Her father repaired cars and her mother worked as a nurse. She always dreamed of going to college, and her wish came true. Not only did she graduate with a degree in chemistry from a college in the Virgin Islands, but she went on to get a PhD in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, focusing on water distribution and quality. After 10 years as a professional, she has brought all of that knowledge and expertise to her job as a scientist at IBM Research – Africa.
But Kala didn’t come to Africa convinced that she had all the answers. She understands that in order to create innovations that are relevant and commercially viable in Africa, she has a lot to learn from the people here. Indigenous knowledge and ingenuity will be required to produce innovations capable of transforming societies.
That’s the spirit with which we’re today opening up our lab in Nairobi, Kenya, to more than 200 guests for our colloquium, “Africa in the New Era of Computing.” IBM researchers and business partners will explain the strategy for executing Project Lucy, our 10-year $100 million effort to take on many of Africa’s grand challenges by harnessing IBM Watson and other sophisticated technologies.
To learn more about our approach to doing business in Africa, download Project Lucy: How IBM Research is Engaging in Africa.
Among the high-profile speakers at the colloquium will be Robert Stoner, co-director of the Tata Center for Technology & Design at MIT; Btange Ndemo, a former Kenyan IT minister; and Wolfgang Fengler, an economist with the World Bank. We’ll also demonstrate six cognitive computing technologies created by IBM scientists in research labs around the world, including here in Africa.
But high on my agenda today is engaging with local people from the academic, business, government and startup communities. We need their help in shaping our research agenda and their partnership in taking on ambitious projects in healthcare, education, financial inclusion, human mobility, energy, agriculture and water.
Kala Fleming’s water project shows how we hope to work with ecosystems of partners, each with their own expertise, to solve complex problems.
There’s very little agricultural irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa, so farmers depend primarily on rainfall to water their crops. That makes ground water an important element of the water supply. It is often the last line of defense against farm crop failure. Yet little data has been collected to assess the health of aquifers so they can be used in the most effective ways.
Kala leads a team of IBM scientists that is developing what they call a “digital aquifer,” a system for mapping and analyzing the status of underground water supplies. They are looking into the feasibility of using that data combined with weather information in a community resilience tool for insuring farm crops against failure, but, also, for anticipating dry spells and taking action to secure additional water supplies before crops are damaged.
The team has reached out to water resource management operators, borehole drillers, donor organizations, insurance companies, government officials, and, of course, farmers, for help in sizing up the situation and designing solutions. Kala’s idea for creating a community resilience tool actually emerged out of a discussion she had a few weeks ago with an African friend whose mother is a farmer. He told her, “What farmers want is water, not insurance money.”
You never know where potentially great ideas will come from.
I have been in Africa for a year and a half now—after working for IBM for 20 years in the United States and India. We have established our first Africa lab in a building on the campus of Catholic University of Eastern Africa. We have staffed up to 25 scientists. We have an internship program running. And we have been engaging deeply with people from all strata of society. We are dedicated to the proposition that through the combination of cutting edge technology, local knowledge and collaboration, we and our partners can achieve breakthroughs that will help Africa fulfill its great promise.
To learn more about our approach to doing business in Africa, download the white paper, Project Lucy: How IBM Research is Engaging in Africa.
To read more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Systems.
And, for more on IBM’s approach understanding Africa’s challenges and opportunities, check out this story.