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SP John Kelly

John Kelly, Senior Vice President, IBM

By Dr. John Kelly III

World leaders from business, government and the non-profit sector are gathering this week in Nairobi, Kenya, for Global Entrepreneur Summit 2015, the first such summit to be held in sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s a good time to explore the potential for Africa and Africans to take advantage of the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to propel the continent forward.

IBM is committed to helping Africa fulfill it’s promise by providing information technologies to help address the continent’s challenges, through research collaborations with companies and universities, and by helping to foster innovation ecosystems in a number of cities.

These ecosystems, modeled on Silicon Valley, bring together businesses, universities, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and government agencies to spark economic growth and dynamism.

The early signs of progress are impressive.  With time, these ecosystems could help solve some of the continent’s grandest challenges and foster broad-based economic growth.

Africa’s Innovation Ecosystems

The Braamfontein neighborhood near downtown Johannesburg has long suffered from crime and crumbling infrastructure. But it’s  undergoing an amazing metamorphosis. Trendy boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops now dot some of the streets, and, now, an effort is underway to transform Braamfontein into a hub of innovation capable of driving economic growth and creating jobs for young people.

The architect of this initiative is Barry Dwolatzky, a computer science professor at Wits University, who has launched The Tshimologong Precinct, a partnership of the university, large corporations, government, and a nascent entrepreneur community. For Barry, the project represents a shot at transforming South African society and turning Africa into an innovation engine for the world.

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This project–and others like it in African cities–are tremendously encouraging.  In each case, information technology plays a key role in sparking and sustaining the transformations that are underway. In fact, the World Bank counts nearly 100 tech hubs in 29 African countries–most of them in cities.

There’s an important role for multinational companies to play in the rise of Africa. We must help Africa build skills, organizations and infrastructure capable of supporting long-term economic expansion. Innovation ecosystems are a good place to start.

IBM is committed to supporting these ecosystems through our engagements with African governments, businesses and civic organizations. In fact, IBM Research is to be an anchor tenant in the Tshimologong project. Rather than locate our new laboratory on a university campus or in a corporate office park, we decided to place it in the middle of an urban community–where our scientists, are part of the fabric of city life, working alongside students, faculty members and entrepreneurs, taking on projects that are relevant to Africa. Solomon Assefa, a native of Ethiopia who heads up our Johannesburg lab, calls it, a “living laboratory for technological and social innovation.”

IBM Research scientist Tierra Bills with Nairobi officials

IBM Research scientist Tierra Bills with Nairobi officials

After we opened our first Africa lab in Nairobi in 2013, the research organization launched Project Lucy, a 10-year, $100 million initiative aimed at bringing IBM Watson and other cognitive technologies to bear on Africa’s problems.  In addition, we’re collaborating with South African scientists on elements of the multi-country Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project–whose aim is to unlock the secrets of the origin of the universe.

Johannesburg Rising

Johannesburg has long been the leading commercial capital in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the continent’s leading financial services, mining and communications companies are based there. Yet, when it comes to developing a tech economy, it lags some other African cities. Now, Johannesburg is pursuing technology-based economic development aggressively with a number of government- and private-led initiatives. That’s why I chose it as the focal point for this article. What’s going on in this city holds lessons for other cities in Africa and around the globe–and for the multinational companies that seek to expand there.

When Barry Dwolatzky went looking for models for his tech hub, one of his first stops was in Nairobi, where an energetic and diverse tech community has taken root over the past half decade. At the heart of the community is an organization called iHub, a gathering place in downtown Nairobi where tech entrepreneurs and software developers meet, learn, and exchange ideas and business cards. The hub hosts events ranging from hackathons to seminars on how to raise capital. Nairobi now boasts 10 tech incubators and accelerators. More than 150 tech startups have launched there and thousands of tech jobs have been created.

While Barry is impressed by what has happened in Nairobi, he’s not trying to replicate the exact same model in Johannesburg. In the Tshimologong Precinct, in addition to offering meeting and maker spaces, he’s bringing in large tech companies as anchor tenants and partners, starting with IBM and Microsoft. The organization will offer students and startups training in software quality–something Barry believes will be essential if Africans hope to export their innovations to other parts of the world.

Artist's rendering of Tshimilogong Precinct

Artist’s rendering of Tshimologong Precinct

Government leaders in Johannesburg count Braamfontein as one of a number of new economic development zones that are emerging through the cooperation of entrepreneurs, government, business leaders and universities. Rather than seeing tech entrepreneurship per se as the driving force in each zone, they believe information technology will enable the expansion of a range of industries in other parts of the city–such as sports and tourism.

In fact, Johannesburg is poised to leapfrog in an area that’s critical to economic development of all kinds: broadband networking. The city built its own fiber-optic backbone–which it is now leasing to private companies to run last-mile services on.

The next phase in the expansion of broadband is to roll out a municipal wi-fi network with 1,000 hotspots. Free broadband is essential for enabling innovation ecosystems to pop up throughout the city. Says Zolani Matebese, head of the broadband project: “Our philosophy is, ‘if we build it they will come.’”

Locally-Relevant Innovation

A seismic shift in communications and economic development began after Vodafone and Safaricom, a mobile carrier in Kenya, began offering the now-much-heralded M-Pesa mobile money service in 2007. It quickly grew to become the most widely used mobile money solution in Africa. But, less well known, it also has become both an inspiration and a platform for innovation and entrepreneurship. Dozens of startups have emerged to create applications that run on top of M-Pesa or other mobile-money services.

M-Pesa and its offshoots are examples of locally-relevant innovation. These business models and technology solutions were unlikely to emerge first in the United States and European countries because they answered the particular needs of emerging economies where many people don’t have traditional banking relationships.

African countries and cities face numerous challenges, ranging from healthcare and poverty to water shortages and financial inequities. I expect many of the most effective solutions to these problems to come from the communities that experience them and technologists and scientists who interact with those communities.

In South Africa, through discussions with South Africans, we’re setting priorities for our new IBM Research facility. The focus will be on local problems and locally-relevant innovations produced in collaboration with local people and institutions. One example of this approach in action: We’re working with the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV to discover new diagnostic approaches and treatments for tuberculosis, which is the leading killer in South Africa.  We’re combining our expertise in big data analytics with K-RITH’s knowledge about the genetic makeup of the tuberculosis bacteria.


Barry Dwolatksy of the Tshimolongon Precinct, right, with IBM's Solomon Assefa and Wits University students

Barry Dwolatzky of the Tshimolongong Precinct, right, with IBM’s Solomon Assefa and Wits University students

When Barry Dwolatzky and his colleagues at Wits University began pulling together plans for the Tshimologong Precinct, they knew that it would of necessity be a group effort. They tied up with a wide variety of partners, including corporate sponsors and the city and federal government. By inviting in IBM Research, he added a dimension that few technology hubs possess–the ability to bring science to bear directly on real-world problems.

IBM Research has a long track record of cooperating with others. For instance, immediately after the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone last year, IBM formed an alliance with the country’s Open Government Initiative, Cambridge University’s Africa Voices project, mobile telecom carrier Airtel and Kenyan startup Echo mobile to provide an SMS crowdsourcing system for gathering up-to-the-minute, on-the-ground information about the path of the disease.

Wits, our university partner in Johannesburg, is one of the leading research universities on the African continent and boasts no fewer than four Nobel Laureates, including two in the sciences, and notably, Nelson Mandela. When I was in South Africa in February, I was invited by Adam Habib, Wits’ visionary principal, to a strategy session outside the city. He spoke passionately to his leadership team about the opportunity for African universities in urban settings to reach out to the communities around them, engage young entrepreneurs, and foster economic development.

While South African government’s direct role in Tshimologong is relatively modest, it plays an essential role in fostering the ecosystem that everybody hopes will grow up around the hub. The city, in partnership with Wits and a venture capital fund, is staging a city-wide hackathon, the Hack.Jozy Challenge, aimed at fostering start-up activity and problem-solving apps.

South Africa’s government also is playing an increasingly aggressive role in promoting innovation. The legislature passed legislation that makes it easier for angel investors to back small startups. The government recently established a technology innovation promotion agency, it is developing a legal framework for the protection of intellectual property, and it set up technology-transfer offices at 23 publicly-funded universities.

At IBM, we recognize that we won’t succeed long term in Africa unless we and our clients have access to a large pool of people with the skills needed for 21st century knowledge work. So over the next three years we will expand our professional and academic skills-development programs in Africa–to 20 countries. At Wits we have set up a scholarship program that pays tuition, room and board–plus provides mentorships and vacation internships–for underprivileged youngsters from rural areas to study computer science at Wits. The primary focus is on women. We invite other corporations to join with us in this initiative so we can expand its reach.

Passionate Individuals

Even with all the progress in Africa in recent years, many challenges have yet to be overcome. In South Africa, there remains a giant gulf between rich and poor. Nearly 50% of the country’s young people of working age are unemployed. And, meanwhile, there’s a gap between the technology skills that are needed by industry and the expertise of South Africa’s workforce.

A growing tech economy can help address these challenges, but only if the entrepreneurs and organizations in the tech community overcome hurdles of their own. The tech skills gap affects them more than anybody else. There’s a shortage of the right type of venture capital–the kind that backs brand-new companies, and that comes with advisors and mentors attached. Also, according to South African entrepreneurs, local businesses tend to be slow to adopt the latest technologies, making it difficult for startups to get a toehold in the marketplace.

Building large and sustainable tech communities will require a special kind of individual–people with passion and persistence. You see these traits in many of our IBM Research scientists in Kenya and South Africa. The majority of them grew up in Africa, received their university educations and began their careers in the United States or Europe, and have now returned to Africa determined to make a difference.

Abdigani Diriye, IBM Research

Abdigani Diriye, IBM Research

One example is Abdigani Diriye, a young scientist at IBM Research – Africa’s Nairobi lab. Amid the chaos of civil war, his family fled his native Somalia when he was just five years old. Three years ago, he received a PhD from the University of London in human-computer interaction, and, last year, he returned to Africa determined to give back. He’s part of a research team focusing on technologies that give Africans access to banking services. Abdigani says: “If you have been fortunate like I have, you have a responsibility to those who don’t have those opportunities–especially those who are just starting out in life.”

I got a taste of the optimism and hopefulness of young Africans during our visit to Egypt in February. I spoke to university students at an innovation park on the outskirts of Cairo. It was truly inspiring. They were so hungry for knowledge, guidance and opportunity.

These are people with the potential to build innovation ecosystems, which could help Africa fulfill its great promise.


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[…] IBM Research Lab is going to be part of the Tshimologong Precinct neighbourhood. Read the article ‘To Fulfill Africa’s Promise, Look to its Young People and Cities’ by Dr John Kelly III, Senior Vice President of […]

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