Tech labs help improve ease of doing business

Tuesday July 18 2017

Solomon Assefa the director of IBM Research Africa.


Solomon Assefa the director of IBM Research in Africa speaking on the impact of technologies on key industries in Africa.

Five years after IBM set up the first research lab in Africa, has the investment borne fruit?

We have two research labs in Africa, and the one in Nairobi was the first one we set up. Our vision was, and still is, to invent technologies, drive innovations that change industries and change economies, and spur revolutions.

We also set out to make sure the most fundamental breakthroughs in science and technology come from Africa.

We are achieving our ambitions because we are helping tackle some of the big challenges in sectors like water, health care, agriculture, transport, energy, and financial inclusion.

What does the lab offer?


By having the best talent, we deploy projects in the world. Our scientists are in discussions on block changes, intelligence networks, the Internet-of-Things.

We have developed the type of talent that can give advice to the private sector and public sector.

What has the IBM Africa Lab achieved?

In education, we have deployed a system that personalises content based on behaviour in 96 schools in Mombasa. In transport, we have developed data analytics systems and mobile systems that can be embedded in garbage trucks to enhance efficiency.

In health care, we have developed a system to cut inefficiencies in hospitals. The system is like a self-complaint kiosk that captures preliminary baseline readings from the patient and then directs the patient to a nurse or doctor.

We have also developed systems for financial inclusion through mobile phones.

Has the lab helped in improving the ease of doing business in Kenya?

Ease of doing business is one of the successes of this lab. We have people here working with the government. Within two years the country has gone up in ranking in ease of doing business.

This is a huge accomplishment. We have done this by coming up with a method of understanding business processes, finding ways of optimising them, creating efficiency, and eventually improving the business environment.

Deploying technology is expensive. How affordable are IBM systems?

Cost is a challenge, not because institutions don’t have the funds to implement systems. My reading of it is prioritisation. In some cases we fund and deploy the systems and ensure they work, but institutions have to take the initiative of scaling them further so that they can have real impact.

We also propagate for collaborations. In technology the history is that the more you deploy, the more the costs come down and that is the fundamental understanding we need on the continent.

Governments need to allocate more funding to R&D. South Africa, for instance, allocates 0.8 per cent of GDP for R&D, but in the US it is more than 3 per cent of GDP.

Rapid urbanisation is a big challenge in Africa. What is IBM doing to help?

The need to pursue a green economy agenda may sound fancy but it is about survival of the continent. If you look at the rapid growth of urbanisation, pollution and sustainable development are intertwined.

We have a few projects ongoing, one being about air quality. We have developed a platform called Green Horizon, which compiles data, does the analysis, and gives a forecast.

The tool gives advice to city managers on the actions they should be taking to maintain clean air. We have also worked on an app that tells you what kind of solar energy system you should build for your house, and an app for traffic management. We are serious about tackling the urbanisation problem.