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IBM Opens Its First Research Lab in Africa

A scientist uses an IBM Internet Security Systems Proventia Network at the IBM Alamden Research Center in San Jose, California, USA, April 18, 2011.
NAIROBI — The U.S.-based technology firm IBM and the Kenyan Ministry of Information, Communication, and Technology are teaming up to create an information technology research lab in Nairobi, making it the first of its kind on the African continent. They hope the lab, which opens in the next few weeks, can solve problems relevant to Africa, like traffic congestion, while automating some sectors of governance.

Tony Mwai, the country general manager for IBM East Africa, says one goal of this research lab is to develop government capabilities that will help people make better use of public sector services, and allow the government to digitally manage huge amounts of data.

“There’s other ways, in other parts of the world where citizen services are delivered on top of an IT foundation, but in many other countries, especially the more developed countries, services are delivered over the Internet, making the assumption that many people have computers and they can log in, and apply for a driver’s license or passports or whatever kind of citizen services are available," says Mwai. "But you know, it’s not readily prevalent, and Internet access is not, on a non-mobile platform, is not as prevalent here in Africa, and certainly in Kenya, than it is in other parts of the world.”

In 2011, IBM conducted a survey indicating that 35 percent of Nairobi drivers have spent three or more hours in traffic.

Since fixing or constructing infrastructure is not always possible, Mwai says that technology may be able to help alleviate some of the problems of traffic congestion.

“One of the things that I would love to have and I think many people would love to have is the ability to predict how long it’s going to take to get from Point A to Point B, from one part of the city to the other," says Mwai. "Or, in real time, get knowledge of where traffic is building up, so you can find an alternate route to get to where you’re going.”

Kumar Bhaskaran is the IBM Program Director for Technology and Strategy for Research in the Growth Markets. He says that although the main objective is to find solutions for problems in Africa, the benefits will not stop there.

“It’s not simply bringing in technology from outside, it’s also fundamentally having innovations spawned here and applied elsewhere," he says. "Not only in Africa but also impacting outside of Africa.”

IBM operates in 170 countries around the world. It currently has research labs in nine countries. Kenya will be the 10th.

The Kenyan government has pledged an investment of $2 million per year for the next five years to help the project.