Ten years ago, IBM Research launched its first lab in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Just three years later, we opened a second location at the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa’s Johannesburg. Over the decade, our labs have become the epicentre for IBM research in Africa, and an integral part of our mission to invent and build what’s next in computing. And today, we’re celebrating our first decade in Africa, the work we’ve achieved, and all that lies ahead.
At an event at our Nairobi lab, leaders from across IBM Research, including Darío Gil, IBM senior vice president and director of Research, came together to celebrate the achievements of the Africa labs over the last decade.
The research carried out at the IBM Research Labs in Africa are at the intersection of local needs and IBM’s focus on transformative technologies, including AI, hybrid cloud, and quantum computing. Projects have ranged from government digital transformation, education, transportation, water and agriculture management, financial inclusion, healthcare, and climate. Our research has led to technology that has been licensed to local start-ups, open-sourced, and integrated into IBM’s product lines. We’ve striven to make a measurable impact in driving the economic transformation of the continent and our global contributions to innovation.
Looking back on the time since the first lab in Nairobi was opened, Solomon Assefa, vice president at IBM Research, and previously the leader of the Africa lab over the last decade, said he can think of several moments that have really stuck with him. There was the time when he and a deputy director of USAID took a small plane to the Kenyan countryside to see the impact the organization and IBM’s work on water resource management was having on local areas. Assefa fired up IBM Research’s tool that maps out boreholes for water across the country and called back to the lab to say he was seeing the data they were seeing in real time.
Then there was the time that IBM Research partnered with the Kenyan Ministry of Trade, Industries and Co-operatives and Strathmore University to help bolster the country’s ease of doing business rank with the World Bank. The data work they did helped improve the country’s rank from 136 out of 189 to 56. IBM was acknowledged by Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya at the time, for their contribution.
These are just a few of the moments that Assefa is proudest of but by no means the only achievements from the two labs over the decade.
With the boom in AI reverberating around the world, IBM Research Africa has been working on ensuring that future AI systems are built fairly. Biases can lead to systematic disadvantages for marginalized individuals and groups — and they can arise in any point in the AI development lifecycle. Researchers in Africa were some of the main contributors to the AI 360 Fairness Toolkit, an open-source toolkit that AI practitioners can use to help systematic bias in AI models used in industry.
In AI, IBM Research Africa has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop and experiment with AI toolkits that can provide insight and support in decision-making for the Foundation and their partners. One project focused on identifying and understanding subpopulations of women and children that are disproportionately susceptible to maternal and neonatal mortality, and another led to a platform for malaria policymaking, by learning from simulation and efficiently generating recommendations of sequences of interventions to consider.
IBM Research Africa has also worked to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the continent, and the world. Climate change is a pressing issue, especially so in areas that rely on rain-fed agriculture and are commonly plagued by droughts. IBM researchers have recently developed pioneering tools leveraging foundation models that bring together data, models, and infrastructure to support climate scientists and policymakers to make evidence-based decisions on climate. For example, these technologies can support the prediction of floods and their impact on supply chains, and the effect of urban heat islands on the health of potentially vulnerable portions of the population.
We’ve also developed a technology to visualize biomass, such as tree cover, and determine the amount of carbon sequestered by the biomass. That’s currently part of a Memorandum of Understanding, just signed between IBM and the Office of the Special Climate Envoy of the Government of Kenya. The collaboration will leverage IBM’s cutting-edge artificial intelligence to restore water towers in the country. It’s a multi-partner ‘adopt-a water tower’ initiative, part of the National Tree Growing and Restoration Campaign of planting 15 billion trees by 2032. The MoU outlines the application of IBM’s watsonx.ai geospatial foundation model technology to monitor, observe, analyze, and provide insights for forest restoration activities.
Another major challenge faced by many across Africa is access to financial services. The unbanked have no easy way to access credit, due to poor information that shows their creditworthiness. We collaborated with a local bank providing mobile microloans and together demonstrated that machine learning techniques can predict the probability of default using mobile transaction data. The results exceeded their existing creditworthiness methods. Our methods were adopted as they rolled out a new product in Uganda.
Africa’s embrace of mobile technology, especially in banking, leapfrogging the decades of fixed-line use that other continents had before the switch to mobile, is something Assefa wants to replicate in the era of quantum computing ahead.
Fostering an innovation ecosystem in Africa
To continue to thrive, it’s a necessity to build up a strong pool of local talent. Today, nearly 70% of the researchers, scientists, software engineers, and managers at the lab are local talent we have fostered over the years. The lab has also been instrumental in developing local talent by hiring young students and providing support as they progress through their studies and into our internship programs.
Over the last decade, we have hosted more than 100 internships at all degree levels across both labs. One of our current PhD-level researchers started with us as an undergraduate intern, then they were hired as a software engineer, where they pursued a master’s degree supported by the lab. They then went on to pursue a PhD program and now they are back at IBM Research Africa as a research scientist. It’s a model we’re aiming to replicate more in the future.
But beyond fostering talent, we’ve aimed to create a collaborative ecosystem that that encourages innovation. We’ve pursued partnerships with leading institutions across academia, industry, government, and the world of start-ups to share knowledge and spur innovation for the entire region. We ran a “What’s next in AI” series which attracted nearly 1,200 active participants and more than 20,000 replays in under a week. We’ve also run a youth science program with the goal of sparking their curiosity and interest in science, technology and innovation through hands on training, attracting hundreds to each session.
The first decade of IBM Research in Africa helped pave the way for true technological progress on the continent. “We’re now the epicentre of innovation on the African continent,” Assefa said.
The future only looks brighter. According to the World Economic Forum, roughly 60% of the entire continent’s population is under 25 years old. This population boom will spur new ideas, new demands, and more reasons to invest in Africa. Staying relevant and on top of the biggest issues facing the continent, from research into traditionally overlooked tropical diseases, to climate change mitigation, will be top priorities in the future. IBM has long worked with local governments to help them navigate the challenges ahead, and that’s what IBM Research will continue to do in Africa.
“The only way to be resilient is to make this technology accessible so that governments can plan,” Assefa said. “We’re doubling down on the future.”