Human Resources

Mark Dean (Africa) - Innovation Leapfrogs Traditional Technologies

Want to know what's possible in Africa? I got a taste of the future recently when I met with science and technology students at the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. These young people are hungry for knowledge and determined to make a difference.

Some of their ideas for technologies and businesses were quite intriguing-emerging from deep, personal understanding of the needs of the people of Africa. I'm convinced the universities of Africa will produce a new generation of scientific and business leaders with the potential for driving the next wave of economic growth. They could be the Mark Zuckerberg for Africa.

IBM is in the middle of a major expansion across the continent, and we understand that for Africa's 54 countries to continue to progress and fulfill their potential, many of their brightest young people will need world-class science and technology educations. That's one of the reasons IBM recently announced the creation of IBM Research - Africa, based in Nairobi but eventually to expand to locations in other countries. We expect to employ more than 50 scientists within five years, plus facilitate a similar number of interns and graduate students.

Our goal is to establish an institution that will create an ecosystem for innovation, producing scientific and technological advances that matter to the African people, our local clients and the global society. We also hope to inspire African youth and the continent's future scientists.

Science has the potential to help transform the economies of Africa-improving productivity, yields, and quality, and making it possible for Africa to become a major creator of African products and services, rather than depending so much on exports of low-margin commodities and raw natural resources. Science can help Africa differentiate itself in the world economy.

Already there are some remarkable scientific collaborations underway. The Center for High Performance Computing in Cape Town, South Africa, for instance, offers the use of two supercomputers free of charge to selected scientists and organizations that use the machines to address social, economic, and environmental issues and skills development. Mars, the American candy company, is participating in the African Orphan Crops Consortium to map and sequence the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops, with the goal of increasing production yields and producing higher nutrition content.

Technology innovations that work elsewhere won't necessarily succeed in Africa. Many Africans live in remote rural areas with little transportation, electrical and digital communications infrastructure. Yet, increasingly, they own mobile phones. So the opportunity exists to leapfrog the rest of the world and develop mobile technologies that will enable personal delivery of everything from education and health care services to banking and business services. Already, in East Africa, the M-Pesa mobile-phone based money transfer service allows users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money, and is one of the most advanced phone payment systems in the world. But there's a caveat: only through a combination of deep science, and a deep understanding of the needs of the people, will this technological leapfrogging take place.

I've seen estimates that by 2040, Africa will have more than one billion working-age people. If a large percentage of that vast population isn't gainfully employed, it could lead to social disruptions, and an increase in poverty and other problems for Africa and the world. On the other hand, as populations elsewhere age, Africa has the potential to provide the large and productive workforce the world needs to sustain global economic growth. It's up to Africa's leaders, with help from organizations like ours, to determine which way the pendulum will swing.

Back in the early 1980s, when I participated in the development of the IBM Personal Computer, my colleagues and I had no clue how big the impact of the PC would be on the world. We thought that perhaps we'd sell a few hundred thousand machines per year. Today, more than 400 million PCs are sold each year and the personal computing revolution has spawned an explosion in mobile phones, tablets and other mobile devices. Large industries emerge from small beginnings. I believe the same can be true of scientific research in Africa. Partnerships of universities, corporations and governments can plant the seeds for a new ecosystem of innovation and a new era of economic prosperity. Now is the time to take the next steps.

By Mark Dean, Chief Technology Officer, IBM Middle East and Africa



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