Africa – A Growing Opportunity

Image credit: IBM Mobile Insights blog (http://asmarterplanet.com/mobile-enterprise/blog/2013/10/ibm-lasgidi-hackathon-hacking-middle-africa.html)
Image credit: IBM Mobile Insights blog

We all know that dreaded sight when you return from vacation: the imminent swelling number of emails in your inbox. Now imagine 6 months of unread emails. I was fortunate to have the support of my IBM team to take a leave of absence to pursue an opportunity as a volunteer consultant for an NGO called TechnoServe in Tanzania. Yet in the midst of the 1000+ emails, there was one email that caught my eye and energized my spirit. The subject read Learn about IBM in Africa and highlighted IBM’s strategic focus in Africa in 2014.

In Tanzania, I designed a program to equip rural disadvantaged youth with skills to enable them to capitalize on opportunities to improve their economic situation. Through field visits, focus groups and stakeholder interviews, I observed the immense opportunity across this beautiful continent. After learning about IBM’s commitment and reading the IBM Center for Applied Insights study, “Setting the pace in Africa”, I discovered how my experience in Tanzania weaves into the goals IBM has set in Africa.

1) Mobile is more accessible than water. While visiting TechnoServe program participants in rural Kenya, I asked my guide a seemingly simple question: how does he get in touch with the participants to let them know he is stopping by since most are on a remote farm? His confused look was followed by “…cell phones.” DUH. In a place that had little water or electricity, these rural Kenyans had cell phones. Even the Maasai, a tribe in northern Tanzania and Kenya, who still live in huts made of cow dung, had cell phones on their belts. Since Africa has little outdated mobile infrastructure (in contrast to water, roads, and electricity), it is able to leapfrog to modern mobile technology. I conducted a focus group with young rural men and women and the majority of those saving financially did so with mobile money rather than in a bank or village savings box. Furthermore, cell phones provide an opportunity for rural Africans to get access to information they never had before. Now the farmer can see what crops are in demand in the urban markets and when bad weather is coming.

What is IBM doing?  IBM is bringing its mobile solutions to Africa to deliver opportunity. For example, with IBM mobile technologies, Tunisia’s Zitouna Bank is deploying mobile banking services to help reach the half of Tunisia’s population that does not currently have access to modern, reliable financial services. In South Africa, IBM designed a mobile app to enable citizens to report water leaks, faulty water pipes, and conditions of water canals to help solve water challenges.

Primary school - Kibera, Kenya
Primary school – Kibera, Kenya

2) The skills gap is tremendous. While secondary and tertiary education participation is increasing, enrollment numbers are still incredibly low. In Tanzania in 2010, 35% of the youth population was enrolled in secondary education and 4% in tertiary, of which only 20% and 36%, respectively, graduated (Source: World Bank 2013). The quality of education in Tanzania is also constrained due to limited resources and poor coordination. Many students fail or drop out because of expensive school fees, English-based exams despite the little English taught, and mounting family responsibilities. As a result, Tanzanians often do not have the skills required to meet labor needs. I visited one of the poorest regions of Tanzania, Mtwara, where natural gas was just discovered off the coast. Foreign oil and gas companies are pouring into the desolate area in need of skilled labor, but are starting to look to other countries for talent. Africans must close their skills gaps to capitalize on the opportunities ahead.

What is IBM doing? IBM Research recently launched a new resident scientist program for universities in Kenya to develop highly-qualified and technically skilled graduates. Additionally, IBM established Innovation Centers in Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco to spur local growth and fuel an ecosystem of development and entrepreneurship to solve key challenges.

Participant and his pepper farm - rural Kenya
Program participant & his pepper farm in rural Kenya

3) The untapped opportunities are palpable.  In 2012, only 24% of Tanzania’s 44 million hectares of arable land was under production, and the majority of the jobs to be created in the future are in agribusiness (Source: Harvard Kennedy School). The opportunities for small holder and commercial farmers are abundant. And there is potential to build a smarter, more efficient Africa – not just to improve agricultural systems but also transportation, mail, commerce and more. I once waited 3 hours for a package in an empty post office!  I also sat in traffic for many hours – and drove over deteriorated roads full of potholes.

What is IBM doing? IBM has the industry expertise to impact sectors in need, like food, oil and gas, transportation, and health. In South Africa, IBM’s big data and analytics technologies are being put to work to find new treatments and diagnostic approaches to fight Tuberculosis. In Nairobi, Kenya, citizens use IBM mobile solutions to receive updates on road conditions, advisable driving routes, and traffic hotspots to reduce traffic congestion.

It couldn’t be more obvious that building a smarter planet means investing in Africa. In the near future, I look forward to seeing – Africa: made with IBM.

Chrissy Panullo, IBM Market Insights Consultant, in the TechnoServe program in Tanzania, Africa
Chrissy Panullo, IBM Market Insights Consultant, as part of the TechnoServe program in Tanzania, Africa

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–Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Social Media Strategist, IBM Center for Applied Insights

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