Emerging technology in Africa: Internet of things, cognitive systems and more

I had the opportunity to travel through much of Morocco in June, and the experience definitely left an impression on me. This was my first trip to the African continent, and I enjoyed meeting a variety of interesting people along the way: numerous small business owners in the ancient medinas of Fes, crew members filming the newest James Bond movie sequel in Tangier, a nomadic Berber family dwelling in a cave, fellow tourists in the Sahara Desert and Muslims nearly everywhere observing Ramadan. The sounds of a call to prayer echoing through a quiet valley and the vision of the setting sun amidst enormous desert sand dunes are among the most mesmerizing experiences that I have encountered while traveling. New developments that I witnessed, such as solar panels powering tent villages in the desert and sustainable water harvesting methods to mitigate desertification, also piqued my interest in exploring innovations in Africa in greater depth.

Despite the ongoing challenges in parts of the Middle East and North Africa (as reflected in the international news), I felt quite welcome and safe. Indeed, the Moroccan economy is growing rapidly, and its leaders have made tourism and infrastructure enhancements into major strategic priorities. I was pleased to see that IBMers collaborate in some of these projects; for instance, the capital city of Rabat won a bid against 140 other cities for IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge in 2012. The transport system of the Rabat greater metropolitan area was facing the critical issue of population growth (from roughly 1.77 million to an anticipated 2.7 million people in 2025), which will likely lead to greater traffic congestion, increased urbanization, and disintegrated, disconnected, and often manual technology systems. The Smarter Cities project proposed a strategy for safer, more efficient public transport that included, among other things, integrating multiple agencies through the creation of a transportation authority, publishing realistic and constantly updated arrival schedules, and monitoring staffing levels and rewarding high performance. (For more information about the project, visit IBM team member Sonya Miller’s blog). According to a 2014 UN report on world urbanization prospects, the global urban population will increase by more than two-thirds by 2050, with nearly 90 percent of the increase in urban areas of Africa and Asia, so there is considerable need for new infrastructure solutions to handle this growth.

IBM has also just launched an Innovation Center in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and main economic hub, the goal of which is “to spur local growth and fuel an ecosystem of development and entrepreneurship around Big Data and Analytics and Cloud Computing.” This as well as IBM’s other centers in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya will provide students and graduates with virtual and in-person training, the opportunity to test out new products, network with peers and receive mentoring and guidance from technology and business experts.

Given our focus on Africa (IBM has a direct presence in 24 African countries), I  investigated to find out more broadly what we are learning across the continent. Africa is well-known for its case studies of the leapfrog effect; in other words, the potential to accelerate certain developments by “skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones” and their expected positive impact on African economies. Whether or not this theory is always valid (it has its naysayers), an IBM Center for Applied Insights study on “Setting the pace in Africa” demonstrated that there are indeed a leading set of companies in Africa that prioritize emerging technologies, have succeeded in deploying them at a rapid pace, and are able to move quickly to establish competitive advantage. These Pacesetters are heavily focused on communication with senior leadership, rigorously linking IT investments to outcomes, managing risk through security technology and infusing this into the company culture.

Pacesetter Africa
Setting the pace in Africa http://ibm.co/1QTwOnF

Here are two (of many!) areas of technological innovation in Africa that I am excited about:

  • The “Internet of Things,” or the concept of connecting previously unconnected devices (washing machines, wearables, lights, etc.), could really take off in Africa to address a variety of challenges and nearly endless practical applications. One innovative IoT solution involves connecting endangered black rhinoceroses to the global network; each animal is given an ankle collar that transmits its exact coordinates to anti-poaching teams that can respond quickly if poaching activity is suspected.

What IBM is doing: In Nairobi, garbage trucks are “data collection ants.” Nairobi has a serious problem with traffic congestion, amplified by features such as speedbumps on streets with high pedestrian use and even on some big highways. This makes it difficult to simply analyze camera and sensor data to predict and manage traffic. At the same time, the city faced a problem with garbage truck drivers sometimes using their vehicles to transport non-work related items illegally. IBM researchers outfitted part of the fleet with tools that transmit data on road quality as well as driver behavior – and city authorities were able to achieve a 75 percent increase in the daily volume of trash drivers picked up.

  • When it comes to the influence of technology on health care in Africa, small technologies can lead to seemingly vast improvements, according to a panel at the Wharton Africa Business Forum. For example, according to Ladi Awosika, CEO of Total Health Trust in Nigeria, maternity-related complications “kill the equivalent of crashing three full 747 jets every day.” But one state governor had an idea to give expectant mothers cell phones so they could call experienced health professionals when they had a medical issue or receive calls to remind them to take medicines or get check-ups. Anna Thompson-Quaye of the GAVI Alliance noted that her organization has helped broker connections between taxi drivers and pregnant women, using cell technology to get the expectant mothers to clinics more quickly, while of course bringing new business to the drivers. It is well known that cell phone and social media use are burgeoning in Africa, but Uganda alone also has roughly 3,400 medical apps – second only to India among developing countries, according to Dr. Felix Olale, CEO of Excelsior Ventures, which invests in the health sector in Africa.

What IBM is doing: One of IBM’s major priorities around healthcare in Africa is in cognitive computing, specifically through “Project Lucy,” an initiative to deliver commercially viable healthcare solutions with the collaboration of African partners. Watson’s advanced capabilities enable researchers to identify emerging patterns where we might not ordinarily make the connection. For example, Watson could detect a link between a contaminated water borehole, an epidemic of cholera and low levels of school attendance in a region, and eventually it might even be able to anticipate disease. Perhaps we will see the leapfrog effect here. According to Kamal Bhattacharya, director, IBM Research – Africa, “With the ability to learn from emerging patterns and discover new correlations, Watson’s cognitive capabilities hold enormous potential in Africa – helping it to achieve in the next two decades what today’s developed markets have achieved over two centuries.”

IBM-Watson-Africa

As Komminist Weldemariam, an IBMer developing online learning systems at IBM Research – Africa’s lab in Nairobi, reflected in a recent blog, “I don’t think people fully understood what we mean when we say ‘Africa is rising.’ Africa is home to the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world. At the same time, Africa needs about $1 trillion to close its infrastructure gap with the rest of the world. This is a perfect opportunity for IBM, and innovative startups, alike.” Africa is growing rapidly, but is fundamentally different from many other global economies like India and China, and we can expect that it will carve out a unique development path. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of the investments and strategic partnerships that IBM and many others are making in Africa today.

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