IBM sets up first research center in Africa

The center will focus on public-sector issues and 'smarter cities' research

IBM is opening its first research center in Africa, capping several years of international marketing by the Kenyan government and visits by IBM officials.

The center will be at Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi and will be a collaboration with the Kenyan Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, IBM announced Monday.

"IBM has had a presence in Africa for more than 60 years and we are now taking our presence to a new level -- we are establishing a foundation for IBM's long-term success," said Anthony Mwai, country general manager, East Africa at a press conference.

The research center will focus on next-generation public sector issues such as how governments can use big data, advanced analytics and cloud technologies to decrease the costs of social services, improve efficiency and productivity and improve access to services by citizens, among other objectives.

IBM has an exchange program that allows global employees to work in Africa and share skills. Researchers will also work on so-called "smarter cities" research with a focus on water and transportation issues.

The center will also collaborate with universities, government agencies and companies on how to contend with a skills shortage that hampers advancement of industries in Africa.

"Innovation is the main driver for a competitive national economy. The IBM research lab will not only rubber stamp Kenya as Africa's leader in ICT, but will help the country to transform into a knowledge based economy," said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary, Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, at an event organized for private and public sector officials.

Resident scientists will be integrated into the IBM Research-Africa center as well as IBM's global network of research centers, the company said. Each resident scientist will be able to collaborate with IBM researchers throughout the company's global network of laboratories as they carry out their research.

IBM's decision to locate in Kenya is seen as confirmation of the nation's rising importance and business prospects, making it capable of attracting other big companies.

"Availability of affordable connectivity has bolstered innovation and competency -- global business is attracted to areas where it will thrive and increase, this is what Kenya presents," said Paul Kukubo, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board.

In the past, such opportunities would go to South Africa, but Africa Analysis, a continental research firm, has pointed to the availability of research and innovation facilities that have allowed local developers to establish startup operations and as well as access to locally developed applications as selling points for Kenya.

"Kenya presented a good place for this lab for a number of reasons: expanding access networks with growing Internet speeds, good international connectivity, and interesting developments in the ICT sector especially mobile services," said Dobek Pater, senior telecoms analyst at Africa Analysis.

IBM, which has research labs in nine other countries besides Kenya, operates in 20 African nations and the company said that it may consider expanding into other parts of Africa.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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