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AFRICA, THE NEXT GROWTH FRONTIER: IBM Accelerating Africa’s revival

Imagine riding in a Matatu (the name used for a mini bus in Kenya) and suddenly an advertisement of your local product suddenly  pops up on small screen either by text, video or voice. It

Imagine riding in a Matatu (the name used for a mini bus in Kenya) and suddenly an advertisement of your local product suddenly  pops up on small screen either by text, video or voice. It might seem a far fetched thought but actually this is happening. It is what innovators call geo targeted advertising, where advertising is based on your geographical location. So if you are driving on a certain road you get advertising that pertains to that roadway. Initiatives like this are springing up across the African continent where local people are coming up with ground breaking ideas. This innovation by a start-up company in Kenya called Flashcast has helped businesses to advertise their products for free, these are small-medium business people who for the longest time have been shut out of the traditional market that relied on costly t.v, radio and print mediums to advertise. Currently the mobile advertising project runs successfully on two main highways in Nairobi and on selected Matatu’s. But business has not always been this glorious for Flashcast. When it started out the owners lacked the know how skill of running a successful business, they lacked mentorship and did not have much financial backing. It is thanks to companies like IBM that they were able to stay open. IBM came along at a time when this venture was on the verge of shutting down and they brought the much needed assistance that has resulted in what the company is today.  “Their business model was just not working and they were not making any revenue. Along came IBM and said, ‘have you heard about Big Data? Open up your technology and allow people to advertise either by video streaming, text or voice.’  They hadn’t thought about that because they only wanted to do text, so we worked with them to open this avenue to multiple channels,” says Dr Osamuya Stewart,Chief Scientist at IBM Africa Research Lab.

 

IBM has been in existence for about 100 years and has had involvement in Africa for many years, but for the first time in 2012, IBM set up a research laboratory in Kenya. The company has evolved from its days producing computers to what they now call an initiative to build a smarter planet. IBM works with startups, NGOs and universities across Africa to support and develop innovative ideas and giving young people training. ”We want to drive innovation that results in commercial viability that impact people’s lives,” adds Dr. Stewart. Indeed, in recent years there has been a massive sea of innovation in Africa. Yet there has been something crucially missing: commercially viable innovations. If an individual builds an app and the app does not translate to commercial viability or commercial success, what that person is essentially doing as an application developer is a waste of time. “We need to create an eco-system in which innovation is impacting the lives of our people, either commercially by the institutions that we build that change the way things functions or institutions that we build that enhance the way things function. Ultimately it is about translating all these innovations into commercial projects that is what we are about,” the IBM Chief Scientist emphasized.

 

One such commercially viable project has been, MoDe,  short for Mobile Decisioning. MoDe is a technology company that provides value added services to mobile network operators in emerging nations. The company launched in 2010 and two years later was announced as the winner of the IBM Global Entrepreneur of the year Award. MoDe’s main product is Airtime Credit Service (ACS) which provides emergency airtime credit to prepaid mobile subscribers. The credit is paid back at the subscriber’s next reload.

 

“The aim was to help in financial inclusion in what we call the under privileged we were trying to find people that have that kind of history and build a profile around that because they are always cut out of  financial inclusion. It is actually 85 per cent of the population that owns mobile phones, while only 6 percent have access to bank loans. We wanted to use the mobile platform to help achieve financial inclusion,” says Julian Kyula, CEO of MoDe.

 

IBM has been very key for MoDe. Initially the company’s focus was in Africa, but now their partnership with IBM has given them the credibility that allows them to venture out into the International market. Currently they operate in 18 countries and have about 100 million customers already this year. The company has already made half a billion worth of small transactions and hopes to close on a billion by year’s end. There is an amazing pool of innovation across the continent. The problem is that execution is weak and getting the right people globally to help has advanced such companies and allowed them to put together universally acceptable innovations. “It is actually a great plus for our continent what we are seeing from large organizations like IBM in helping organizations like ours in getting into the world where no one had interest in innovation from the continent. Now we are able to implement our own innovations and coming up with solutions to not just our problems but solutions that are universal,” says Kyula.

 

The success of all of this rides on how much development is done at the grassroots level though. IBM has already implemented its Innovation Center in Nairobi where they have established relationships with local universities and they are in partnership with them to not only help them with overall skills development but also to focus in on innovation. “We have the smart camp program that is part of IBM’s global entrepreneur program, hosted in East Africa. We had an event in July and we wanted to spotlight two local student entrepreneurs and startups. Something that they too can participate in and know that there is a future for them in that area,” says Gloria Powell, Manager, IBM East Africa Client and Innovation Center. It is the belief of IBM that innovation with universities is critical in building the smarter planet concept that can be shared in making the world a better place for all to live in. “This is not something IBM can do alone, the idea of a smarter planet is not just us, it is not just start-ups it is not just enterprises, it is for everyone.”

 

 

BM opened the doors of its 12th global research lab and first in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. The new laboratory employs some of the biggest brains to develop solutions to Africa’s grand challenges and to drive innovation in Africa, for Africa and for the world. To celebrate the launch and to recognize the talent and ideas of people across Africa, IBM teamed with iHub, A24Media and independent photographer Mutua Matheka to organize “The World is Our Lab.” a photo competition. Aimed at photographers of all abilities, the contest invited people from across Africa to capture stories of grand challenges, city systems and innovation.

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