IBMAn I.B.M. employee gathers data on road conditions and traffic congestion in Nairobi.
AUGUST 13, 2012, 6:00 AM
By STEVE LOHR
I.B.M. is opening a research center in Nairobi, adding an African lab to its global network.
The announcement about the center is to be made Monday,
Kenya will be the fourth nation where I.B.M. has opened a research outpost in the last two years, after Ireland, Australia and Brazil. The Nairobi center will bring the number of I.B.M. research labs worldwide to 12. By now, about half the company’s 3,000-member research staff is outside the United States.
“I.B.M. has not only one of the few major corporate research programs standing, but it is expanding,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst at the Envisioneering Group, a technology research firm.
Lab-location decisions, said John E. Kelly, I.B.M.’s senior vice president for research, are based mainly on the lure of “smart people and real-world problems and opportunities.”
In Africa, the problems — and opportunities to solve them — would seem in greater abundance than computer science expertise. And indeed, the Nairobi lab is intended as a hub for nurturing home-grown skills. I.B.M. plans to build the lab up to 50 researchers within five years. In addition, it will be the center for a “resident scientist program,” which will bring in researchers from Nairobi and elsewhere in Africa to collaborate with I.B.M. scientists. The candidates can come from universities, government or industry, typically for one-year stints.
The I.B.M. lab is seen as a step toward reversing the tradition of bright young Africans’ departing for the West, in search of advanced education and jobs. “A lot of them, like me, have gone into the diaspora,” said Osamuyimen Stewart, 46, a scientist at the I.B.M. lab in Hawthorne, N.Y.
“We want to help train Africans to innovate in Africa,” said Mr. Stewart, a Nigerian. “The best minds there should be working on big national problems and African problems.”
The Nairobi lab will seek to develop technology-assisted solutions to the problems of Africa’s fast-growing cities (Africa has 52 cities of more than a million people — more than are in Europe). Water management and transportation, I.B.M. executives say, are prime examples. And solutions, they add, need not depend on long, costly projects.
For example, 70 percent of adults in Nairobi have cellphones. So urban travel patterns — necessary for traffic management — can be seen by tracking cellphone locations and movements. Recently, a team of researchers used a couple of webcams to collect data on traffic jams on the routes to and from the Nairobi airport. In a brief experiment, they used that data to develop algorithms that suggested paths to reroute traffic to minimize delays.
“We’re going to focus on very inexpensive solutions, rapidly developed,” said Dr. Kelly, who is also the director of I.B.M. labs.
That approach has won the enthusiastic support of the Kenyan government. President Mwai Kibaki is scheduled to join Virginia Rometty, I.B.M.’s chief executive, for the announcement in Nairobi.
The Nairobi lab is another step in I.B.M.’s increasing investment in Africa in recent years. In 2006, I.B.M. had offices in four African nations — South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Today, the company has operations in more than 20 African countries. Some of its biggest deals have been in mobile communications, supplying the computing and data-handling behind wireless services, like Bharti Airtel’s cellphone network in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa, I.B.M. says, is destined to become an important growth market for the company. “Africa is a complex place,” Dr. Kelly said. “But we feel it is on the cusp, at an inflection point. It’s going to take off.”