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Opened with much fanfare, IBM lab in Kenya looks for concrete results

Rebecca Wanjiku | July 2, 2015
In 2013, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched an IBM research lab in Nairobi with expectations that it would help develop and launch applications for both the government and private sector. Two years later, though, the lab is struggling to identify specific, viable projects that it that has researched and developed.

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In 2013, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched an IBM research lab in Nairobi with expectations that it would help develop and launch applications for both the government and private sector. Two years later, though, the lab is struggling to identify specific, viable projects that it has researched and developed.

The situation has raised questions, especially because under the contract signed with the ICT Authority, the government contributes US$2 million annually toward running the lab.

IBM officials say the lab has raised Kenya's tech and business profile.

"IBM has not only delivered on, but exceeded its initial commitments to the Kenyan government." said Kamal Bhattacharya, vice president of IBM Research, Africa. "Together with the Kenyan ICT Authority, IBM is making a significant investment into the future of science and technology in Kenya and to reinforcing Kenya's global reputation as a leader in innovation."

The ICT Authority said the $2 million investment has paid off, with the universities being the major beneficiaries of the lab. There are currently 15 interns at the lab. In addition, IBM's presence itself has helped lead other international companies into the country, say ICT Authority officials.

"The presence IBM lab in Kenya has acted as a boost of confidence to other international companies interested in investing in Kenya; Mastercard has already announced that it will be setting up a lab in Kenya," said Victor Kyalo, CEO of Kenya's ICT Authority.

When asked about successful collaboration, Kyalo pointed to a study launched in October last year, on the ease of doing business in Kenya. The research is being done in collaboration with IBM and Strathmore University, and is seeking to identify ways the government can reform processes and attract more businesses to the country.

The study is placing students at key government departments to collect data on how processes can improve. For instance, at the government department that registers corporations doing business in the country, the students are supposed to help come up with ways to speed up the process.

Although the report is not yet out, it is expected that it essentially will list the same problems that World Bank report on ease of doing business has reported over the years. Currently, World Bank ranks Kenya number 136 out of 189 countries on the ease of doing business.

Kyalo deflects criticism that professionals who have experienced the process might be in a better position to advise the government.

"Getting fresh graduates to critique the process is the best because they have fresh eyes and will help point out the direction they think Kenya should be heading, they are the generation used to more digital processes," said Kyalo.

 

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