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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.

Nevertheless, even though IBM and government officials have talked about some initiatives that are in progress, and have suggested indirect benefits of the IBM lab, they have not been able to show off concrete projects that have been brought to fruition.

"In the last two years, all the lab has done is showcase the facilities, there is no single project that has gone to testing, that we can say this is work in progress; we are happy to just show the media around," said a source, who did not want to be quoted by name due to the risk of losing future opportunities.

"In other public-private partnerships I have been involved in, by the end of the first year, there are usually some progress that the public can test, or some research that benefits the public -- here we are just happy with the facilities and just making statements, the government has not made any demands or kept us accountable," the source said.

The ICT Authority's Kyalo acknowledges that IBM has not delved deeply into how a research lab can interact, to the benefit of all involved, with the start-up scene and growing companies. In the second phase of the five year contract that starts in September, however, IBM and the government will explore whether the private sector can benefit from the lab, he said.

Some industry players say IBM can help.

"Yes, IBM research has a role to play in the growth of the local tech sector; there's a huge gap for data that just requires someone with the necessary budget to sort it out," said Phares Kariuki, CEO of Angani, a cloud provider. "For instance, there's no central body that has been authoritatively tracking the evolution of connectivity in Kenya, how many people have fiber to the home, and of those, what's the average income level of the household."

This type of data would make investments in tech easier for investors because it would give them an accurate picture of technology consumption in Kenya, Kariuki said.

On its part, IBM says it wants to work with local companies. IBM considers itself the only multinational technology company that has committed significant investment to high-end engineering skills in Africa and it expects to start showing results in another 12 to 18 months.

"Engaging with the local business ecosystem is a crucial part of the strategy of IBM Research Africa; we work with partners as part of our research of new solutions and services as well as our go to market strategy," said IBM's Bhattacharya.

IBM says it has started working with Kenyan startups like Echo Mobile, which was involved in a campaign to provide information on Ebola in Sierra Leone last year. There is no data on the effect it had on the campaign, however.


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