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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.

Currently, IBM is working with Gear Box, a hardware startup that plans to build smart water tanks to be deployed in both urban and rural areas. The tanks are designed to give warnings on pump failure, energy consumption and coordination of water delivery services.

A major issue that has stymied participation of private companies in IBM projects, however, is the intellectual property requirement. For startups, the amount of paperwork presented by IBM to cover intellectual property issues is too much and requires investment in legal counsel, which the young companies may not have.

"According to the contract, if the IP originated with the government, then it belongs to the government, if it was IBM that came up with the idea, partnered, tested it and it works, then it belongs to IBM, for the private sector, they are supposed to negotiate separately with IBM," Kyalo said.

For private companies, IBM requires that all IP developed at the lab belongs to it, whether developed jointly or not. Asked whether this is calculated to deter local companies from participating, Bhattacharya said: "We are currently exploring a number of models that best suit the African landscape."


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