IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, which is modeled on the Peace Corps, has sent nearly 60 teams of IBM volunteers to Africa in the last five years. The teams spend three months preparing for their engagements, and two to four weeks on the ground, gathering information and writing proposals that address everything from economic development strategy and skills development to transformation of government agencies and businesses. In Thiès, Senegal, a 14-member team presented city leaders with a proposal for growing the economy through bolstering entrepreneurship, agricultural exports and education. The IBMers designed an entrepreneurial training program for women and young adults. They also proposed a mobile phone texting application that allows entrepreneurs to better track orders, sales and inventories.
Africa is a nascent market for IBM, but it is one with immense potential. While the company’s global year-on-year revenue dipped 2.3 percent, to $104.5 billion, in 2012, IBM executives took note of the “good performance in Africa,” where sales were about $400 million and are forecast to surpass $1 billion in 2015. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, that’s faster growth than IBM saw in India, where it started a push in 1992 and surpassed $1 billion in revenue in 2007.
IBM is prodding this growth along in ways that benefit both the company’s bottom line and the continent’s development in terms of technological capacity, talent and R&D capabilities. Last year, it established its first science and technology research lab in Africa. Housed on the campus of Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, IBM Research – Africa initially is focusing on e-government, using technology to improve traffic and water systems, and designing programs to build up science and technology skills. That focus is in line with priorities identified by government, university, business and civic leaders. The lab’s Resident Scientist program invites African graduate students to work at the lab and collaborate with IBM researchers.
In South Africa, IBM collaborates with Dutch space agency ASTRON and the South African National Research Foundation on research aimed at creating an information technology system for managing the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project. Slated for completion in 2024, SKA is a joint effort of 10 countries aimed at building the largest-ever radio telescope, comprising more than half a million antennas scattered across southern Africa and Australia. The project is becoming the nexus of its own innovation ecosystem, with hundreds of engineers, scientists and students already working on different aspects and dozens of companies waiting in the wings as designs are completed and construction begins.
There’s a skills gap in Africa and IBM is developing relationships with local universities to help fill it. A 2012 partnership with Stellenbosch University in South Africa provides equipment, software and training for post-graduate computer science students. Relations with three leading universities in Kenya — Strathmore, Riara University, and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology — focus on such hot-button technologies as mobile communications, big data analytics and cybersecurity. Beginning in Mauritius and set to expand in 10 more countries, the IBM Technical Institute program helps academia, IT specialists and IBM clients identify technology solutions to problems facing businesses and the public sector in Africa.
In April, IBM and Bharti Airtel, the Indian mobile communications carrier for which IBM provides services in more than a dozen African countries, established a Mobile Center of Excellence at the University of Ghana. The goal is to provide technology and skills training to help students develop new products and services and, potentially, to launch startups to take their innovations to market. Airtel and IBM plan to establish additional centers of excellence in Africa, starting with Nigeria and Kenya.
Through its Global Entrepreneur program, IBM brings together entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and tech hubs in mentorship relationships. The centerpiece of the program is the IBM SmartCamp aimed at identifying early stage entrepreneurs who are developing business ventures that align with the company’s Smarter Planet vision initiative.
IBM Innovation Centers, which help IBM clients and business partners learn about new technologies and get hands-on assistance for creating solutions to business problems, are operating in South Africa, Morocco and Kenya. In Africa, the program is being expanded to address the needs of startups.
IBM’s seemingly endless drumbeat of activity in Africa blurs the lines between bottom-line business and corporate social responsibility. It’s a great lesson in sustainable responsible business.