IBM In Ethiopia: Is it All About Data?

IBM has already opened a research lab in Kenya

AFRICANGLOBE – The link between one of the world’s most powerful corporate leaders and a small bank in Ethiopia might not be immediately obvious. In this case, it’s an IBM server, which powers Awash International Bank. But soon it could be a lot more if Ginni Rometty has anything to do with it.

Rometty, IBM’s chief executive, is spending a week in Africa with her top 15 executives. It’s the first time so many of them have been in one place outside New York. It’s also the first time IBM has convened its chief executives from all over the continent.

Among them were 54 business executives who had flown in from across Africa for Wednesday’s “Smarter Planet Leadership Forum” in Nairobi on everything from “big data” to “the future of technology in Africa”.

It is part of a growing effort to make a play for the one-billion-person continent’s economic potential and its ability to take on new technologies to solve developing-world problems, from creating new traffic systems to identifying counterfeit drugs. It also fits with IBM’s recent figures: while the company’s overall fourth quarter revenues were flat, emerging markets were up 7 per cent.

Although only 15 per cent of Africans go online, more than three quarters have a mobile phone, helping overcome problems associated with remote regions poorly served by roads and electricity. In Kenya, an electronic banking revolution has enabled people to send money to each other, pay bills and buy goods with just a handset, setting off a race for the next “M-Pesa” (“mobile money” in Swahili).

“We see your strength… what a wonderful source of talent – and we are a talent company,” Rometty told the audience, noting the continent’s economic growth, embrace of mobile technology and rising youthful population. IBM last year opened its first Research Lab in Africa, its twelfth in the world to date. “It’s a very special time and I think it will last for decades to come in front of us.”

Rometty says this “special time” will bring a technological shift and a new era of society that will change the way people live and work. She argues Africa is well-placed to take advantage of the change.

“There is a new era of computing that is about to take over and it will go for decades ahead of us,” she says, promising that a combination of huge amounts of data along with cognitive computing systems will deliver “a new technological foundation upon which the world will operate”.

She argues that data is not only growing but is also so “unstructured” – contained in everything from a picture to a conversation – that machines must become learning systems. “They discover what to do and it will be just in time,” she says, pointing to three years down the line, when the amount of data will grow to forty times today’s levels. “Every two days this world is creating as much data as existed up to 2003… [Data] will be the basis for competitive advantage ”

For Yohannes Merga, vice president at Ethiopia’s Awash International Bank, it is small steps for now. The bank has invested more in its technological infrastructure than the $6m it used as start-up capital in 1995. But growth is assured in a nation of 80m, where only 10 per cent are banked. And as with many of the participants in Nairobi – increasingly seen as the continent’s technological hub thanks to a combination of supportive government regulation, determined talent and the explosion of the mobile phone – the vision is big.

“This country is in transformation,” says Merga, whose bank will increase its number of ATMs to 160 by the end of June, up from 60 now, and plans on more than 500 ATMS within five years, creating demand for data-centres. “Ethiopia is not a different planet – we have to strive towards technology.”