The Next Frontier: Technology companies have their eye on Africa. IBM leads the way!

MAMADOU NDIAYE grew up in Senegal. His parents were “not poor, but not rich”. He was fascinated by mathematics, which he studied at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and then taught for several years in Côte d’Ivoire, saving to pursue his dream of studying in America.

He went to New York, where he worked at Staples, an office-supplies chain, to finance his masters in statistics at Columbia University. A customer, impressed by Mr Ndiaye’s sales advice, suggested that the Senegalese apply for a job with his own employer, IBM. That was 15 years ago. Now Mr Ndiaye is back home, as manager of the office Big Blue opened in Dakar last May.

The office in Senegal is just one sign that IBM believes Africa will bring in billions. It is no newcomer: it sold its first gear there to South Africa’s railways in 1911 and a mainframe computer to Ghana’s central statistics bureau in 1964. Lately it has been paying special attention to the continent.

In July 2011 it won a ten-year, $1.5 billion contract to provide Bharti Airtel, an Indian mobile-phone company, with information-technology services in 16 African countries. Since mid-2011 it has set up shop in Angola, Mauritius and Tanzania, as well as Senegal. In all, it boasts a presence in more than 20 of Africa’s 54 countries. Last August it opened a research lab in Nairobi, one of only 12 in the world. And between February 5th and 7th Ginni Rometty, its chief executive, and all who report directly to her met dozens of African customers, actual and prospective, in Johannesburg and the Kenyan capital. It was, Mrs Rometty said, the first time the whole top brass had assembled outside New York since she became the boss just over a year ago.

Big Blue may be ahead, but it is not alone. Last month Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, spent a week in sub-Saharan cities. He enthused about Nairobi, which, he wrote, “has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader.” Orange, a French mobile operator, and Baidu, China’s answer to Google, recently introduced a jointly branded smartphone browser in Africa and the Middle East. Orange also sponsored this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, a football tournament, in South Africa. (Nigeria won it, beating Burkina Faso in the final on February 10th.)

This month Microsoft, which has offices in 14 African countries, unveiled a smartphone to be sold in several African markets. It is made by China’s Huawei and uses Microsoft’s new operating system.

Africa’s chief attraction is that it has been growing while richer regions have stalled . Its demographic prospects are promising, too. As America, Europe and China age, Africa can expect a bulge of workers in their productive prime. Though skills are in short supply, they are becoming more abundant. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the consulting firm’s research unit, in 2002 only 32% of Africans had secondary or tertiary education, but by 2020, 48% will have.

Technology companies say they are keen to serve smaller businesses too. Microsoft has announced a programme called SME4Afrika, which is intended to bring 1m small and medium-sized enterprises online. Mr de Sousa points out that technology can also draw informal businesses into the formal economy. The ability to use software, computing power and storage online “as a service”, paying only for what you need and only when you need it, may put the cost of information technology within the budget of many small African businesses. “The person who invented the cloud did it for Africa,” says Mr Ndiaye of IBM in Senegal.

Mr Kelly makes a bolder claim, linking Africa’s emergence to that of “big data”. IBM’s answer to how the world can cope with the rising torrent of exabytes is “cognitive computing”. Instead of being given detailed instructions, cognitive computers are fed masses of data and use statistical analysis to answer complex questions.

Africa has plenty of problems. Computing power can help Africans solve them.

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