Technology in AfricaAcross Africa, an innovation culture is starting to emerge. In Kenya, PesaPal piggybacks on the popular M-PESA mobile payments service, enabling Kenyans to buy and sell on the Internet. Tanzania’s Techno Brain is selling software for managing businesses in 13 countries. And South Africa’s Cobi Interactive, a mobile communications software company, is developing popular applications for smart phones.

Yet for Africa to fulfill its potential and emerge among the world’s economic tigers, social and business leaders agree that much more innovation must happen there. The continent’s cities, universities, entrepreneurs and commercial R&D organizations can become engines of innovation producing new products and services that are tailored for the African experience.  And,  in order to make this transition, African institutions and businesses–plus multinational corporations –must work together to create innovation ecosystems that foster this kind of creativity.

At IBM’s Smarter Planet Leadership Forum today in Nairobi, Kenya, CEO Ginni Rometty said IBM hopes to work collaboratively with the people and institutions in Africa: “We want to be seen as a citizen of the countries, essential to the government, companies and people.”  Rometty said IBM’s decision to locate an IBM Research laboratory on the continent–beginning with an office in Nairobi–sends the strong signal about the company’s commitment to Africa.

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The message is clear: Rometty wants IBM to play an active role in building innovation ecosystems in Africa.

California’s Silicon Valley is the prototype innovation ecosystem. It benefitted from the combination of good universities, entrepreneurial companies, government incentives and robust supplies of venture capital. Many of other places have tried to copy Silicon Valley’s formula—some quite successfully, among them Bangalore, India, and Singapore.

Kenya is among the countries in Africa that have the potential of creating a vibrant innovation ecosystem. Students and entrepreneurs dream of tapping science and technology to solve social and business problems. Universities aim to expand their research and teaching programs in science, math and technology. Business leaders are creating startup incubators to encourage entrepreneurship—places like iHub, FabLab Nairobi and NaiLab

The government is playing a vital role, too, by making bold moves aimed at establishing Kenya as an information technology hub for East Africa. The government recently broke ground for Konzo Techno City, a new municipality being built from scratch south of Nairobi to bring research universities, corporations and government agencies together to support job creation, research collaboration and economic development. Another key move was the launch by the Kenya ICT Board of an incubation program for high-tech startups—including seed capital funding. “If we can build the skills and innovate, it will change the entire continent,” said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary of Kenya’s ministry of information and science.

But there’s an important role for foreign companies and academic institutions to play, as well—as partners with African institutions in making progress. IBM Research’s new research laboratory in Nairobi is the first basic scientific research lab to be established in Africa by a foreign multinational firm. We have allied with Catholic University of Eastern Africa to locate the lab on its Nairobi campus.The goal of the lab is to produce innovations within Africa and also bring in great ideas from IBM’s other 11 research labs around the world. “We want to create technology solutions optimized for Africa that can be exported to the rest of the developing world,” John Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research said earlier this week.

While the first lab office is in Nairobi, IBM plans on expanding elsewhere around the continent and also performing collaborative research with a number of universities. Already, the company is engaging with the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University in collaborative programs where scientists from IBM will work with university faculty members on projects of mutual interest.

In another sign that Kenya is beginning to offer an attractive academic environment, Columbia University, one of the leading academic institutions in the United States, has set up Columbia Global Centre/Africa as a venue for research aimed at helping African nations reach their UN Millennium Development Goals.

We believe that foreign firms and institutions won’t succeed if they try to build islands of expertise. They must work with local universities on collaborative research and to improve the quality of degree programs. Sure, if this happens it will mean that IBM Research will have to compete vigorously to recruit and retain the most skilled and ambitious young people. But so be it. “This is a long term investment,” said Kelly. “We’re here to help build the skills and, hopefully, we’ll get our fair share of the most talented graduates.”