IBM Research Tunes-In to Africa’s Challenges & Opportunities

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‘Digital Migration” – Winner of IBM’s The World is Our Lab – Africa photo competition.
(Photo: Lawrence Mwangi, Nairobi)

What happens when you ask an entire continent to illustrate its challenges and opportunities in photos?

That’s exactly what IBM’s newest research lab wanted to find out. IBM Research – Africa, which opened its doors last November, was created with an ambitious mission: to conduct applied and far-reaching exploratory research into the grand challenges of the African continent by delivering commercially-viable innovations that impact people’s lives. Though it opened with clear objectives and an understanding of many of the infrastructural concerns across the continent, the Lab wanted a more personal understanding of the challenges.

“We quickly realized that if we were to make a difference in Africa, we needed to operate outside of the walls of the lab,” said Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, Director, IBM Research – Africa. “While we benefit from 25 PHDs from some of the world’s best universities, it is crucial that we enter a dialogue with the people who best understand their own realities.”


Read the story behind Lawrence “Shabu” Mwangi’s winning photograph.

Thus was born The World is Our Lab – Africa picture project: a three-month competition that asked participants to use cameras and smartphones to capture images that illustrate the continent’s grand challenges, city systems and examples of innovation.

Over the course of contest, more than 1,200 contributions were uploaded by 900 participants from 25 African countries ranging from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa to Algeria, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Together the images create a rich collage of life across Africa  its people, systems, and infrastructure – from the continent’s toughest realities to the most modern and inspirational. The project provides unique perspectives on the areas of water, education, transportation, energy, public safety, healthcare, mobile and entrepreneurship, all focus areas of IBM’s new lab, which will soon benefit from Watson cognitive technologies through the $100M Project Lucy initiative.

View the full flickr page here.

“If we’re going to solve the grand challenges of Africa it has to start here in Africa with us identifying and underscoring what they are,” said Erik Hersmanfounder of iHub and CEO of BRCK, and one of four contest judges. “What struck me most about the IBM photography project, besides the amazing quality of so many of the images, was the great diversity of the problems, balanced by the creativity and desire to solve them at every level.”

“Overall the narrative quality of the images was fantastic,” said Mutua Matheka, official photographer for The World is Our Lab project and another judge in the competition. “It’s great that the project didn’t cut off people using mobile phones and point & shoot cameras. Everyone was included. I liked the reality and diversity that was captured in the photos both the good and the bad. I loved the colors too. Africa is vibrant.”

Two weeks ago, Hersman and Matheka met with the other judges, Salim Amin from A24 Media and Uyi Stewart, Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Africa, to pick the three most definitive images of the competition:

1. ‘Digital Migration’ – Winner of Innovation Category (Overall Competition Winner)
Lawrence ‘Shabu’ MwangiVisual Artist, Nairobi, Kenya

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Shabu Mwangi grew up in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi. As a visual artist he uses his creative abilities as a way not only to earn a living but to communicate his experiences of life in the slum where he still lives to this day. As one of the founders of the Wajukuu art project, he teaches art to children in low-income areas in an attempt to broaden their horizons. The judges selected Shabu’s image ‘Digital Migration’ (above) as the overall winner of the competition because of its iconic representation of the human ability to innovate and overcome a lack of infrastructure.

“I am new to photography so I didn’t expect to win. I took the winning image outside our workshop in the Mukuru slum where we offer classes to kids during school holidays and weekends,” Mwangi said. “They had found the plastic frame of an old TV and were playing at being presenters. I took the picture because I wanted to show the world the innovative way that kids from the slums play – using the material around them to express themselves in a creative way.”

2. ‘Boda Boda’ – Winner of City Systems Category
Frank OdwessoTV Producer, Nairobi, Kenya

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“The ‘Boda Bodas’ (bicycle taxis) have always defined the towns of Western Kenya and Nyanza,” Odwesso said. “Public transport systems are often not reliable so locals have devised new modes of transport using bicycles, which are faster and easy to maneuver. This particular rider looked quite maverick. The vibrant colors of his bike, the look on his face and the speed at which he was riding down the market street captured the vibrancy of this cheap mode of transport. ‘Africa is on the move’, it seemed to say.”

3. ‘Babysitting’ – Winner of Grand Challenges Category
Imole ‘Tobbie’ Balogun, Photographer, Lagos, Nigeria
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Many kids in Nigeria are forced into work or overwhelming family responsibilities as a result of poverty and lack of social support,” said Balogun. “As a result they often stay at home while their parents struggle to make ends meet. The picture is often worse for girls who are often required to look after siblings like this girl in the Mokoko slum in the lagoon area of Lagos. Through the images in this project I hope that people outside Africa will see not only the challenges we face but also how much is being done to address them and how far Africa has come.”

Later this month the three winners will travel to IBM’s new lab in Nairobi to attend the scientific colloquium ‘Africa in the New Era of Computing’ at which IBM’s research staff will demonstrate its strategy for executing on Project Lucy.


This story was written by Jonathan Batty, IBM Communications, Global Labs

By Jonathan Batty, IBM Global Labs

Jonathan Batty, IBM Global Labs