IBM, the world’s biggest computer-services provider, has opened a research lab in Nairobi, its first in Africa, as part of an expansion to gain customers in the continent.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) said Monday in a statement that it’s setting up the unit to work with the Kenyan government on developing local solutions for water shortages and traffic congestion.

The move also adds to its on-the-ground expertise to help sell products and services to companies and governments across the continent, Uyi Stewart, a researcher for IBM in New York, who worked on the deal, said in an interview.

“It gives us that innovative arm to leapfrog everybody else when doing business in the country,” Stewart said.

Dr. John E. Kelly III, IBM senior vice president and director of IBM Research, added: “IBM continues to expand its operations in key growth markets and we plan to lead the way by bringing Africa into our global network of IBM Research laboratories. We plan to work closely with leading African scientists and engineers from academia, government and industry to address some of their most pressing challenges and greatest opportunities.”

Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty, who is in Nairobi to meet with President Mwai Kibaki and other government officials, is betting that growth markets like Russia, Brazil and Indonesia can contribute toward 30 percent of revenue by 2015, up from 22 percent last year. In Africa, IBM is present in more than 20 countries, compared with four, two years ago.

“There is big demand for increasing the level of sophistication of all levels of life in the African countries,” said Takreem El-Tohamy, IBM’s general manager for the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan, in an interview. “There is big development and big focus driven by political stability, economic stability and a big social drive from rural areas to cities.”

African Focus

IBM spelled out three areas of focus for its efforts in Africa:

  • Next Generation Public Sector: Governments have a mission critical role to play in the growth and sustainable developments in Africa. With the right kind of ICT, including big data solutions, advanced analytics, and cloud technologies, government organizations can draw insights and benefit from the vast amounts of data held by any number of government agencies. This can help advance e-government capabilities such as helping to reduce the cost of social services, improving efficiency and productivity, deterring fraud and abuse, improving citizen access to services, and enabling digital interaction between citizens and the public sector.
  • Smarter Cities: with initial focus on water and transportation: Rates of urbanization in Africa are the highest in the world.[1] The single biggest challenge facing African cities is improving access to and quality of city services such as water and transportation. IBM, in collaboration with government, industry and academia, plans to develop Intelligent Operation Centers for African cities – integrated command centers – that can encompass social and mobile computing, geo-spatial and visual analytics, and information models to enable smarter ways of managing city services. The initial focus will be on smarter water systems and traffic management solutions for the region.
  • Human Capacity Development: A skills shortage is hindering the leadership and innovation of new industry in Africa. The IBM Research – Africa lab, while carrying out research, will help to elevate the level of ICT and related scientific skills in Kenya by working in collaboration with select universities, government agencies and companies. Boosting the innovation culture in Kenya and engaging local entrepreneurs and innovators in developing solutions that matter to the people of Kenya and the region may also assist in accelerating economic development.

Develop Skills

The Nairobi research unit is IBM’s 12th worldwide and is an extension of its plan to train workers in Africa in an effort to aid economic development on the continent and increase the company’s customer base. IBM also has agreements to develop skills in African nations including Ghana and Tanzania.

IBM didn’t disclose its investment in the Nairobi lab or give projections for revenue from it. Its other research labs are in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, China, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan and Switzerland.

The company’s expansion in Africa is part of a drive to add $20 billion in revenue by 2015. That goal includes winning contracts to make cities and infrastructure more efficient through data analysis and cloud computing.

IBM employs some 10,000 people across North Carolina. 

 [IBM ARCHIVE: Check out a decade of IBM stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire.]