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June 04, 2007

Into Africa

Wow, this is huge.

The Global Innovation Outlook focus on Africa represents the most ambitious and challenging topic we’ve undertaken since the program began three years ago.  Previous focus areas have been grand in scale and complex to tackle, to be sure: transportation, the environment, healthcare. But Africa seems different in so many ways.

For one thing, it’s big. Really big. Continentally big. There are 54 countries in Africa, and just under a billion people. You could fit the United States, China, and Europe inside of Africa’s geographical borders and still have room for most of Central America. You could spend a lifetime just studying its various regions, climates, and cultures. In fact, some of our deep dive participants will have done just that.

That size and diversity actually means any discussion of Africa is really a discussion of multiple Africas.  There are the Mediterranean states which have long traded with nearby partners in Europe.  The strong Middle Eastern culture of Egypt and surrounding countries.  The resource-rich but very different worlds embodied by the sub-Saharan regions on the continent’s east and west coasts.  And South Africa with its long legacy of trade enabled by its unique geographic positioning.

But the thing that is driving  IBM’s interest in exploring this topic is the fact that Africa is poised to take a greater role in shaping the global economy over the next decade. Sure, Africa has always participated in the global economy. It has been mined for resources, mostly by foreigners, of all kinds since the beginnings of global commerce. But only recently has the world begun to see the potential for Africa to participate in global business on its own terms. And between the continent’s burgeoning trade with China (growing at 40 percent a year), its steadily growing economy (above 5 percent), and some much needed political stability, there is an undeniable sense that Africa is finally positioned to develop its own economic prowess.

To lay down some foundation for the discussions we’ll be having in Africa, and because it is such an enormous topic with countless moving parts, IBM has cultivated a powerful network of experts to help shape the agenda for the next three month’s discussion.  Makerere University in Uganda (argurably the most prestigious and successful of African universities), Reuters (also a GIO Media & Content partner), and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) are all working alongside IBM to ensure that the upcoming deep dives in seven different cities – Nairobi, Dakar, Paris, Lisbon, Atlanta Beijing, and Cape Town -- are as productive as possible.

In addition, IBM conducted something called a “ThinkPlace Challenge,” a kind of online brainstorming session, to surface ideas that we’ll want to pursue further in Africa. IBM has been using ThinkPlace internally for years, but this is the first time the forum has been opened up to participants outside the company. Already, we’ve seen some compelling ideas that warrant further discussion.  For example, one participant suggested that the GIO explore the “mesofinance gap.” This is the gray area between microfinance (very small loans given mostly to individuals) and typical corporate financing (for larger, more established companies.) Africa needs loan programs that target the small and medium businesses that will power regional economic development.

This is just one of many ideas we’ll be kicking around during the Africa deep dives. Other topics that we’ll be exploring will be infrastructure (mostly energy and telecommunications), investment partnerships (like unique public/private collaborations), and, perhaps most important, how Africa can develop its own areas of innovation expertise that can be leveraged throughout the world.

Like I said, this is big stuff.  We’ve got a lot to learn, and expect that the rich mix of perspective from within Africa and from around the world will unearth new ideas and approaches to innovation that have not yet been considered.  As we learn, you’ll learn too.  Check back with the GIO blog over the next two weeks as things kick off in Nairobi and then Dakar.

June 4, 2007 in Africa | Permalink

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Comments

I have been General Manager of IBM Central Africa from 1995 thru end of 1999. I managed the openings of IBM offices in Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. I was looking after IBMs business in the English-speaking countries North of South Africa and Angola and Mocambique. I grew the business from USD 14 million in 1995 to 80 Million by 2000. The last Manager I reported to was Dietrich Roessner. After my retirement I was GM of UBM, the largest IBM Business Partner in Jordan.
I have very closely followed political and business developments in Africa and would like to offer you my assistance in whatever shape and form.
Best regards
Karsten Schoeneborn

Posted by: Karsten Schoeneborn | Jun 5, 2007 9:21:45 PM

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