Takreem El-Tohamy: Blockchain, AI, Big Data and Cloud can transform Africa


What you need to know:

  • The financial services and telecommunications sectors in Africa have been early adopters of blockchain technology especially in the areas of cross border trace and insurance.
  • Hybrid cloud and AI are promising to meet the needs of clients wherever they may be on their transformation journey.
  • With accelerated digital transformation, new ways of learning must keep pace so young people are equipped with skills relevant to the digital era and marketplace.
  • One of the biggest challenges for Africa is data access. For example, in South Africa there is a four-year lag time in cancer statistics reporting, making it challenging for officials to understand the impact of cancer in the country and allocate resources accordingly.

Africa is seen as a land of opportunities by many global techno-economic leaders. However, the continent has been held back by a number of challenges whose solutions lie in digital innovations, with only a small percentage of its population able to implement tech driven remedies. During a period of global economic contraction due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Nation’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) journalist Faustine Ngila had a chat with Takreem El-Tohamy, the General Manager of IBM Middle East and Africa about the use of emerging technologies in addressing some of the most pressing hurdles in Africa and the existential threats therein.

1. How is IBM using blockchain to unlock Africa's digital economy?

Blockchain is fundamentally changing business processes and enabling new ones. Blockchain’s early adopters are turning uncertainty that comes with digital disruption into their unique advantage, something that African companies can leverage on.

Across the continent, organisations are looking for ways to digitally reinvent their businesses. As they reimagine how they innovate, operate and engage with customers, employees and partners using emerging technologies – blockchain is helping organisations deliver new business value.

The financial services and telecommunications sectors in Africa have been early adopters of the technology especially in the areas of cross border trace and insurance.

Access to credit is another frontier for blockchain. There are many small holder vendors in Africa who seek to get access to loans but have no credit rating. Forty percent of the world’s population is unbanked and the fastest way to get them out of poverty is to help them start or grow their business.

Blockchain technology addresses a fundamental challenge in Africa--- access to microloans for small businesses, without a credit rating, to scale up their enterprise. For instance, IBM scientists in Kenya tested this concept through a one-time project with Kenyan-based food logistics start-up, Twiga Foods, to use machine learning and the blockchain to determine a credit score and distribute microfinance loans for small food stands across Nairobi.

In every part of the continent we’re seeing how blockchain is being used well beyond powering new digital currencies. It’s being used in many ways and is effectively helping businesses implement smarter processes and run more effectively by changing how they view and conduct trusted transactions. All businesses are involved in transactions, whether it’s paying a vendor, selling goods, or trading stocks.

When multiple parties are working together, challenges inevitably arise:  there are inefficiencies in payments, lack of transparency between parties, lost goods, human error or inconsistencies in data formatting.

We’ve collaborated with Maersk to create TradeLens, is a global shipping digitisation platform that strongly demonstrates the concept of a blockchain-based ecosystem for digitising global shipping, built on open standards. TradeLens is designed to transform the entire global shipping industry and with160 participants, representing five of the world’s largest ocean carriers and authorities across six continents it is delivering better information sharing and less manual paperwork for customers relying on the shipping industry.

CHO, a Tunisian olive oil producer, uses IBM blockchain to create a provenance record that traces their Terra Delyssa extra virgin olive oil from retailer back to the tree.

We’ve partnered with Ford Motor Company, Volvo Cars, Volkswagen Group, Huayou Cobalt, LG Chem and RCS Global and piloted a project to use blockchain technology to trace and validate ethically sourced minerals.

For this pilot based on a simulated sourcing scenario, Cobalt produced at Huayou’s industrial mine site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was traced through the supply chain as it travels from mine and smelter to LG Chem’s cathode plant and battery plant in South Korea, and finally into a Ford plant in the United States.

Blockchain is a technology that enables multiple parties to record their inputs, increasing accountability, real-time accuracy, security and transparency, while streamlining business processes.

We’re seeing how it increases economic efficiency, security, transparency and simplicity – leading to less administration, duplication and friction in Africa. And the applications are endless, since virtually anything of value can be traced and traded without a central point of control – making it a big win for business on the continent as it entices all to participate in it and benefits all.

We have more than 500 client engagements globally in blockchain, touching industries like education, food safety, identity, insurance, luxury goods, supply chain management, and trade finance, among others. Dozens of live blockchain networks are currently running on the IBM Blockchain Platform, including IBM Food Trust and TradeLens to name just a couple.

2. How can African companies combine AI, Big Data and Cloud to achieve agility for the future?

Organisations across the continent are laying the groundwork for a post-COVID world. Digital transformation is being accelerated by organisations of all sizes and in varying industries and at the heart of this is AI and Cloud.

Hybrid cloud and AI are promising to meet the needs of clients wherever they may be on their transformation journey. Companies rarely start from scratch and they often have complex workloads, apps, messaging, data and transactional systems to consider as they build for the future.

Choosing which technology platforms power their business is the most consequential decision any business can make when designing for the future. Technology platforms are the basis for competitive advantage – they determine how quickly one can pivot to new market opportunities, how well you serve your clients, how much you can scale, and how fast you can respond to a crisis like the one we are facing today.

We’ve also found that organisations that have put trust at the core of the way they use data with their customers are creating massive opportunities for greater success. In IBM’s 20th edition of its bi-annual C-Suite Study, "Build Your Trust Advantage," we polled nearly 380 C-level executives across Africa to examine how companies are achieving market leadership by emphasising trust in their use and sharing of data. The study found that leaders – dubbed "Torchbearers" – that understood the role of data outperformed peers in revenue growth and profitability – delivering 169 percent higher results – as well as in innovation and managing change.

In fact, 91 percent of leaders polled strongly believe data helps create a strategic advantage in strengthening their level of customer trust as well as their bottom lines.

The study also found that 82 percent of leaders say they have deep trust in data to perfect the quality and speed of the decisions they make.

79 percent already extensively use data to develop new business models, while 85 percent already use data to make informed decisions on entering new markets, while 73 percent of C-suite executives believe that automation of decision-making processes will increase in their business landscape over the next 2-3 years.

3. What challenges has IBM experienced while implementing tech driven solutions in Africa?

Developments in emerging technology solutions within Africa have been driven by the need to solve some of the region’s most pervasive problems: from securing access to clean and safe water to improving education, to delivering healthcare and eradicating diseases, addressing sustainability challenges; meeting the growing demand for food from fast-growing population to advancing inclusion in societies.

We believe other emerging technology solutions such as AI and Cloud are set to fuel growth on the continent and the ability of businesses and governments to harness these technologies can be a powerful tool for development.

As these solutions become more pervasive, we have to address the changing nature of the skills required in this new workforce. Our training and skills development programs, such as, IBM Digital-Nation Africa, Open P-Tech and IBM Skills Academy are key to addressing this skills shift.

IBM’s Digital - Nation Africa program enables students, entrepreneurs, communities and professionals with the knowledge and tools to innovate, design, develop, launch their own digital solutions or find jobs. This platform is intended to be an easy to use catalyst to both digital learning and innovation.

With accelerated digital transformation, new ways of learning must keep pace so young people are equipped with skills relevant to the digital era and marketplace. We’ve introduced Open P-TECH - a free platform designed to provide relevant workplace skills to anyone on the continent so they can be successful in this digital era.

IBM also brought Quantum to Africa through its collaboration with South Africa’s Wits University which extends to 15 universities across nine countries to train students and professors on this revolutionary technology.

4. How can African governments and the private sector emerge stronger from the shockwaves of Covid-19?

As Covid-19 works its way across the continent, one thing that we have witnessed is the essential and relevant role technology plays across every industry. More organisations are now relying on technology for security, faster processes and most importantly to begin or accelerate their digital transformation journeys.

Digital transformation is not just a nice to have anymore, it has become a priority for businesses who want to emerge stronger from the disruption of Covid-19.  With this crisis, the importance of hybrid cloud and AI has not changed. What has changed is the pace at which they are being adopted.

Transformation journeys that were going to take a few years are now being compacted into weeks or months. Businesses are questioning and transforming their operating models. We believe history will look back on today as the moment when the digital transformation of business and society suddenly accelerated.

Such shifts have both immediate and long-term consequence. Businesses are thinking about how to use technology to re-assess and re-imagine modes of consumption, supply, interaction and productivity. They’re looking for long-lasting answers on what they can do with technology to address the key issues that COVID-19 has brought to light.

Organisations which embrace the new digital era will thrive. These are companies that fully employ distributed work, virtual engagement environments, enhanced data and analytics, AI and machine learning to not only continue to meet immediate needs but also innovate for the future.

In order for any organisation to come out stronger, we believe they have to empower their remote workforce and embrace solutions providing remote access to everything. It’s all about accelerating agility and efficiency while protecting against new cybersecurity risks which will emerge in this new way of working.

Continuity is key as supply chains must continue operating and customers must be engaged virtually and support for government and essential services must be supported. Organisations which embrace this new normal will come out stronger.

We also believe IBM has a critical role to play to support many companies around the world that have been forced to make extraordinary shifts in the way they conduct daily business. We are marshalling our resources and bringing together the right communities of experts — clients, governments, scientists, developers, partners, academic institutions, health agencies and our staff — to work together, and manage through the COVID-19 outbreak with what we do best — applying data, knowledge, computing power and insights to solve difficult problems.

To help ease business’ burden during this difficult time, IBM is also providing free offerings that span cloud-enabled, AI, data, security, integration, video and more via the IBM public cloud. Through IBM Research, we are developing new cloud and AI-powered technologies that can help researchers across a variety of scientific disciplines accelerate the process of discovery as the pandemic unfolds.

IBM is also a key partner in the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which will bring forth an unprecedented amount of computing power to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures.

5. IBM recently discontinued its Facial Recognition program. What led to this, and how is IBM handling hitches in digital identity within African economies?

IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.

6. What health innovations has IBM created for the continent? 

IBM's Research Africa is collaborating with the Gauteng Department of Health, University of Pretoria and Wits University, to develop a dashboard to help officials make accurate decisions to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The dashboard uses anonymous demographic data collected by the Gauteng Province to pinpoint hot spots and make data-driven decisions. 

Through a collaboration between IBM Research – Africa and the University of Oxford, researchers used AI in the fight against malaria, augmenting the decision-making abilities of officials and exploring more effective malaria policy interventions. Using a combination of advanced computer infrastructure and AI, it’s possible to determine higher performing future intervention strategies for a particular region.

IBM was also involved in a series of humanitarian initiatives to help contain the outbreak of Ebola in Africa. These included citizen engagements and providing analytics systems that enabled communities affected by Ebola to communicate their issues and concerns directly to the government.

One of the biggest challenges for Africa is data access. For example, in South Africa there is a four-year lag time in cancer statistics reporting, making it challenging for officials to understand the impact of cancer in the country and allocate resources accordingly.

That’s why IBM scientists in South Africa are working with the National Cancer Registry in South Africa to improve cancer reporting from four years to near real time. Their goal from the beginning was to apply deep learning to automate cancer pathology report labeling to speed up the reporting process.

In South Africa we’ve introduced new treatment approaches to fighting tuberculosis. We’ve worked with the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV to design more-effective TB prevention and control strategies by deploying inexpensive radio frequency (RF) tags in specific areas to anonymously trace transmission of the disease.

The infectious disease tracking service provides an innovative and accessible tool designed to contribute valuable data for improving health security, while removing social and cost-related barriers to existing tracking techniques.