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IBM opens lab at Wits U

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IBM Research has opened its second research location on the African continent and announced new project collaborations in the areas of data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy.

As part of a 10-year investment program through South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry and working closely with the Department of Science and Technology, the new research lab is based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). *The university was recently ranked amongst the top 10 in emerging economies by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

IBM researchers in South Africa with backgrounds in machine learning, mathematics, computer science, robotics, genomics and computational biology, are exploring the use of cognitive computing, the Internet of Things and Big Data to support South Africa’s national priorities, drive skills development and foster innovation-based economic growth.

“South Africa is a tremendous growth and transformation story, yet its increasing population and healthcare delivery shortfalls continue to pose challenges in the country,” said Solomon Assefa, director, IBM Research – Africa. “With the ability to detect patterns and discover new correlations, cognitive and cloud computing and the Internet of Things can provide potential solutions.”

The lab’s team of scientists is already collaborating extensively with local universities, research institutions, innovation centers, start-ups and government agencies. This will help foster South Africa’s emerging technology ecosystem and develop and scale new innovations.

“The launch of the IBM Research laboratory is an exciting milestone in the move towards a new era of globally competitive research, innovation and entrepreneurship that will be emerging out of the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein,” said Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. “Wits is delighted to be collaborating with IBM. We look forward to seeing top talent congregate to address the continent’s most intractable problems and work on the world’s next game changing technologies.”

IBM provided the following information:

Aligned with areas of strategic national importance, the lab’s focus areas include:

Data Driven Healthcare

·         In support of the World Health Organization’s End TB (Tuberculosis) Strategy, IBM scientists are designing wearable sensor technology connected to the Watson Internet of Things to trace the spread of highly infectious, communicable diseases. This innovation will help healthcare organizations and health officials develop prevention strategies and respond effectively.

·         IBM scientists are developing cognitive learning approaches to transform cancer reporting, prevention and precision medicine in Africa. In a proof of concept study, IBM scientists have discovered a basic molecular link between cancer causing genes and those associated with metastasis, the cause of 90% of cancer related deaths*. Preliminary results from this work have been presented recently. Using anonymous, unstructured data provided by the National Cancer Registry in South Africa and in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand Medical School, the team is developing cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in South Africa. This technology is expected to reduce a five-year time lag in cancer statistics reporting to real-time.

·         With the support of the City of Johannesburg, IBM scientists have collected 65 samples of microbes and bacteria from 19 bus stations across the city as part of the global Metagenomics and Metadesign of the Subways and Urban Biomes (MetaSUB) international consortium. Once the samples are processed the results will be available to city planners, public health officials and scientists who will use the data to help officials predict and prepare for future disease outbreaks and discover new species and biological systems.

  • In early September, scientists from IBM, H3ABioNet and the University of Notre Dame will host a hackathon on anti-malarial drug resistance and drug combination prediction.

Digital Urban Ecosystems

·         Building on IBM’s global Green Horizons initiative, researchers at the new lab are working closely with experts from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to analyze historical and real-time data from environmental monitoring stations. Using machine learning and cognitive models, the data collected in the City of Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane and the Vaal Industrial Triangle will help provide more insight about air pollution and model the effectiveness of intervention strategies. The project has recently been extended to predict ground level ozone and air quality forecasting.

·         Commuters in the City of Johannesburg currently spend 35 minutes extra travel time per day due to traffic congestion, according to the Tom Tom Traffic Index. Unreliable traffic light infrastructure provides challenges to traffic light management in the city. Using real time anonymized traffic data from TomTom combined with Twitter, IBM scientists have developed a traffic optimization recommendation tool which can help city officials dispatch traffic volunteers, known locally as pointsmen, to the intersections where they are most urgently needed.

  • The City of Cape Town often battles with devastating wild fires, due to its unique topography and vegetation. Using data from The Weather Company, an IBM business, and the City of Cape Town’s Open Data portal, IBM scientists have developed a cognitive dashboard. This can assess fire incidence risk and severity to help officials raise public awareness and prepare for emergency response.

·         The number of people living off-the-grid in Africa has grown by 114 million since 2000**. To help meet the energy needs of communities who are living remotely or would like to make use of renewable energy, IBM scientists have developed a mobile app which uses analytics to determine the solar requirements of users based on their energy needs and location.

Exploring the Universe 

·         In 2018 the, Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, will be built in South Africa and Australia. IBM scientists are collaborating with SKA South Africa (SKA-SA) on the development of unsupervised algorithms which can make groundbreaking astronomical discoveries. Scientists expect to eventually apply the cognitive technology to other applications, including the development of new pharmaceuticals and genomics. IBM and SKA-SA have signed an agreement to explore the advancement of this technology and to lead some major developments in data science over the next decade.

·         IBM scientists in South Africa are joining NASA, the SETI Institute and Swinburne University to develop an Apache Spark application to analyze the 168 million radio events detected over the past 10 years by the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The volume and complexity of the data requires advanced machine learning algorithms to separate noise from true signals of interest. These requirements are well suited to the scalable in-memory capabilities offered by Apache Spark when combined with the big data capabilities of the IBM Cloud and IBM Bluemix Spark.

Open Infrastructure, Sustainable Design

The new lab features an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) platform based on OpenStack connected to IBM Storwize for efficiently provisioning 80TB of storage for research projects.

The lab is located in the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein – an inner-city area which is today re-emerging as a vibrant Johannesburg district. The two-level, 900 square meter lab has a DIY maker space with electronic design equipment and a 3D printer.

Agile work spaces provide a collaborative environment for IBM scientists to train and mentor Wits students and local start-ups. Developer communities across Africa will also have access, at no charge, to a LinuxONE Community Cloud located in Johannesburg, which acts as a virtual R&D engine for creating, testing and piloting emerging applications via the cloud.

IBM Research Innovating for Africa

IBM has operated in Africa for almost 100 years. Today, its operations span 24 countries, including South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Kenya and Tanzania. IBM Research – Africa is the first commercial research organization on the continent, conducting applied and far-reaching exploratory research into Africa’s grand challenges and committed to delivering commercially-viable innovations that impact people’s lives.

IBM’s first African research lab was opened in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013. The South African research facility supports IBM’s Equity Equivalent Investment Programme (EEIP). In recent years, IBM has also invested in the development of an IBM Client Centre, an Innovation Centre, Service Delivery Centre and a number of offices and data centers across South Africa.

Africa News

Africa phones go flat

Africa’s mobile phone market declined 2.1% quarter on quarter in Q3 2018 according to the latest figures from IDC.

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The global technology research and consulting firm newly released Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker shows overall shipments for the quarter totalled 52.6 million units, with feature phone shipments falling 2.7% QoQ and smartphone shipments declining 1.3% over the same period.

Transsion brands (Tecno, Infinix, and Itel) led the feature phone space in Q3 2018, with a combined unit share of 58.2%. Nokia was next in line with 11.7% share. Transsion, Samsung, and Huawei dominated the smartphone space with respective unit shares of 34.9%, 21.7%, and 10.2%. However, in value terms, Samsung led the smartphone market with 37.2% share, followed by Transsion (21.0%) and Huawei (13.0%).

There were differing fortunes in the region’s three major markets, with Nigeria suffering a heavy 11.6% QoQ decline in mobile phone shipments, while South Africa and Kenya saw respective QoQ growth of 8.5% and 7.9% in Q3 2018.

“The decline in Nigeria stemmed from a slowdown in government spending, ongoing warfare in the country’s northern states, and market uncertainty in the lead up to elections,” says George Mbuthia, a research analyst at IDC. “In South Africa, the market’s growth was spurred by the penetration of low-end devices from brands such as Mobicel, Mint, and Nokia, while the launch of entry-level smartphones helped drive growth in Kenya despite increases in taxes and fuel prices placing a significant burden on disposable income in the country.”

While feature phones remain steadfastly popular across Africa, particularly in more rural areas, consumers are increasingly being attracted by smartphone offerings from Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo, and Huawei, which are actively targeting feature-oriented customers at more economical price points.

“There is a new wave of Chinese brands aggressively pursuing growth opportunities in the region, while the more-established Huawei is also accelerating its marketing efforts and expanding its distribution budget,” says Ramazan Yavuz, a research manager at IDC. “These brands have quickly progressed along the learning curve and evolved their offerings to perfectly reflect the realities of the region by addressing the diverse pricing and feature needs of the consumer base.”

Looking ahead, IDC expects Africa’s overall mobile phone market to reach 58 million units in Q4 2018, spurred by the festive season and online consumer events such as Black Friday. The introduction of more affordable smartphones in the African market will help drive progress in this space over the coming quarters, while the share of feature phones will decline steadily as the transition to smartphones gathers momentum.

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Africa News

Mobile money to cross borders

Orange and MTN launch pan-African mobile money interoperability to scale up mobile financial services across Africa.

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Two of Africa’s largest mobile operators and mobile money providers, Orange Group and MTN Group, today announced a joint venture, Mowali (mobile wallet interoperability), to enable interoperable payments across the continent. Mowali makes it possible to send money between mobile money accounts issued by any mobile money provider, in real time and at low cost.

Mowali will immediately benefit from the reach of MTN Mobile Money and Orange Money, bringing together over 100 million mobile money accounts and mobile money operations in 22 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 markets. Mowali is ready to enable interoperability between digital financial service providers beyond MTN and Orange operations and markets, to support the existing 338 million mobile money accounts in Africa.

Mowali is a digital payment infrastructure that connects financial service providers and customers in one inclusive network. It functions as an industry utility, open to any mobile money provider in Africa, including banks, money transfer operators and other financial service providers.

The objective of Mowali is to increase the usage of mobile money by consumers and merchants.  Mowali enables money to circulate freely between mobile money accounts from any operators in all countries.  From the customer’s point of view, this means “I can pay or receive money anywhere from my mobile account regardless of my operator”. The system will unlock further innovation in the digital financial space within the continent. 

For Stéphane Richard, Chairman & CEO of Orange, “by providing full interoperability between platforms, Mowali will provide an important step forward that will allow mobile money to become a universal means of payment in Africa. Increasing financial inclusion through the use of digital technology is an essential element in furthering the economic development of Africa, particularly for more isolated communities. This solution embodies Orange’s ambition to be a leading player in the digital transformation of the continent. By joining forces with another of Africa’s market leaders, MTN, we aim to accelerate the pace of this transformation in a way that will change the lives of our customers by providing them with simpler, safer and more advantageous services. “

“One of MTN’s goals is to accelerate the penetration of mobile financial services in Africa, Mowali is one such vehicle that will help us achieve that objective. Furthermore, co-operation and partnerships that help us accelerate the pace of development and overcome some of the scale, scope and complexity of challenges that society faces are key. This partnership with Orange is therefore an important step in helping us play a meaningful role in supporting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals related to eliminating extreme poverty and enhancing socio-economic development in the markets we operate in and beyond. Thus giving our customers access to a bright, digital future.” said Rob Shuter, Group President and CEO of MTN.

The GSMA supports the Mowali initiative as interoperability at this scale is a key accelerator for both financial inclusion and Mobile Money usability across Africa.  “Today, there are over 690 million mobile money accounts around the world. Mobile money services have become an essential, life-changing tool across Africa, providing access to safe and secure financial services but also to energy, health, education and employment opportunities. The creation of Mowali will help to further transform mobile financial services throughout the African region. It demonstrates the mobile industry’s continued leadership and commitment to driving financial inclusion and economic empowerment through industry collaboration. The GSMA is proud to support its development,” said Mats Granryd, Director General, GSMA.

“Interoperability of digital payments has been the toughest hurdle for the financial services industry to overcome, in support of financial inclusion. With Mowali, Orange and MTN deliver a solution that will enable them, and other companies, to scale digital financial services across Africa, faster, to everyone—including the poor,” said Kosta Peric, deputy director of Financial Services for the Poor, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “This is a signal that a new wave of innovation, which can help alleviate poverty and drive economic opportunity, is coming. We’re pleased to see an implementation of Mojaloop—an open source payment platform available to operators across the sector—help achieve that.”

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