Blockchain will reshape the way business is done in Africa, says Takreem El Tohamy

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Takreem El Tohamy,IBM’s General Manager for the Middle East and Africa.

In September 2016, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced the appointment of Takreem El Tohamy, IBM’s General Manager for the Middle East and Africa, to the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.

Takreem El Tohamy was among a group of 23 private sector leaders selected to advise the U.S. President on ways to strengthen commercial engagement between the United States and Africa.

The President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa (PAC-DBIA) was created in 2014, as part of an Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama, to promote broad-based economic growth in the United States and Africa.

As a PAC-DBIA member, Takreem El Tohamy will provide information, analysis, and recommendations on U.S.-Africa trade and investment priorities, including U.S. and Africa job creation; developing and strengthening commercial partnerships to increase U.S. public and private sector financing in Africa; and analyzing the effect of policies in the United States and Africa on American trade and investment interests in Africa.

Months later after his appointment CIO East Africa had the privilege to engage with Mr. EL Tohamy. Below are the excerpts:

In September, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce appointed you in the U.S. President’s Advisory Council for Africa. So what does your role at the US advisory council for Africa involve?

The appointed members of the President’s Advisory Council on “Doing Business in Africa”– represent small, medium, and large companies from a variety of industry sectors. They advise the U.S. Presidenton ways to strengthen commercial engagement between the United States and Africa. As a member, I give advice on a variety of issues, including skills building, job creation, developing sustainable commercial partnerships, building entrepreneur capacity, and keeping the private sector engaged in developing policies and strategies on investment in Africa.

Do you still hold the IBM’s General Manager for the Middle East and Africa position?

Yes.IBM has a strong commitment to the Middle East and Africa region. Since 2005, I have been fortunate to lead the work of our teams in delivering value to our clients, boosting skills, technology infrastructure, human welfare, and advancing scientific research in the region.

Specifically in Africa, we have focused on expanding IBM’s geographical footprint by opening multiple offices in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Today, IBM has a direct presence in 24 African countries. It includes IBM Research facilities in Kenya and South Africa which are driving innovation by developing commercially-viable solutions to transform lives and spark new business opportunities in the continent.

We have also focused on continuous innovation in IBM’s business in the Middle East and Africa region and building local capabilities by helping launch global delivery and client centers in Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.IBM has also launched this year its first IBM Cloud Data Center in South Africa.

Following your appointment in the Advisory Council, what are your plans in helping Africa scale up in terms of driving technology uptake even as we move to a hyper-connected World?

In the last decade we’ve seen a lot of transformation in Africa. Urbanization, improving infrastructure, rise of the middle class and increased investments are creating new business opportunities in Africa. We’ve seen how local governments and organizations have been able to leapfrog with technology assisted growth. Today, both the public and private sectors are adopting latest technologies like cognitive systems, cloud computing, data analytics and mobile technology.

We’ve been working aggressively with clients and partners to develop skills, build out infrastructure and boost local scientific research to develop unique solutions to Africa’s unique challenges. For example, in October 2016, one of Africa’s largest airlines, Air Mauritius, selected IBM for a five-year technology and services deal for Cloud and Analytics technologies to fuel its long-term growth plans.

In South Africa we launched the IBM Research Lab, in August 2016. On that occasion we also announced several new project collaborations in the areas of data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy, using cognitive computing, the Internet of Things and Big Data.

We’re also investing in building local skills and developing talent.The Africa Skills Initiative is a $60 million investment in which IBM is supporting African governments and academic institutions to narrow the skills gap between tertiary institutions and marketplace requirements.

These are just a few examples illustrating our commitment to Africa and we will continue to innovate and support the continent’s growth.

What are some of the opportunities you are foreseeing for Africa in terms for ICT especially when advising the presidency on matters for Africa?

The technologies that are driving growth and transforming industries in Africa are Cognitive, Cloud, Mobile, Security and Analytics.Going a little bit deeper, industries have begun to understand the opportunities created by these technologies. We have some great proof points for the work that is already underway:

Cognitive systems can help banking sector unlock the full value of the increasing volumes of data.Banks can now be empowered to address increasing demands from consumers more effectively, deal with the increasingly sophisticated security threats and be prepared with insights that help them face competition from non-traditional players. A great example from the banking sector that uses the opportunities of technology comes from West and East Africa, where, through long-standing commercial partnership and new ventures, we are improving mobile banking.

Telecoms is another key industry that has been at the forefront of adopting new technologies. Etisalat Misr, leading Egyptian telco company, uses mobile technology provided by IBM to easily retrieve and share contextual information to quickly identify and resolve customer technical issues.

Agriculture is also adopting new technology: for example, we are bringing the Internet of Things (IoT) to Kenya. Our IBM Research’s EZ-Farm, an IoT remote monitoring technology, is helping small-scale farmers to better manage water resources, and agricultural aggregators to identify the best prospects for investment. By offering ongoing insights into crop health and risk factors, we are transforming small scale farming in Kenya through innovative technologies.

What are some of the challenges facing CIOs in Africa and how can they turn them to opportunities?

CIOs everywhere are looking at new models for the future that are cost effective and mitigate risk. They’re all looking to create intelligent, agile environments that incorporate insights from customers.

An interesting trend is the convergence of industries. Traditional industries are collapsing and new hybrid ones are appearing. The rise of unlikely competitors, start-ups which are heavy on innovation, combined with rising cyber risk are top of mind issues.

However, this industry convergence is creating completely new opportunities for growth: the focus is shifting from standalone products and services to cross-sector, in a box and digital solutions.

The first thing they need to do in order to turn the challenges into opportunities is to really understand customer needs.Insightscan help them identify new trends, pinpoint the problems and establish what matters to them. Advanced analytics is key here. They have to ramp their organization’s analytical power, invest in technologies that will help them “understand” and “learn”. Even more, they need to foster innovation and be prepared to experiment and adapt on the way.

A great example of innovation driven by cloud is a recent stream of deals in Africa: in September 2016, eight African companies, spanning some of the fastest growing industries in the region, from telecommunications to retail, chose IBM to provide IT solutions delivered as a service via IBM Cloud. This will help them drive productivity, innovation, differentiation and competitiveness in their respective industries.

Are governments investing enough in ICT?

Governments, just like businesses and non-profit organizations, understand the role technology plays in driving innovation, transforming communities, sparking new business opportunities.

We believe IBM will continue to play an integral role in contributing to the rise and progress of Africa, in collaboration with governments and local partners. We are committing our resources to boost the capacities of Africa’s people and institutions.

Is the regulatory environment conducive enough in Africa to continue encouraging adoption of technology?

Technology is transforming continents, countries, communities and people. And it’s also changing itself fast. So, we can say that, when it comes to technology, the only constant is change. The regulatory environment will continue to evolve, to keep up with this fast-forward pace.

What technologies should CIOs look to in 2017?

According to our latest Global C-suite study, 77% of CIOs point to the disruptive influence of new technologies as being the root cause of the forces reshaping the business landscape. When asked to name the technologies that will have the most significant effect on their organizations over the next three to five years, they list: mobile solutions, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. However, even if these technologies are mandatory if you want to think ahead, another one is catching everyone’s attention now: cognitive solutions on a cloud platform.Even more, blockchain is another technology that will reshape the way business is done.

We believe that thecognitive era will bring tremendous possibilities for innovation in every sector, helping us think better and make more informed decisions. We are already seeing cognitive solutions making a difference, augmenting the expertise of humans to help us tackle the challenges of businesses, governments, communities.

A great example of how cognitive is used to make a difference in healthcare comes from our Research Lab in Johannesburg. IBM scientists are developing cognitive learning approaches to transform cancer reporting, prevention and precision medicine in Africa. 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.

Which are the fast growing sectors in Africa that need quick adoption of ICT?

Technology will leapfrog every sector that embraces it and we are already witnessing major transformations in sectors like healthcare, telco, aviation, government, environment, agriculture, mining, banking or retail.

For example, in December 2015, IBM Research announced a collaboration agreement with the City of Johannesburg and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to apply advanced technologies in order to help the city deliver on its air quality management plan. This project is building on IBM’s global Green Horizons initiative.

From Telco, I already mentioned Etisalat Misr, one of the leading mobile providers in Egypt, who is transforming customer experience using IBM Mobile technology while securing its business against fraud with the help of IBM Analytics.

If you take the example of the agriculture sector, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange launched its IBM enabled national traceability system, to increase exports of high-quality Ethiopian coffee world-wide and enhance market access for specialty coffee from Ethiopia.

So technology is driving innovation and innovation ecosystems are economic engines for creating new ideas and new opportunities for Africa.

How much did IBM invest in Africa and which sectors are you looking to expand to in 2017?

With nearly a century of presence on the continent, IBM has made significant investments in Africa’s future and the development of the continent’s economy.

In August 2016, we opened the second research location on the African continent and announced several 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).

In July 2015, we announced a $60 million investment over 3 years into Africa Skills Initiative. Our goal is to support African governments and businesses in narrowing the existing skills gap between tertiary institutions of learning and market place requirements.

In February 2015, we launched the IBM Middle East and Africa Digital Sales Center in Cairo, a $3 million investment by IBM. This center is part of a broader three year agreement with the Egyptian government in which IBM will create jobs and work with clients to transform using cloud, Big Data and analytics, mobile and social technologies.

IBM is also helping in the development of a business partner and independent software vendor (ISV) community and invests in pro-bono consulting with Corporate Service Corps (CSC) projects.

In 2017, we will continue to invest in the areas that need our support the most and, using our two research labs on the continent, we’ll try to find solutions to Africa’s most pressing challenges. Even more, through our projects and our investment, we will foster innovation-based economic growth.

How much is US-Africa engagement planning to yield moving forward?

Sharing the knowledge and experience of each member of the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, we hope to reduce barriers to trade and investment in Africa and connect American businesses with African partners. This is beneficial for both parties and look forward to contributing towards Africa’s development and progress.

As a leader what is your vision for Africa in the coming years?

IBM recognizes there is enormous growth potential across Africa and, after more than a century of presence here, we continue to be a partner in progress alongside governments, businesses and people of Africa. We are working closely with clients, partners and peers to build the cognitive future.

IBM believes cognitive technology such as Watson can help tackle some of the continent’s biggest issues such as fighting diseases, advancing research, enhancing agriculture and improving security. The results we envision: number of lives saved or made healthier, students better educated, business challenges solved, financial incidents prevented or environmental disasters avoided.

We are laying the foundation for the development of cognitive capabilities for our clients, partners, but also entrepreneurs, students, governments and other visionaries that are building Africa’s future.

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