IBM’s $100M ‘Project Lucy’ brings Watson to Africa

February 7, 2014

(Credit: IBM)

IBM has launched a 10-year initiative to bring Watson and other cognitive systems to Africa to fuel development and spur business opportunities across the world’s fastest growing continent. Dubbed “Project Lucy” after the earliest known human ancestor, IBM will invest US$100 million in the initiative, giving scientists and partners access to the world’s most advanced cognitive computing technologies for use in key areas such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation, human mobility and agriculture.

“In the last decade, Africa has been a tremendous growth story — yet the continent’s challenges, stemming from population growth, water scarcity, disease, low agricultural yield and other factors are impediments to inclusive economic growth,” said Kamal Bhattacharya, Director, IBM Research — Africa. “With the ability to learn from emerging patterns and discover new correlations, Watson’s cognitive capabilities hold enormous potential in Africa — helping it to achieve in the next two decades what today’s developed markets have achieved over two centuries.”

IBM will also establish a new pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development (CEDD) and is recruiting research partners such as universities, development agencies, start-ups and clients in Africa and around the world. By joining the initiative, IBM’s partners will be able to tap into cloud-delivered cognitive intelligence for solving the continent’s most pressing challenges and creating new business opportunities.

Big Data technologies have a major role to play in Africa’s development challenges: from understanding food price patterns, to estimating GDP and poverty numbers, to anticipating disease — the key is turning data into knowledge and actionable insight, IBM says.

“Africa is facing a double challenge: the lack of accessible data to support its economic development, and the lack of advanced skills in data analysis. IBM’s work to share Watson with Africa will help to address both challenges,” said Michel Bézy, Associate Director, Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda.


Sub-Saharan Africa is home to approximately 25 percent of the world’s disease burden; yet the most common form of healthcare outside of cities is delivered by community health workers. CEDD will collect encyclopedic knowledge about traditional and non-traditional diseases in Africa. With access to Watson’s cognitive intelligence, doctors, nurses and field workers will get help in diagnosing illnesses and identifying the best treatment for each patient.

For example, women in sub-Saharan Africa account for 22 percent of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide mainly due to a lack of services and knowledge. Watson could provide new insights into the evolution of cervical cancer in Africa and suggest new approaches for its prevention, diagnosis and treatment. By feeding back valuable clinical data about their field observations, healthcare workers will be able to contribute to improving Watson’s inference abilities.


Currently, half of African children will reach their adolescent years unable to read, write or perform basic numeric tasks. The key to improving these statistics is a thorough understanding of student performance, teacher expertise, attendance levels, class sizes, linguistic abilities and learning materials. While previous information systems have only provided a limited view of point problems, using Watson technologies, CEDD aims to create new holistic approaches for analyzing data to identify previously unrecorded correlations.

For example, Watson could identify the link between a contaminated water borehole, an epidemic of cholera and the subsequent low levels of school attendance in the region. Watson could also help to uncover other causes of low school attendance in a particular region such as a lack of sanitary supplies and cultural traditions placing childcare responsibility on older siblings.

This week, IBM is also announcing other investments into the African innovation ecosystem with the opening of new IBM Innovation Centers in Lagos, Nigeria; Casablanca, Morocco, and Johannesburg, South Africa. These new centers aim to spur local growth and fuel an ecosystem of development and entrepreneurship around Big Data analytics and cloud computing in the region.

IBM recently organized an initiative asking people from across Africa to submit images which best illustrate Africa’s grand challenges and opportunities and help illustrate the mission of IBM’s new Africa Research Lab. ‘The World is Our Lab — Africa’ project has generated over 1200 images from across 25 African countries helping to tell the other side of the continent’s story.