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Africa's whizzkid addresses graduates

- By Schalk Mouton

He is one of Africa's very own whizz kids, and he is child-like in his excitement about the prospects of young Africans in the field of science. 

Only 14 years ago, Dr Solomon Assefa, sat as a young bright-eyed graduate, receiving his first degree from the prestigious MIT.

 In February, the Ethiopian nanophotonics scientist - who has found a new way for computers to communicate, using light rather than electronic signals - was appointed as the first Director of IBM's Research Africa South African Lab, recently opened at Wits University.

 "You are seeing history developing right here in front of your eyes," Assefa told the 329 Wits University graduates who received their Bachelor's and postgraduate degrees on Monday, 30 March 2015.

"The field of science is advancing at a very fast pace. You have a big role to play in the future of science, in the 21st century," he said. 

"We have already witnessed some of the greatest scientific and technological advances during the last 15 years. The sequencing of the human genome has been completed. The Higgs Boson was discovered through the Large Hadron Collider experiments at CERN, and advances in computer science and mathematics have provided humanity with cognitive computing, wherein intelligent machines are able to learn, interact and work together with humans."

Scientific advances such as analytics, machine learning and mobile computing have also led to tremendous business opportunities, said Assefa, who has patented over 25 new designs and discoveries.

Referring to the success of Uber and Facebook, Assefa highlighted the role of new technologies in the future.

"In Africa, mobile payment transactions are expected to exceed $160 billion by 2016, thus helping transform the banking industry all over the world."

What makes this exciting is that all these developments are happening at the same time as great developments for Africa.

 "Five of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are located in Africa. Urbanisation is happening at a very rapid pace, with over 50 cities with populations of over 1 million. There is over $45 billion invested annually on infrastructure development."

Africa is also the "youngest" continent, and by 2016, the number of 18 year olds on the continent will reach 1 billion. 

In his new role as director of the IBM Lab, Assefa said he is aware of the need to accelerate research and development and the need to produce an innovation ecosystem. It is also necessary to equip students with the tools to be successful scientists.

"We have established certain focus points of the research lab with these points in mind," he said. To listen to his speech, .

"We will develop breakthrough technologies that will address South Africa's national priorities and Africa's grand challenges by transforming key industries and infrastructure. The lab will develop big data analytics, mobile computing and cognitive technologies for national priorities such as next generation infrastructure, digital urban renewal and health care."

The lab will also promote South Africa's and Africa's global leadership in science and technology.

Assefa promised new graduates a role in the lab’s future.

"We are determined to ensure the success of the lab by hiring the best talent, like yourselves, and by working together as our partners," he said. 

"You have a long and exciting journey ahead of you," he told the graduates. "So be determined to chart your own course. Be bold to explore the unknown. Be steadfast in your endeavours. Be kind to your friends, families, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Be dignified in your actions. Be visionary leaders, because the future of the world heavily depends on you."