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Photographing Africa’s Grand Challenges and Opportunities

A Q&A with photographer Mutua Matheka.

IBM opened its twelfth global lab, and first in Africa on November 8. Located at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, it is the first commercial technology research facility on the continent. The lab brings together scientists and research engineers from some of the world’s best universities, most from the African diaspora. Together they will conduct applied and far-reaching exploratory research to help solve real world problems – in Africa, for Africa and, ultimately, for the world.

To celebrate the launch of the new lab and highlight these challenges and opportunities, IBM Research – Africa is hosting The World is Our Lab Photo Contest. Entries are invited from all over Africa, and will fall into three main categories: African Grand Challenges, African City Systems and African Innovation. 

Whether images are captured on a camera phone or professional camera, participants have the chance to win a visit IBM’s new research lab in Nairobi and receive a photography workshop with leading African photographer Mutua Matheka  who is also one of the judges of the competition. 
Mutua is well known for his images of Africa’s urban and natural beauty. He talks about everything from his love of photography, to the impact of technology on African society.
Tell us about your background. How did you get into photography, and what work of yours was your “big break” that made you one of Africa’s prominent photographers?

In the fifth year of my undergraduate studies for a degree in architecture, I started to get interested in photography. Once as I finished my studies I bought a camera with my first paycheck and starting taking photos. In 2010, a friend took me to the helipad of one of Nairobi’s most iconic buildings – the Kenyatta International Conference Centre – and the view of city I saw was too breathtaking to ignore. I fell in love with my city.

Those images of Nairobi are what people noticed about me and soon I was known as “that guy who takes Nairobi night photos.”
What is the most exciting thing about being a photographer in Africa?
Being a photographer in Africa offers interesting opportunities. For one, nothing stays the same for very long, so what I shoot today might be different tomorrow. I find that exciting.
People here are both friendly and suspicious of photographers, so we have a hard task of proving ourselves everyday. But it’s not a task I mind.

What are some of the challenges of being a photographer in Africa?

The challenges of being a photographer in Africa are many but one is simply being accepted, understood and respected by authorities and society at large.
Sometimes people misunderstand our intentions, which can make it especially hard to take photos of Nairobi architecture for example. We still need laws to protect photographers in the field, and to protect our intellectual property.
Many of your photos are of Africa’s cities. What attracts you to them?
When the world visualizes Africa, it often comes up with images of poverty, disease, wild life and native tribes. I am very proud of a lot of those too, but we sometimes forget that Africa is home to a myriad of intriguing and beautiful urban spaces and cities – with people aspiring to the same things as they do all over the world.
I like capturing these shots because it’s not what is on the fore front of people’s minds when they think Africa. And I want my photos of African cities to show the inspirational side of our continent.

What in your mind is still Africa’s biggest challenge?
Africa‘s biggest challenge to me is its lack of systems. We need simple ones to make things work – and then stick to the systems.
How do you think technology can help solve these challenges — and propel Africa into a more prosperous future?
Technology always opens up opportunities and, in a way, changes the status quo. The beauty of technology is that it can help us identify ways to do things in shorter periods of time more efficiently. It also connects people and demystifies complicated systems.

Work in Africa
In addition to submitting your photos, why not your resume as well?
IBM is looking for talented scientists to join its newest lab in Nairobi, Kenya to solve some of the continent’s greatest challenges.  Join us on 5 December for a virtual job fair in Google + and the IBM SmartCloud. For more details, visit IBM Africa Job Fair.
Across the continent, Africa has a large youth population. What kinds of opportunities are out there for young people in Africa, and how can they take advantage of them?
The best thing about being young in Africa now is the huge opportunity before us. With the right ideas and a few connections, you can be creative and make anything into a viable business in Africa, today.

If you can spot an opportunity in the market and have the right “get up and go” about you, the opportunities are endless. 

How popular is photography in Africa?

Photography is becoming increasingly popular across Africa. With a rising middle class, many people are starting to invest in photography as a hobby. On the other hand, Africa is the world’s fastest growing market for smartphones – more and more people are getting interested in photography through their phones and wanting to share the things they see through social media. This all means that we have seen a huge surge of interest in photography over the past couple of years and this is set to increase significantly.  

As a judge of IBM’s Africa Photo Contest, what will you look for in the submissions?

Photography is the power of observation. As a judge, I shall be looking for bold, creative photos that help to tell Africa’s story, or show a unique perspective: the other side of the coin; the unheard narrative. I am sure I will not be bored.
What advice do you have for those aspiring photographers entering the contest?
I’d advise participants to be observant and see the content’s stories around them. Think about Africa’s grand challenges brought to life through a personal story; think about how systems are the lifeblood of cities and how home-grown innovation is bring new hope, efficiency and prosperity to the continent.

Why did you want to get involved in this initiative?
It sounded like something I wanted to be part of. I am happy that IBM is doing something so innovative in Africa – with the lab and with this competition. I do believe that the world really is our lab and I hope that by taking these photos, our eyes are opened to these issues and innovations. 

Submit your photos, today.

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