Microsoft's redemption song in Africa: Catalyzing tech revolutions on the world's least connected continent

Fridah Oyaro awoke well before the sun rose to catch a bus for a three-hour ride from her rural village in Ruai into Nairobi, Kenya. This long excursion had become a trip she was used to, but was one that never ceased to be challenging. Even though it was exhausting and often dangerous, she continued to do it five days a week for more than a year.

A striking young woman with jet black hair pulled into a ponytail, the 20-year-old Oyaro smiles broadly as she tells this story. The first day she made the six-hour round trip into the city three years ago for class is still a vivid memory.

It was the first time she ever laid eyes on a computer.

Oyaro giggles at herself, mainly because she knows how far she has come in such a short amount of time. She sits outside a modern glass building—the home of iHub, Nairobi's community space for technologists, hackers, and developers—as we chat on Google Hangout. The warm African sun shines brightly this afternoon, turning the patio into a bustling meeting locale. Young entrepreneurs and techies wander in and out of the screen.

The laptop Oyaro originally used was an HP250 Notebook PC. It was on loan through Akirachix, a year-long program that allows young women in Kenya that cannot afford a four-year university to learn about technology, graphic design, software development, and entrepreneurship. The first class Oyaro took was computer literacy, and the first lesson was how to turn the machine on.

"It was an awesome experience, but very scary and fast," she said. "I was afraid to press the button because I thought it would blow up. Until I got used to it and [learned] it was something you could actually control and do something with."

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Africa catching fire

Nearly one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa, or about 297 million people total, are between the ages of 10 and 24. By 2050, that number will double to about 561 million, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

This age group is at the intersection of Africa's past, present, and future. The enormous youth population is driving the rapid growth of mobile technology and broadband internet access, which means they are fairly tech-savvy, yet underemployed and under-educated. Approximately 2 million people will enter the labor market from now until 2015, although right now, the youth make up 60 percent of Africa's unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization.

But, they are creative, innovative, and determined to affect change. And most importantly, they are often connected to the rest of the world through social media.

Their biggest obstacle—and also their greatest strength—is that they are the the pioneers of a movement that is completely revolutionary to the continent.

"What's lacking in many of these countries is that you have very dynamic young people eager to do new things, but they don't have mentors," said Calestous Juma, the director of the science, technology, and globalization department at Harvard and a recognized authority on technology and development in Africa.

"The reason is because usually good mentors are people who have created businesses in the same fields," he added. "Young people are pioneering in areas where there have never been businesses like that."

Only 16 percent of Africa's one billion people are online, according to the latest market research by McKinsey Global Institute. It is rapidly expanding through large-scale internet access initiatives, like Microsoft 4Afrika, and other independent projects such as Ushahidi's BRCK, a durable back-up generator for the Internet designed specifically for Africa.

"Africa is also the fastest organizing continent, and more and more people are going into urban areas, so it's not just capital cities but smaller cities emerging, and markets emerging around smaller urban areas," Juma said.

Mobile technology, which is a model of effective innovation spreading throughout the continent, allows for the creation of urban centers. According to research firm Deloitte, Africa is the second largest mobile phone market after Asia. In 2016, there will be one billion mobile users in Africa. People are increasingly able to communicate about the prices of food, goods, and services, and discuss ideas from anywhere, even rural villages and towns.

"What's lacking in many of these countries is that you have very dynamic young people eager to do new things, but they don't have mentors." Calestous Juma, Harvard University

The problem is that the technology is advancing faster than countries' civic infrastructure. Ideas are rapidly spreading, but people cannot physically move things from point A to point B because there are few roads and modes of transportation in the many rural areas, and little economic stability to build them.

The answer, according to Juma, lies within technology. Mobile phones have been a strong inspirational development in Africa because the technology spurred the creation of a surrounding infrastructure. To share ideas and make transactions, countries have spread internet access through mobile technology.

Kenya is the model for this development. The country is the leader in mobile-to-mobile payment transactions with its M-Pesa, developed by mobile network provider Safaricom and launched in 2007. The company services 17 million Kenyans, which is two-thirds of the adult population, and a quarter of the GNP flows through it. By visiting any one of Safaricom's 40,000 agent locations, Kenyans can deposit or withdraw money to and from their accounts, and money can be transferred to others through the phone. The system offers safety and security benefits, so people don't have to carry bundles of money, and also allow them to free up space and time in business and personal lives.

Apply that same system to basic city infrastructure, and the foundation for a new Africa could be in place, Juma said. To move food, they need roads and air transportation. To move water and build irrigation systems, they need to lay pipes. And they need the energy to power all of it.

"It's about connectivity and mobility," Juma said. "We can't create a market without moving goods, services, and ideas, and people are realizing those investments need to be made, and the governments need to be making them."

Because of Kenya's success with its mobile payment system, which led to its strong civic infrastructure, the country has received quite a bit of attention from the international media community. Stories about Nairobi as the next African technology hub have circulated for years, giving the impression that Africa has arrived, succeeded, made it into the global technology scene.

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Fridah Oyaro is a graduate of Akirachix, a computer science education program for girls.
 Image: Fridah Oyaro

But that's not the case. Not yet, at least. Though Africa—and in particular, Kenya—has made great strides economically and technologically in recent years, it is nowhere near where it needs to be to be globally competitive.

In order to reach these goals, local, regional, and national governments will need to hop on the bandwagon of these technological initiatives. Partnerships with private corporations, both African and international, will drive these changes.

Economies in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing rapid growth because of new technological initiatives, according to the Population Reference Bureau. They averaged about 5.3 percent GDP growth in 2012, which is above the world average of 3.3 percent per year.

Oyaro is a face of these statistics. She is the demographic companies like Microsoft and Google are trying to reach with these new initiatives, and the image of hope for this continent, which as a whole is desperate—but increasingly prepared—to become influential and competitive in the global economic market.

Microsoft's initiative: skills, innovation, access

Just over a year ago, Microsoft launched Microsoft 4Afrika, a $75 million initiative to increase internet accessibility, and mentor and educate the next generation of innovators. By 2016, the company plans to put tens of millions of smart devices—running Microsoft products, of course— in the hands of African youth, help fund local startups, help 100,000 graduates gain employable skills, and get one million African businesses online.

Mobile provider Safaricom, which developed M-Pesa, is used by 17 million Kenyans. About a quarter of the gross national product flows through it.

This isn't the kind of philanthropic project that is long withstanding in Africa's history. It's a strategically designed program that targets an untapped and very influential market and aims to promote social responsibility. The three main pillars of the project are:

1. World class skills: This focuses on creating an education platform online and offline to help Africans learn about entrepreneurship, marketing, a business management. Launching in March is the Afrikan Academy, which partners with research institutions and universities, is available at no cost to recent university graduates, government leaders, and other Microsoft partners.

2. Innovation: This is about working with African developers to create Windows applications and platforms. Microsoft opened AppFactory in South Africa and Egypt, in partnership with local universities, which is an internship program that recruits developers to create apps for the Windows 8 store.

3. Affordable access: This includes the Huawei 4Afrika phone, white space technology for widespread internet access, and an online hub that aggregates Microsoft services and resources for small and medium enterprises that were previously not online. Businesses are offered free domain registration for one year. Several hundred businesses have already joined this cloud service, and Microsoft plans to open in South Africa and Morocco in April before spreading to new markets.

The biggest priority is the economic development of Africa through the enablement of technology, according to Fernando de Sousa, the general manager of Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative.

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To attend school, Oyaro rode a bus for three hours each way, five days a week for a year.
 Image: Build Africa/Flickr

"We want to be enabling the African knowledge economy to be world class, world competitive, and that relates to the people, the way technology is deployed, and how knowledge is created," he said. "But it also serves Microsoft and its shareholders and our ecosystem around the continent. That is to build a business and make the consumption of tech in Africa on par with the rest of the world."

Microsoft has been in Africa for 22 years, and de Sousa has been a part of it since the beginning. The original strategy was to solely concentrate on market growth and development and spread as quickly as possible across the continent.

"Bearing in mind that at that time, a copy of Word was almost the equivalent of someone's monthly salary, so there was a big discrepancy, and no PCs being used," he said. "There was a very definitive and commercial strategy." Microsoft grew to more than 30 offices across the continent and tens of thousands of businesses used their solutions across Africa.

Driving growth and developing business strategies is still a strong goal of this initiative. Microsoft will "make no bones about that," de Sousa said.

However, three years ago, de Sousa and other Microsoft executives looked at their presence in Africa and decided they weren't doing enough. They weren't having the kind of impact they wanted. So they created Microsoft 4Afrika. A month before the project was launched, Microsoft surveyed 220 people in 12 African countries on their perceptions of western companies. Microsoft scored a 30 percent on their commitment to Africa.

"The serendipity of the iHub and its most powerful value is that you never know who you're going to meet." Erik Hersman, iHub co-founder

But at the end of 2013, 11 months into the project, they took the survey again. Microsoft scored 75 percent.

"The message very clearly is not only is what we are doing is resonating in the right way, but it is raising the credibility [of Microsoft], all of these plans of which are absolutely designed to break the skepticism," de Sousa said.

The first year, which wrapped up in February, was used to plant as many seeds as possible on the continent and experiment with multiple projects. In three years, de Sousa said there will be more loosely-defined targets, and on the five-year horizon, they want to implement even deeper projects. By that point, he hopes fewer countries will be involved because they will be self-sufficient. The initial investment of $75 million is over a period of three years, and Microsoft evaluates projects monthly to address potential additional investments.

One of the first projects Microsoft launched was selling Huawei 4Afrika, an affordable Windows smartphone preloaded with applications designed by local African developers. The phone has a 4-inch 400x800 display, dual-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor, cameras, a 1950 mAh battery with 420 hours of life, and 4GB of storage.

According to the World Bank, there are more mobile phone users in Africa than the U.S. or EU. Since 2000, mobile phone usage grew from 16.5 million to 650 million people. Though the Huawei phone has done well in several African markets, Microsoft's Nokia Lumia 520 is still the best-selling Windows phone device, and there are plans to grow its market in Africa.

"I foresee that we will have perhaps a greater focus on Nokia," he said. "The early success of the Huawei [device] pushed Nokia to an early release. That is beating some of our competitors, which is not the case in other parts of world, but it's working well in Africa."

Talks of local manufacturing operations are on the table as well, he added.

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The Mawingu project in Kenya uses White Space to give a local school wireless internet.
 Image: Microsoft

The more pressing aspect of affordable access is broadband wireless internet. Microsoft partnered with Kenyan service provider Indigo Telecom Ltd. and the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications to provide low-cost, reliable wireless broadband to rural areas. The service is called "Mawingu," Kiswahili for "cloud." The first deployment uses "White Space" broadband, which is the unused portion of wireless frequencies in television spectrum after the migration from analog TV to digital. Low-cost solar-powered base stations allow areas unconnected to the power grid to access the internet. The program has deployed in three areas of Africa: Nanyuki, Kenya, the pilot program; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Limpopo, South Africa.

"We use clean energy—solar and wind as our supply to enable to entire infrastructure so we can go completely off the grid," de Sousa said. "The power consumption of white space is very low, so the surplus power becomes an economic benefit that can be sold or traded, which enables smaller entrepreneurs to make money out of surplus access."

Perhaps the most important aspect of Microsoft's initiative is its partnership with local tech communities. To succeed, Microsoft has to stay invested and present on the ground. The company must work alongside local developers and entrepreneurs and gain their trust while offering resources, support, and job placement.

In January, Microsoft announced it would fund five African startups and offer continual mentorship as they create working businesses. But funding only scratches the surface of this partnership.

SEE:Photos: Africa's emerging tech scene and the innovators behind it

Nairobi, the tech hub of Africa

The nerve center of the technological community in Nairobi is the iHub. It became successful because of a dedicated group of innovators who wanted to create a productive community for Africans. The iHub founders never asked corporations for money. Instead, they asked them what they can do for the technology scene in Kenya as a whole. If it was positive, they called them a partner, and worked from there on a mutually beneficial relationship—it was just as important for Microsoft to learn from the local entrepreneurs.

"We encourage our corporate partners to sit in the iHub once a week and just work there," said Erik Hersman, who is co-founder of iHub, Nairobi's innovation community space and startup incubator, as well as co-founder of Ushahidi. He is also a prominent tech blogger in Africa, having lived there the majority of his life.

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Egypt's App Factory has created nearly 400 apps in the last year since its launch as part of 4Afrika.
 Image: Microsoft

"The serendipity of the iHub and its most powerful value is that you never know who you're going to meet," Hersman said. "This is how startups find co-founders and investors find investees."

This community is not specific to Nairobi. Tech hubs are appearing all over Africa, from the middle of the island of Madagascar to competitive markets in the center of Lagos, Nigeria.

Microsoft's de Sousa said more than 300 interns, ambassadors, and associates circulate through these tech hubs. Each quarter, Microsoft hosts 25 to 30 week-long training sessions throughout Africa.

Africa is a latecomer to the technology scene on a global scale, but many people think this is its greatest asset. Instead of having to invent the technology, African innovators can adapt technology to solve their specific problems. These are very specific—and often very basic—problems that are unique to Africa, but innovators can now harness their solutions.

Because these new innovators are the first ones to experiment and create products, they have no mentors, so the classic mentor-mentee model used in many other parts of the world won't work. Through communities like the iHub, however, young Africans are learning from each other, and Juma said this is going to spread rapidly across Africa. These first generation entrepreneurs are going to become the mentors for the next generation, creating a sustainable environment for the future.

What Africa needs from the rest of the world—and itself—is patience, Hersman said.

"We need the patience to let nine out of 10 startups fail and be okay with that, in a culture that doesn't accept failure the same way it does in the U.S.," he said.

Like in the U.S., where we hear several times a day about startups in Silicon Valley who experiment multiple times with different VCs or try it themselves through crowdfunding, Africa needs to generate more startups, Hersman added.

"With only 40 or 50 startups, we are only going to have four or five successes," he said. "We need 100, 150, 200...Now we are talking enough successes to start moving the needle."

But it starts with a cooperative tech community, just as it did in San Francisco, New York, and London. Africa needs spaces for like-minded people to gather, bounce ideas off one another, and share resources—whether it is for smartphone app development, website design, or simply hosting a healthy environment for a young girl like Oyaro to learn the basics of technology.

A face of the statistics

When Oyaro speaks about her family, she gleams with pride. The second eldest of seven children, she has always taken on a role of responsibility for her younger siblings. The majority of her teenage years were spent at home, caring for them while her parents looked for work. Her father is a farmer and her mother—who left for a few years while Oyaro was in high school—was a shopkeeper, and Oyaro only attended school about 20 percent of the time. But each time she returned, she refused to repeat the classes, insisting on moving forward to finish high school on time.

"It was quite hard," she said, her brow furrowing for a moment. "But when I went to work on my exams, I passed." Again, her pride radiates through the computer screen as she gives two thumbs-up.

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Of course, millions of young girls and boys all over Africa lack access to basic resources like food and electricity, so internet connectivity is often the last concern. Continuing education is completely dependent on the individual, as most of it is self-taught. Being in a rural village, Oyaro was never exposed to computers, so she took up arts courses instead. She wanted to attend college, but couldn't afford the course fees.

Towards the end of high school, however, a friend who attended a larger school in Nairobi told Oyaro about a program called Akirachix, designed to teach girls who couldn't attend a traditional university about computer science and coding and prepare them for careers in technology.

Oyaro called Akirachix repeatedly. She sent in her application and called again. That persistence got her an interview, and she qualified for the program. She was one of 18 young women who made up the first Akirachix graduating class.

The Akirachix program was born in 2010 and was the brainchild of Linda Kamau, its co-founder. The day of the iHub launch, she looked around and noticed there were very few women in the room.

"I show them wherever they are coming from should not be a hindrance to their success in life." Linda Kamau, Akirachix co-founder

Akirachix allows girls from underprivileged homes, often in Kenyan slums, who cannot afford to attend college, to obtain computer science education. They undergo training in computer literacy, graphic design, web design, software development, and entrepreneurship. Five days a week, all day, the girls learn and work in the Akirachix offices, in the same building as the iHub. After the year-long program, the girls are on a level playing field with students who graduated from four-year universities, according to Kamau.

Kamau is much more than a coding teacher, however. She has become a counselor to girls who have been sexually or physically abused. She makes home visits to make sure the girls are prepared for the program and the parents are on board. She is the disciplinarian if they are rebellious when they are away from home for the first time. She makes sure there are allocated funds for girls like Oyaro, who could not pay the U.S. $4.17 for the three-hour bus ride to and from class.

"I show them wherever they are coming from should not be a hindrance to their success in life," Kamau said. To do that, she works constantly with the girls, getting to know each one's weaknesses and strengths. And if Oyaro is any indication, she is an inspiration to many of them, both as a woman and as an entrepreneur.

Much like in the rest of the world, computer programming is seen as a male-oriented career in Africa. Akirachix has started a movement to change that, inspiring organizations beyond Kenya's borders that empower girls to learn coding and computer science.

"It can demoralize you, and with time you're like 'I'm going to move on to something else,'" Kamau said of many women already in the field. "[We have to] keep networking and putting people together and mentoring each other."

Akirachix aims to reach new girls by organizing with existing nonprofits and programs in slums, and Kamau encourages girls to start their own businesses after they graduate. Often, they do it on their own. Kamau told a tragic story of a girl in the first Akirachix graduating class who went back to her village to teach children mathematics and computer literacy. Her dream was to open a local version of Akirachix in her rural area, but she passed away in a devastating fire last year.

Multiple studies have shown women are the change agents in families. They spend 90 percent of their income on the welfare of their households, whereas men spend about 30 to 40 percent. According to the World Bank, countries that invest in the social and economic status of women have lower poverty rates, and just one extra year of secondary schooling for girls results in wage increases up to 20 percent.

After graduation, Oyaro didn't want to just move home without a job. She had to give her laptop back, but traveled back and forth via bus every day so she could teach herself more computer programming and practice graphic design. Finally, they let her keep the computer. She now freelances for a web design company in Nairobi, the iHub, and Akirachix. She also mentors girls currently in the program. She moved out of her home with a friend to be closer to Nairobi, but she returns to Ruai every weekend to visit her family and teach her younger siblings about technology.

Women spend 90 percent of their income on the welfare of their households, whereas men spend about 30 to 40 percent.

Where does she see herself in five years? Oyaro wants to go to school for graphic design if she can get a scholarship, open a design agency, and then start an organization like Akirachix. And she's adamant about it.

"After I go to schools and get the skills first, I will look for girls with underprivileged backgrounds, teach them, and those that are really interested in design with a passion, I hire them in my agency."

As innovative as Oyaro is, there are still huge societal, political, and economic obstacles in her way—not to mention the millions of other young boys and girls that need education and access to basic resources, which in this digital age now arguably includes the internet and access to the rest of the world.

Building a competitive startup ecosystem

"There is a huge swath of people who want to get online but can't," Hersman said. He is a hard man to get a hold of, and I barely catch him this time around. It's barely 8 a.m. CT and he is breathless from traveling around Michigan to speak at a university event. He has just finished up interviews with a startup in Ghana. But Hersman is always thoughtful in his analysis of Africa, and specifically, his home of Kenya.

"But that narrative is changing. It's going to be more people from the global south, he said. "Right now the biggest problem is infrastructure, whether it's power and energy or actual cable, it's just not the same level in these countries as it is in the U.S. and Europe."

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Since she graduated Akirachix, Fridah Oyaro works as a freelance graphic designer and programmer.
 Image: Fridah Oyaro

Getting the next billion people online is no small feat. First, Africa needs the actual hardware. Far-reaching, efficient white space provides an opportunity to do this, and there is plenty of room for companies to utilize the space. Google, for instance, has also deployed a white space project in 10 schools in Cape Town, South Africa.

Relevance of the projects is what matters. Each community—from the village in the middle of the Kalahari Desert to the emerging market in Gaborone, Botswana—has specific needs, and each is using bandwidth differently.

"One of the biggest issues around Africa, in remote areas, is sustainability," de Sousa said. "People come in with couple thousand dollars, set up a pilot, and it works, so they leave. There's no sustainability, as it's too remote and inaccessible."

By working on the ground, Microsoft is helping entrepreneurs create a solid foundation to build upon. The startup incubator 88mph, with locations in Nairobi and Cape Town, also partners with Microsoft. One of its most successful startups, Gamsole, was just awarded a grant from Microsoft 4Afrika in January. Abiola Olaniran is the CEO of the company, which makes many games for Windows platforms. He worked with 88mph in Nairobi and recently moved back to Lagos, which is an emerging innovation hub itself.

"It's the right time to be around here...you can now watch the development of a city," Olaniran said. "More and younger people are deciding to come try to create something, make something, do something. The energy makes it nice to be an entrepreneur around here."

"The energy makes it nice to be an entrepreneur around here." Abiola Olaniran, Gamsole CEO

What's more, he said, is that people are no longer thinking about access in Lagos because "they are now the ones creating companies and ideas in our society." In short, they are more empowered.

"The best thing you can do is help an entrepreneur create a business because he will help fund other entrepreneurs," said Kresten Buch, founder of 88 mph. "We try to make it more about business and technology. We leave everybody who visits us with a perception that this isn't giving money away. It's about business."

Marieme Jamme is a Senegalese CEO, blogger, and technologist. She is based in London, where she runs SpotOne Global Solutions, which helps enterprise software companies set a foothold in Africa and Asia, and Africa Gathering, a platform in which Africans share ideas for technological innovations and discuss the continent's future.

"I've said to donors 'No, don't give them money just for internet, but make some clear conditions,'" she said. "And you can't make clear conditions if you don't give them business education."

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Nairobi's iHub is the nerve center for the technology community.
 Image: iHub

Jamme helps young entrepreneurs strategize how to market products, and teaches them discipline and focus in her mentorship programs. "Sometimes, we have different issues in Africa, like we don't have internet connection or electricity," she said. "I don't want them to wait for those things to make their business work."

Building an entire ecosystem around startups is the key to success. That begins with improving computer science education, government spending, and community foundations, Hersman said.

"You're on a global playing field here," Hersman said. "Nobody cares what country you're in, for the startup, and nobody cares where your money comes from either as long as you keep it going."

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Microsoft's tumultuous history in Africa

From his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Juma gives a quick rundown of African technological history. There is no doubt Africa has been wronged by western nations throughout the continent's history. Its pristine lands have been exploited. The continent's first encounter with colonialism was with destructive industries—specifically, mining companies, according to Juma. They took the raw materials they needed from Africa and exported them, without teaching anyone about their value.

"Could we have over time gotten better results with money we spent or software we have donated? Yes, probably." Fernando de Sousa, General Manager of Microsoft 4Afrika

Many of the continent's problems are specific to each country's governments, but they all stem from the consequences of colonialism, apartheid, and programs that have sent in money that has the potential to help, but leaving before anything sustainable is created. Because of all this, new innovations and westernized technology rightfully cause concerns for native Africans.

"In some African countries, the colonial education system restricted Africans from accessing technical education," he said. "One of the features of apartheid was making sure Africans didn't get training in engineering. The system was loaded against us, and we couldn't add value to the raw materials because we were not trained in technical fields."

Ultimately, it discouraged African people and governments to invest in the fields of technology. But now, according to Juma, in the age of telecommunication, the relationship is healthier. Since young Africans are easily trained in technology, companies have a more vested interest in them.

"It's a big shift from the way Africans related to corporations before, which was a very negative relationship," he added.

Microsoft, of course, is as much a part of this corrupt history as any other major corporation that has exploited Africa in some way throughout its tumultuous history, so widespread skepticism of its intentions is undeniable. This is a fair perception, de Sousa said. "That has been happening a very long time in Africa, so it's not surprising that people are skeptical."

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The iHub is an open space for entrepreneurs, hackers, developers, and investors.
 Image: Microsoft

Jamme is one of the most prominent members on the Microsoft 4Afrika Advisory Council, which is what she refers to as the "watchdog" program for this initiative.

"Microsoft has learned they made a mistake in Africa," she said. "I think they know, because people like us have been telling them."

Comprised of a diverse group of high-ranking African individuals, the advisory council exists to provide strategic insight, on-the-ground eyes, and specific visions for the future of the program.

Jamme said her PR team was curious why she joined the council, as she is very critical of Microsoft's motives.

"The reason I joined was because when you are a pioneer in what you do and you are known in Africa, sometimes you need to be part of the conversation," she said. "If I exclude myself from the debate of what Microsoft is doing, then the mistakes will not be resolved."

The council meets in-person twice a year and holds regional meetings in between. Youth members have been added as well. Microsoft wants to ensure the relevance of its programs, so it chose a broad range of leaders.

"We need African voices," Jamme said. "We scrutinize things. We try to protect the continent."

The company has no doubt made mistakes in their long history on the continent. But it seems to be public perception, especially among people involved in this initiative, that Microsoft is using 4Afrika to better their image across the continent and stand alongside the youth as they come of age in this world of technology.

"Many projects in Africa fail because of lack of communication, lack of sharing ideas, lack of having clear strategies and methodologies," Jamme added.

Hersman felt similarly about the initiative. "Microsoft has a history of...they can ride in and throw a lot of money around and expect everybody to be on board, and this time they are trying to be very much a part of the community they interact with, and using the tech hubs to do that."

Twenty years ago, Microsoft took the approach many global corporations take in response to crises in Africa: that one size fits all, in terms of technology solutions, products, or money. They initially attempted to manage all of West Africa from one location, but quickly realized it wouldn't work. They had to put people on the ground. When they deployed Microsoft solutions two decades ago, the licensing and software programs—which integrated well in mature markets—didn't solve African problems. This created more confusion, and a lock-in to Microsoft solutions that made it difficult and expensive to upgrade in many cases.

"Could we have over time gotten better results with money we spent or software we have donated?" de Sousa said. "Yes, probably. But I think that's part of the learning."

So far, the major players in the African tech scene today say they are satisfied with Microsoft's progress. Their greatest challenge is convincing African governments to get on board with the idea as well.

"Many projects in Africa fail because of lack of communication, lack of sharing ideas, lack of having clear strategies and methodologies." Marieme Jamme, CEO of SpotOne Global Solutions

Jamme considers the African governments her biggest obstacle as she travels around the continent, because they are used to the computer programs they have had—if any—for years and are reluctant to invest in new ones.

Corruption in many of these bureaucratic governments have made implementing sustainable programs difficult throughout Africa's history. The use of cloud technology, de Sousa said, allows for more transparency in government operations. Most of the corruption happens in large-scale public works sectors, so implementing basic infrastructure is a challenge. Microsoft is working with the World Bank, African Union, and the African Development Bank to address how technology can help measurement and accountability, and allow African countries to work together to elevate one another instead of trading with other continents so much.

"Our focus is let's build those small business ecosystems around those big industries: oil, gas, transportation, construction, etc., and start servicing them," de Sousa said. "It goes a long way in enabling the growth of these economies."

But some governments, especially in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, and others, are champions of technology, Juma said. They allowed mobile technology to liberalize and spread so quickly across cities and provinces. Now, they must work with the private sectors again to create a sustainable economy, and that begins with fixing the education system to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) career paths. He helped found Innovate Lagos, a cooperation between public and private institutions to better the economy in the state.

"The time has come to start financing new engineering programs to create the next generation of Africans building tech-based companies," Juma said. "Without that kind of training, these opportunities will be lost."

This partnership presents a unique opportunity for Microsoft. They are the first big western player in this new African game. They are positioned to gain the trust of the next generation of the world's innovators—the next billion people that will soon gain access to the world wide web.

"I believe there are many, many more girls who didn't get the chance I got. How am I going to help them, how am I giving back to the community?" Fridah Oyaro

Empowering Africa's next generation

Oyaro's day at the iHub is nearing an end. Before we hang up, I ask her what she wants to do with her life, more than anything else.

"I need to go to school so I can get that knowledge to share with other girls in the community. I believe there are many, many more girls who didn't get the chance I got. How am I going to help them, how am I giving back to the community?"

I tell her I know she will do it. Still excited from relaying all her plans, she looks up, smiles, and raises both her fists in the air.

"I know I will."

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

14 comments
Eamon_Walsh1
Eamon_Walsh1

This is such a great story. It is indeed a 'redemption song'. While the whole world keeps railing against MS for their supposed security issues, patches and OS fails 

bit . ly/ 10x8en6- it's good to see them behind some good endeavors in countries where resources are scarce - IDG blogger posting on behalf of PC Connection

*bernie
*bernie

Lyndsey Gilpin is quickly becoming my favorite writer - or maybe I should say I am increasingly interested in the psychology behind the comments on her articles ;) Lyndsey's writing is dedicated to a positive approach to the tech domain, or maybe even to planet earth as a whole, seen from a hi-tech perspective, and how we can make our planet a better place, or at least start being optimistic about it. But some people are the masters of cynicism when they are facing such a thing.

Maybe one of the reasons is fear for the idea of a the "third world" finally catching up and getting a piece of the cake too - the same cake the West has been consuming so greedily for far too long, with little or no sense of equilibrium and a just distribution of basic human wealth (not even health) whatsoever.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner moderator

@BernardL  Thank you for noticing!


When you said ... "Lyndsey's writing is dedicated to a positive approach to the tech domain, or maybe even to planet earth as a whole, seen from a hi-tech perspective, and how we can make our planet a better place, or at least start being optimistic about it." ... you hit on one of the primary reasons we hired Lyndsey!!

lord_beavis
lord_beavis

Redemption song? By that do you mean they needed to redeem themselves after killing the One Laptop Per Child initiative that was powered by FOSS?


Microsoft fears another Munich.

Martin Ateh Atayo
Martin Ateh Atayo

Very encouraging observation for a global region almost technologically marginalized in a global economic trend considered to be powered by innovative technology and applied science. We call on all global business magnets to support this training endeavor, not just in Africa, but any global regions, comparatively and technologically less privileged.

Karlos Salisbury
Karlos Salisbury

Education is the way out of poverty, so access to computers and the internet is a crucial part of that. I suppose Microsoft definitely get some kickbacks in the form of apps though so it's not completely altruistic.

Rafael Pazypuente
Rafael Pazypuente

I don't think SCAM is considered innovation. Thanks Microsoft!

timfle
timfle

And i am sure Microsoft is doing this just because they are such good people.  The thought of getting cheaper labor than India provides never crossed their minds.

russand
russand

@timfle Yes - they most likely see an emerging market that once coached and couched in their methods will be a source of great profit that they can gleefully exploit..

wanderson
wanderson


Microsoft's redemption in South Africa is that the company has persuaded (paid off?) corrupt and greedy senior government officials to abandon the country's universally praised endorsement of and move toward Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) technology base and back toward Redmond's own draconian proprietary, inflexible and costly technologies that will drive South Africa to severe financial deficits, much  as the company has done recently with the UK government and many other governments in the past.



It is unfortunate that South Africa momentarily possessed the rare opportunities for major advancement and innovation in implementing the FOSS technologies preferred and quite successful in the European Union – City of Munich as recent stellar example, Brazil and most of South America, even in China and India that are today dominating all major spheres of technology use - Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics, Internet and Web Services, Scientific Research, Corporate infrastructure, Medical applications, SuperComputing and in Academia.



Now however, South Africa will return to the "Apartheid" of being subject and subservient to Microsoft dictates and controls, and a continual, everlasting source of significant profit for this American dinosaur, to the detriment of cost effectiveness and efficiency for the South African people.

wanderson
wanderson

Microsoft's redemption in South Africa is that the company has persuaded (paid off?) corrupt and greedy senior government officials to abandon the country's universally praised endorsement of and move toward Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) technology base and back toward Redmond's own draconian proprietary, inflexible and costly technologies that will drive South Africa to severe financial deficits, much  as the company has done recently with the UK government and many other governments in the past.


It is unfortunate that South Africa momentarily possessed the rare opportunities for major advancement and innovation in implementing the FOSS technologies preferred and quite successful in the European Union – City of Munich as recent stellar example, Brazil and most of South America, even in China and India that are today dominating all major spheres of technology use - Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics, Internet and Web Services, Scientific Research, Corporate infrastructure, Medical applications, SuperComputing and in Academia.


Now however, South Africa will return to the "Apartheid" of being subject and subservient to Microsoft dictates and controls, and a continual, everlasting source of significant profit for this American dinosaur, to the detriment of cost effectiveness and efficiency for the South African people.


BHPi-BA
BHPi-BA

Awesome article!  What an inspiration and how eye-opening! We really take technology for granted here in the US.  I appreciate you helping me to expand my world-view and understand other perspectives.