Thursday, 21 February 2013

Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative and the future of African technology

Contributed by Corinna Bordewieck

In early February 2013, Microsoft launched its new 4Afrika Initiative, "a new effort through which the company will actively engage in Africa’s economic development to improve its global competitiveness." Projects that make up the US$75 million initiative include training academies for technical and business skills, a web-based hub providing free services and tools for small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) wanting to get their businesses online, and “AppFactories” in Egypt and South Africa for those who have conceptualized the next great app idea but need resources to develop them.

According to Microsoft, the 4Afrkia project is "built on the dual beliefs that technology can accelerate growth for Africa, and Africa can also accelerate technology for the world." Embedded in this statement is Microsoft’s assertion of a growing trend: recognition of the continent’s economies as engines for growth, and its people as consumers (and innovators), rather than as recipients for aid or philanthropic projects (articulated well by Forbes in this article).

It seems that Microsoft also is well aware of the findings stated in McKinsey and Company’s report on the African consumer: half the African continent, or 130 million households, are forecast to have discretionary income by 2020 (up from 85 million in 2012). Subsequently, consumer-facing industries will see US$410 billion in growth between 2012 and 2020.

In terms of the IT sector in particular, Africans are “overwhelmingly” turning to mobile devices to get online, and see quality as a “critical buying factor” when choosing a phone. With 43% of sub-Saharan Africans and 58% of North Africans stating they are willing to pay more for a well-known brand of mobile handset, another pillar of the 4Afrika Initiative is well-positioned to succeed. This is the commercial debut of the Huawei 4Afrika smartphone, “a full functionality Windows Phone 8 which will come pre-loaded with select applications designed by Africans, for Africa.”

What does this all mean for Liberia? 4Afrika is being launched in the bigger economies (AppFactories in the countries listed above; the Huawei phone being first available for purchase in Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa; other projects that focus specifically on Kenya or South Africa). However, some of these markets–such as Angola and Ivory Coast–are recovering from prolonged periods of conflict, and are experiencing natural resource-driven growth and investment, just like Liberia. It will take time, but the presence of a company like NATC (an SME, with an online presence, and a technician training program) may be a harbinger of what’s ahead for Liberia – a future already envisioned on a continent-wide scale by Microsoft.

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