Fernando de Sousa is the General Manager of Africa Initiatives, a Microsoft effort focusing on the African continent which has involved the release of the ‘Huawei 4Afrika’ Windows 8 smartphone and the creation of the ‘Afrika Academy’ to teach Africans important business and entrepreneurial skills. De Sousa spoke to the eLearning Africa news service about the work 4Afrika has done in the region.
This year marks Microsoft’s 20th anniversary of involvement in Africa. Have Microsoft’s core goals changed since the company first took an interest in the region?
This has been a very successful involvement for us; we’ve had great growth on the Continent and now have several hundred people working in the region. But have the core goals changed? No. The goals to bring great service and products to the Continent are the same, but nonetheless there are other goals that have evolved, such as providing both young and old Africans with access to technology, focusing on the delivery and execution of innovation and enabling young Africans to turn their ideas into opportunities for wealth creation and economic development by driving the spirit of innovation and focusing on developing skills.
What does Microsoft hope to achieve through the 4Afrika initiative?
It is important to be clear that Microsoft’s involvement in Africa is neither a philanthropic initiative nor an aid development initiative; it is an economic development, business related initiative. Our absolute focus is: how does Microsoft, through the aforementioned goals, make a significant impact on the economic development of Africa?
The best possible way to describe it is that we think, we believe and we understand the promise of Africa – that technology can bring huge benefits to Africa – but we also believe quite strongly that Africa can bring a lot of innovation and technology to the world. Our participation and our involvement in the Continent is a dual role with mutual benefits, but it is also a partnership with the Continent in taking these benefits to the world.
What recent technological developments have had a major impact on Africa?
We’ve seen Africa leapfrogging a lot of the technology that has existed around the world and gone directly into the world of mobile devices. Here the use of mobile devices and mobile phones is so much higher than perhaps even that of computers. Another important component is the availability of solar power. I think that has had a significant impact and is promising to, through efforts such as the Mawingu white spaces pilot we’ve just implemented in Kenya, have an ongoing effect on the opportunities for Africans to use other technologies and increase their own economic lifestyle. In the case of the beneficiaries of Mawingu, this is a lifestyle that was not previously available to them as they live off the national power grid.
What will be the next big technological innovation to hit Africa? Smartphones, mobile devices or something not yet in the spotlight?
The next real big innovation is the young people of Africa. There is already such great evidence of young people in Africa designing, building and thinking about applications that are relevant to them, and the truly groundbreaking innovations are coming from them.
In the space of education, I think that there are going to be significant changes to enable the many illiterate people on the Continent to access and benefit from technology. I think this remains one of the big problems we have, that is, enabling those people to join the 21st century by changing some of the literacy problems we have in Africa.
However, of course there will be new devices. Microsoft has a strategy of ‘devices for Africa’ and here we are seeing an increase in attention from designers, engineers and manufacturers. At a people level we will certainly see significant developments.
Afrika Academy is going to provide free education to eligible participants. What skills will the academy teach students?
The Academy focuses on three different audiences. Firstly, the existing workforce, whom we hope to teach incremental skills to help the workforce to develop and be more effective, skills such as project management skills and financial and budget review management.
Secondly is the school audience. Here we focus on literacy learning and language skills, creativity, mathematics and science to help the younger population.
And thirdly there are the graduate and post-graduate students where the skills focus is on employability; these skills vary from small entrepreneurship skills, English language skills, business planning and sourcing finance.
One of the major targets of the 4Afrika smartphone is university students. How does Microsoft envision university students using the 4Afrika phone to cater to their specific needs?
What we are seeing more and more is the evolution of the device becoming the interface from where applications are used to access many different services. The Huawei 4Afrika phone is the beginning of a device strategy for Africa and while it is the first, it will certainty not be the last.
At a university level there are groups of people who are enthusiastic to build applications that run on phones, with the phone becoming a laboratory and environment through which they can earn money by creating consumer and educational applications. It is also a communication device allowing faculty and students to exchange projects, assignments and participate in the curriculum type activity that happens in the university. The availability of Microsoft Office on Windows 8 phones is an important aspect of this.
In addition, there are applications that enable students to integrate microfinancing and microlending opportunities into their environment and community through microbusinesses.
Would you like to add anything else?
For Microsoft, what we’re doing with learning through 4Afrika is not just about acquiring skills for the sake of having them. It’s about applying these skills to employability – what can we teach to improve Africans’ productivity in their existing job or to improve their chances of landing a great job that enables them to improve their earnings potential. Fundamentally, we see skills development and economic development as going hand in hand.
To read more about the 4Afrika initiatives, please click here and visit the Microsoft stand at eLearning Africa 2013.