Tech proving a real game-changer for growth in Africa

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As Microsoft 4Afrika celebrates its fourth anniversary, regional director Amrote Abdella reflects on some key milestones and learnings of investing in affordable access, skills and innovation.

Four years ago, the Africa Rising narrative was a hot topic among journalists, economists and investors discussing Africa. Some celebrated the refreshed outlook on the continent. Others, including some Africans, were more sceptical on the trickledown effect of the projected growth. Some felt there was too much focus on GDP projections and the urban middle class, and not enough on inclusive growth that reached every underserved village, where challenges around healthcare and education remained unsolved.

It was within this context, in 2013, that Microsoft launched its 4Afrika Initiative. As a technology company, we wanted to contribute not only to Africa’s economic growth, but to its economic development through the adoption of innovation – fast-tracked by affordable access and enabled by a skilled workforce.

We believed that by empowering Africans to create and consume locally relevant technology, we could foster the kind of inclusive transformation that Africa wanted to see. Four years later, we still believe in this vision. Our commitment to fast-tracking relevant technology adoption remains unchanged.

Technology is transforming people’s lives for the better

Startups and SMEs are celebrated and looked to for driving economic growth and job creation. But we have also seen them play a key role in driving social development. Armed with mobile and cloud technologies, these young innovators are helping communities access previously unavailable services – advancing healthcare, education and general living standards.

In Ethiopia, for example, Microsoft 4Afrika has supported the Tulane Health project, which has helped 3,000 healthcare clinics in 10 regions to digitally transform. With Windows devices, Tulane collects relevant health data and now stores over 150 million digital records. Using Power BI, Tulane then analyses this data and produces real-time insights, empowering the federal ministry to make data-driven decisions.

For the average patient, this means more informed consultations, a more accountable government and overall better quality healthcare. In addition, 2,500 new Ethiopians have also been trained and upskilled as health information technologists, to run and maintain the system locally.

Similarly, in Botswana, through our work with Vista Life Sciences and the Botswana Innovation Hub, we’re using TV white spaces technology to deliver telemedicine services to over 3,000 patients in remote clinics in Lobatse, Francistown and Maun. A patient no longer needs to walk miles to get specialised care. Screenings and diagnoses can be done remotely, helping to quickly and accurately detect diseases and improve maternal care.

Since 2013, 4Afrika has helped 82 startups – and brought over 500,000 SMEs online – to drive this kind of economic development using mobile and cloud technology.

Towards an environment for success

However – the democratising of mobile and cloud technology in itself is not sufficient. The innovation ecosystem still needs more enabling policies if more of these startups and technologies are to succeed and benefit every person in Africa.

We have spent four years working with hubs, accelerators and government entities to develop regulations that allow new business models to flourish, encourage trade between borders and develop climates that promote investment into local businesses.

Lessons from investing in Africa

The good news is that the continent is on the right path. Investments into local tech startups increased by 17 per cent in 2016. And governments in Africa have been very adaptive to and serious about embracing the cloud to positively influence their investment climates, cut costs and efficiently serve their citizens.

Together, we have incubated 11 cloud-based solutions, including BioSIM in Kenya, which collects school data in local counties to help governments benchmark quality and take informed actions around education. Where there are security concerns around gathering such data, we’re working with the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) to accelerate trusted cloud infrastructure through enabling policies in the areas of cyber-security, data privacy and data protection.

Equally important to creating new technologies is developing the skills for the meaningful consumption of them. Across our 15 TV white spaces connectivity pilots we have running in last-mile communities in Africa, for example, we’re not only introducing people to the internet for the first time, but also helping them use it as a tool to seek employment and register with government.

We believe technology has been – and will increasingly be – a game-changer for Africa. With the right foundations in place, it is the tool that will help Africa rise in the inclusive and sustainable way Africans want to see it rise. The tool that gives every African the power to actively shape transformation that works for all its citizens, by creating infrastructure and services where there are none, trading and consuming local products, and holding their governments to account.

Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative remains a partner in this journey. In the last four years, we have experienced successes, setbacks and shouldered new risks. But our focus, belief in and commitment to invest in affordable access, skills and innovation for economic development in Africa remains unchanged. We have seen the transformation that has already taken place – and this gives us hope in the work still to be done.

We will continue to empower local partners, startups, SMEs and government entities through technology to enable growth and development in Africa – creating shared value that truly benefits us all.

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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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