Technology is changing Africa. In time, Africa will transform technology for the world.
Which of the emerging markets represents the best bet for investors? Some might argue that the strongest growth opportunities remain in China or the other BRIC nations. At Microsoft, we believe the answer is Africa. With more than a billion people, Africa is home to 16 of the world's 30 fastest-growing economies. Yet the continent is often overlooked, which we believe is related to a lack of advertising around its own potential. But with a rapidly improving business infrastructure, a booming stock market, and a young and ambitious population, there has never been a better time to invest in Africa and in the African people.
As a company that's been operating in Africa for 20 years, we recognise that this is a continent with a resourceful approach to innovation. When the availability of tools is limited, it tends to concentrate entrepreneurial activity on applications that serve a real purpose. Only 15% of Africans are online, and many have no access to banking facilities, yet more than three quarters have a mobile phone. In Kenya, these conditions helped to spawn M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer company that has gained international acclaim. M-Pesa is widely credited with changing the face of trade in sub-Saharan Africa, and market demand is pushing mobile operators in other parts of the continent to adopt similar systems.
African economies are proving that availability of technology creates demand, and with demand comes investment in infrastructure. This is a continent that recognised early on the limitations of its terrestrial fibre optic cables, the cost and weakness of which was inhibiting the growth of the tech industry. Talks began with companies to install the undersea fibre optic cables that now enable millions of businesses and consumers to get online, fuelling the fast growth of Africa's economic stars, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.
This voracious appetite for technology shows no signs of abating. Using basic mobile technology such as M-Pesa to perform critical business tasks was enough when the vast majority of Africans had simple feature phones, but today there is a growing appetite for a more sophisticated technology infrastructure. Of course, there remains a great need for improvements in basic infrastructure in rural areas: roads and rail networks that can support traditional industries such as agriculture. But boosting access to technology has the potential to transform different types of businesses all over the continent.
Under our recently launched Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, which aims to accelerate economic development in Africa by increasing access to technology, devices and skills training, we are working closely with the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications to provide rural populations with access to high-speed, low-cost broadband. The ‘Mawingu' white spaces pilot leverages unused TV spectrum and solar-powered base stations to transmit internet connection to areas which lack even basic electricity. With access to the internet, farmers in rural areas could branch out from selling produce and livestock at local market rates, to trading online at higher margins with buyers from across the region. Access to technology brings huge potential for learning new farming methods and skills, fuelling entrepreneurialism, accelerating economic development, and expanding business reach for rural communities.
Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and Africa is making bold steps at exactly the right time. With its young population hungry for opportunities and employment, and an ever-improving education system, the door is open for Africans to create products and services that not only transform local markets but change the way more established economies view technology.
We believe the next ten years will see African innovation changing all of our lives. As Africa's economies start to realise the potential impact of foreign investment in technology, so the world should open its eyes to what it can learn from this vast continent of passionate innovators.
By Fernando de Sousa, General Manager for Microsoft Africa
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond