Ali Faramawy (Africa) - Technology Innovation and the Future of Emerging Nations

Last week I spent a few hours with our teams in Africa, evaluating the next phases of our Africa strategy. For years we have been working on multiple initiatives aimed at addressing some of the Millennium Development Goals: poverty, health, women and youth empowerment, as well as others. We did a lot of work on teacher training, lifelong learning, NGO support, micro-financing and entrepreneurship. We also worked on government and education initiatives, advocating ICT usage for development and citizen services, as well as socializing best practices amongst African nations.

In our meeting with the African team -being the relentless, self-critical bunch that we are- the overwhelming view was that there was something big and important missing. Something dear to our hearts and essential to our existence... that thing called "innovation."

Now back tracking to a few weeks earlier, I had a discussion with Dan'l Lewin, who is our corporate executive in charge of venture capitalists and entrepreneur relations. We went much deeper into the impact of our innovation centers in Africa and the Middle East. I told him that I knew they were great; many new companies and students leveraged them; "but," I asked him, "how can we really drive it to scale, how can we touch thousands and not hundreds of lives?" His answer was simple: venture capitalists can drive you to scale, and they will come if you show them real "innovation".

Go back even earlier to a discussion I had in Cairo post-revolution - I assembled our subsidiary management, our Corporate Social Responsibility team, our government team, and the heads of our innovation lab with one question in mind: "what can we do to support Egypt?" After heated, long and passionate discussions, and after agreeing that a lot of work is needed for education and awareness, the bulk of the outcome was about smart solutions for democracy and transparency, as well as new initiatives for internship and employment.

Well, you guessed it right... "innovation". In fact the team subsequently launched a new service, Microsoft Afkar, which simply means "ideas", and set it up as a work pad for innovative technology solutions. Many questions still stand: should innovation come from emerging markets or can it come from wherever? How much dependence on external money is needed? What are the real success criteria? Is this only for the long-term or is it directly linked to employment -if not, will we starve in the short-term? My hunch is that technology innovation can take us a long way, but I am still thinking about these questions and a lot more for the emerging nations.

By Ali Faramawy, vice president, Microsoft Middle East & Africa. You can find Ali on twitter @afaramawy


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