Accelerating economic development through digital in Africa

Accelerating economic development in Africa
Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika.
Accelerating economic development in Africa
Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika.

The explosion of digital in Africa continues to gain momentum and digital, data, AI and the emergence of the fintech sector are all fast becoming the driving force behind this growth. The growing use of big data, mobile, cloud computing and artificial intelligence gives organisations the ability to re-imagine client experiences, deliver products & services instantly to large numbers of clients at a lower cost.

Speaking at the Women in Tech conference held in March, Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika addressed the explosion of digital in Africa and how cloud and AI-enabled innovation is driving social and economic inclusion on the continent.

Amrote is the Regional Director of Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative, spearheading investments in Africa across 54 countries. She works closely with the internal teams in the Middle East and Africa – and globally – to enable and accelerate digital transformation opportunities across the continent.

In an interview with IT News Africa, Abdella shared the top five tech investment trends to fuel positive social and economic impact across Africa, Microsofts’ journey in fueling economic impact in Africa and the importance of women entering the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce.

What are some of the major tech trends that will fuel positive social and economic impact across Africa?
In Africa, young entrepreneurs – with their ambition, creativity, agility and interest in new technologies – are leading the way. Not only are small businesses the backbone of economic growth and job creation, but African start-ups are also experimenting with artificial intelligence, machine learning and mixed reality to fundamentally change the way people access services like healthcare, finance, government services and education.

In East Africa, for example, we work with Access. Mobile and MoVAS Group. Access. Mobile uses cloud-enabled technology to make quality healthcare more accessible, and provides personalized doctor-patient engagement. MoVAS Group, which currently has over 12 million users, is using technology like AI to give unbanked populations access to financial services.

AI has the potential to solve some of the most pressing challenges that impact sub-Saharan Africa and drive growth and development in core sectors – including agriculture where precision farming and solutions focused on raising crop yields in agriculture are gaining momentum. On the other hand, looking at the financial sector, across the Middle East and Africa, a projected $28.3 million will be spent on developing AI solutions.

As a technology company, through initiatives like 4Afrika, we’re investing in these solutions and more, while developing the relevant skills and broadband access for people to consume and create more of them.

We partner with enablers in the start-up ecosystem to bring start-ups access to finance, go-to-market support on top of our technical enablement service offerings. In the last year, we’ve reached over 300 start-ups, with a focus on 65 unicorns. Microsoft programmes like the AppFactory, AI PopUp Lab, Microsoft Virtual Academy, MySkills4Afrika and Cloud Society are all geared towards helping people of any age develop the digital skills needed to be more productive and employable in the fourth industrial revolution.

Do you think African countries are ready and well equipped to take on new technologies?
In terms of AI, Africans are keenly aware on the importance of data. Policymakers are recognising the role of data in making informed decisions, so there’s a lot of effort, particularly around skills development, in making that happen.

In terms of cloud computing, Microsoft this month launched its first enterprise-grade datacenters in South Africa, which will enable companies to securely move into the cloud while maintaining data residency and meeting compliance needs. According to the Cloud Africa 2018 report, use of the cloud among medium and large organisations in Africa, has more than doubled from less than 50 per cent in 2013, to pervasive use in 2018. And nearly all organisations surveyed in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria plan to increase their cloud spend.

The Microsoft data centres in Africa are aligned with the growing investment into Africa – and marking the most recent launches in South Africa, the 54th Azure region worldwide. Together with other ongoing investments, it’s our vote of confidence in the continent and its potential to lead in the technology revolution.

We know that tech will usher in new jobs, what kind of jobs will we see evolving?
As technology systems advance, we expect that these advances will change the nature of jobs. This shift will require new ways of thinking about skills and trainings to ensure that workers are prepared for the future and that there is sufficient talent available for critical jobs.

Cloud engineers, AI specialists and data analysts are all roles we’ll see more of. But I also believe those who can integrate technology with more traditional vocations – like teaching and marketing – will also be in high demand.

What skills set do you think would be beneficial as we shift towards a digital community?
We believe in a good balance of technical and soft skills – as digital skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence, all becoming crucial as automation takes over certain tasks.

One of the reasons why we’ve launched the Interns4Afrika programme is to help youth develop these workplace skills in tandem. Thus far, the programme has been very well received by our partners. We currently have 123 partners accepting interns and 85% of these interns are being retained for full-time jobs.

Why do you think it is important to have events such as the Women in Tech Africa?
One of the reasons women representation in technology is low is due to a lack of mentors or role models. Events like this allow us to share our experiences. It’s an opportunity to listen to the career journeys of women, how they overcame hurdles of prejudice, and how they’re making a positive contribution to the industry. Studies have shown that bringing 600 million additional women to the ICT sector can boost the GDP of developing countries by an estimated US$13 billion, therefore we need to create a culture where more women are attracted to STEM and see themselves having a career path in the technology industry. Having a diverse and inclusive workforce is also essential in ensuring that future technology systems are fair, unbiased and representative.

What is Microsoft doing to fuel economic impact in Africa?
Over the last four years, Microsoft, through its 4Afrika Initiative, has been strategically investing in start-ups, partners, small-to-medium enterprises, governments, ISVs and youth. We are focused on developing affordable access to the internet, world-class skills and innovation, to accelerate Africa’s digital transformation and economic development.

Since 2013, 4Afrika has brought over 1.7M SMEs online, of which 500,000 are now actively consuming Microsoft cloud services. Through 15 TV white spaces connectivity projects, we have connected schools, healthcare centres, universities and SMEs to the internet for the first time. Our 4Afrika Academy has upskilled 800,000 Africans and enabled 85% of our youth graduates to secure full-time jobs. And we have provided financial and technical support to start-ups, who are using cloud-enabled technology to change the face of healthcare, agriculture, education and government in Africa.

By Fundisiwe Maseko
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