During our visit to one of the iCafes, we met a student who had to drop out of school because of a lack of funds but was trying to educate himself via the Internet. Another youth was investigating buying vitamins from Canada to sell in Burkina Faso, while a woman was checking mail for her consultancy business.
Sonapost also sets up iCafes in rural areas across the country, where the cost of access is about 40 U.S. cents an hour. But even that is out of the reach of most people in this impoverished country, where some 60 percent of workers earn less than $2 a day.
These visits underscored, Ayala told me, the three tenets of Unlimited Potential—education, innovation, and job and entrepreneurial creation—which are the key challenges in Africa today.
Education is at the top of the list, he said, noting that the quality of education is not very high in the region, which is why Microsoft wants to help change that.
With regard to innovation, Microsoft wants to help give Africa the ability to participate in the global environment and be competitive, and the company realizes that people have to be able to innovate if their society is to move forward.
An important component of this is innovating through new technologies and providing low-cost computers through partnerships, like Microsofts partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization announced last week to set up PC refurbishment centers in Africa as well as its work with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices to provide greater access to hardware, Ayala said.
Microsoft is also making low-cost software available, like the Microsoft Student Innovation Suite, which includes all of its key software, for $3 a person.
In addition, Microsoft hosts four Innovation Centers in the region—in South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tunisia—and is planning to expand that number. These centers provide tools and guidance to students and developers, helping them create software, in the hope that that this will help spur the establishment of new companies that will provide software for Africa.
Microsoft has also developed the Partners In Learning program, which encompasses several programs through which Microsoft is committing $10 million in cash and resources over five years to increase technology skills in teachers and improve educational outcomes for students.
Some 200,000 teachers in Africa have been trained under this program, who have then helped 21 million students in 16 African nations.