OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, West Africa—The Information and Communications Technology Best Practices Forum held June 7-9 here saw a number of plenary panel discussions about the many challenges facing West and Central Africa, and how best to address these.
One of the most urgent challenges for the region is giving its children a competitive education as well as integrating technology into the school curriculum.
In session after session, Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsofts Emerging Segments Market Development Group, reiterated the software companys belief in, and commitment to, the region, which is racked by poverty and unemployment.
He also repeatedly pointed to Microsofts Unlimited Potential initiative, which aims to give an additional billion people access to computers by the year 2015, as one of the potential solutions to help solve these issues.
Africa, where 60 percent of the 1 billion population is under 30 years old, has enormous potential, as its youth can contribute greatly to their countries and societies going forward, Ayala told me in one of our many interviews here.
Broad access to PCs and technology needs to be a right, not a privilege, for every citizen in the world, especially given the dramatic reduction in the prices of the hardware, software and memory, he said.
But I wanted to hear more about this from people other than Microsoft, so on June 8 I shadowed Ayala on a number of site visits around Ouagadougou.
The first stop was at the Maison de lEnterprise, which provides business development services for foreign investors and SMBs (small and midsize businesses) directly, through a network of Centres de Formalites des Enterprises.
While there I heard from staffers that one of the biggest obstacles to the establishment of small businesses, which are the engine of economic growth, is the price of technology.
The average cost of a refurbished computer is $800, which is often loaded with pirated and unreliable software, and with no support or services included. Some 50 percent of this cost is due to taxes, they said.
Another stop was at the Lycee Philippe Zinda Kabore, which is the largest secondary school in Burkina Faso with 6,000 registered students but only 183 teachers, meaning that the average class size is 110. The schools computer lab has just 20 computers, and even the schools headmaster, Ali Sawadogo, does not have a PC in his office.
The last stop was Sonapost, which is the countrys national postal operator and also operates a national network of iCafes, where General Manager Arthur Kafando told us that a connection equivalent to a T-1 line would cost between $1,000 and $2,000 a month.
Each of Sonaposts iCafes host some 200 customers a day, who pay about $1 an hour for Internet access.
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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.
I also asked others from Africa about the challenges facing their nations and whether they thought Microsofts goal of bringing computer access to 1 billion people by 2015 is realistic.
Dr. Ini Urua, a divisional manager and principal engineer at that African Development Bank, which has decades of experience on this continent, told eWEEK in an interview that the billion people figure is realistic and an achievable target, but can only happen if countries have the political will to pursue key objectives.
“I believe we are seeing an increasing commitment from governments in the region to applying technology to help achieve their socio-economic and political goals,” he said.
The bank has a policy of nonexclusive partnerships so as to bring value to the continent. Africa, he said, is more in the international limelight now than it had been in the past primarily because African leaders committed to certain goals for the region several years ago and then reached out and asked for help in achieving those goals.
The citizenry, particularly the young, are increasingly demanding more from their governments and are not willing to sit by passively, he said.
Representatives from other African countries also told me that Internet penetration is not high, but that their governments are taking action and offering discounts, incentives and financing to increase PC ownership and connectivity.
Dr. Ashraf Abdelwahab, the deputy to the Egyptian minister of state for administrative development, said that just some 5 million of Egypts 76 million citizens are connected to the Internet.
There are a number of initiatives under way to increase penetration, he told me, including using a modem and fixed phone line, giving users the ability to connect for the price of a local phone call, and subsidizing the cost of DSL, which starts at $5 a month.
The government is also offering citizens with fixed phone lines the ability to get bank financing and monthly installment payment terms for computers. Some 70,000 computers are acquired each year this way, Abdelwahab said.
Another initiative designed to help create more Internet cafés has been undertaken by the Egyptian government in conjunction with the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. A citizen who has a property suitable for a café is given 10 computers and free Internet connection for the first year, after which the owner is required to pay for connectivity. So far some 1,400 of these Internet cafés have been set up across Egypt, Abdelwahab told me.
So, after all this, I have to agree with Ayala, who told me that while a lot has already been achieved in Africa, there is much more work to be done before the true potential of its inhabitants can be realized.
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