OAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, West Africa—A veritable whos who of West and Central African governments are starting to arrive in this small West African country for the regions first Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Best Practices Forum.
The conference, which is being hosted over June 6 through 8 by Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, together with Microsoft, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, will give participants an opportunity to share their perspectives on the use of ICT for economic and social development.
Delegates will also share their experience of proven models in this regard, and create a road map of practical steps that governments can take to achieve their development goals.
I arrived in Ouagadougou earlier this week and am staying at the Sofitel Ouaga 2000, which I have learned was built by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, the de facto leader of Libya, with Libyan financing.
Since my arrival I have been talking to delegates from the African Development Bank and Microsoft, and one of the most notable take-aways for me from these informal discussions is the passion and commitment that exists around the concept of using technology to better the lives of the citizens of this vast continent.
I have also heard about how even the traditional challenges of the lack of infrastructure are being addressed through novel approaches like mobile computer training units that drive from one rural area to another, and initiatives to provide entrepreneurs with assistance to set up small telecommunications centers and to buy, run and maintain generators to provide power within their communities.
As I was determined to see for myself, first-hand, exactly what the infrastructure on the ground was like and what connectivity options citizens actually had in this capital city—where more than 10 percent of the countrys 14 million citizens live, I rented a cab for the day and took a tour of the city center.
I was not that hopeful, though, after reading a World Links report which said that technology integration had been slow in the country, with less than half of one percent of the population, or about 53,000 people, having access to the Internet, only 1 percent with access to telephones.
It was 116 degrees, with nary a cloud in sight, and the air conditioning in the beat-up old car just could not meet that challenge, so the only option was to roll down the windows and experience the heat, noise, dust and chaos of this vibrant city head on.
I was unprepared for the fact that just about everyone rides a scooter, and so it is not uncommon to see elderly ladies, in brightly colored traditional dress, whizzing by, with one hand on the horn, while hawkers selling telephone cards assail you at every possible opportunity.
The most striking thing for me was the prevalence of hole-in-the-wall Internet cafes in the back of shanty-like structures on the streets, as well as more sophisticated cafes with multiple machines and wireless and Blue-tooth connectivity.
Some of these cafes also offer workspaces, equipped with desks, DSL and other productivity amenities.
The cost for an hour of relatively fast connectivity at the more upmarket cafes stood between $1 and $2. But, to put that in perspective, some 40 percent of the citizens of this country earn less than $1 a day, with some 60 percent earning less than $2 a day, making the issue of affordable access so critical.
You will also find, on almost every block of every street, a “telecenter,” which provides a range of telephone and communication services. These centers are to Burkina Faso what Starbucks is to the United States.
A Question of Access
But access remains the biggest single challenge facing people in the region, people from Microsoft and the African Development Bank told me: access to not just the technologies themselves, but also the issue of the affordability of the hardware and software, and the knowledge to use these tools.
Thats where Microsofts Unlimited Potential initiative comes in, which is about helping individuals and communities around the world globe achieve their goals through access to relevant and affordable technologies, thereby enabling new avenues of social and economic opportunity, particularly for the estimated 5 billion people that have yet to realize the benefits of technology.
In April, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced new products and programs under the banner of the Unlimited Potential initiative. A critical component of the initiative is the Microsoft Student Innovation Suite, a software package that includes Windows XP Starter Edition, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office, and Windows Live Mail desktop.
The suite will be available in the second half of 2007 for a cost of $3 each to qualifying governments in eligible countries that buy and supply Windows PCs directly to primary and secondary students for their personal use at home and for school work.
For Orlando Ayala, the senior vice president of Microsofts new Emerging Segments Market Development Group, the goal is enabling sustained social and economic opportunity for 5 billion people.
“This is an issue of sustainability. Thats why, when people talk about Linux, I dont get emotional. This is about creating sustainable, long-term systems that allow you to propel society forward. This is about building for the long term and empowering the community,” he has told me.
Microsoft also cant control what software and systems these new users will choose over time, he says, noting that the ultimate outcomes will speak to the effectiveness of the program.
Asked why a company like Microsoft is getting involved in what could be seen as a large-scale humanitarian or charitable effort and not a business investment, Ayala said there is a strong business case to be made for such moves. “Despite the skepticism that exists, I believe we have to try,” he says.
But it is a tough challenge, as Microsoft faces the risk that this effort will not be perceived as truly generous but rather more as a Trojan horse, of trying to get a foot in the door so it can exploit these markets later, Roger Kay, the president of research group Endpoint Technologies Associates, told me at the time of the announcement.
“Microsoft is simply taking a page from Gates and his foundation and is now “using some of that extraordinary windfall [from its Windows-Office franchise] to buy back the reputation. Its generosity, but generosity with a purpose. Its generosity, but its also good business,” he said.
If what I saw in Burkina Faso is anything to go by, Microsoft and its potential partners have their work cut out for them.
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