Travel Diary: The African ICT Best Practices Forum, Burkina Faso and West Africa—Michael Rawding

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel throughout West Africa to represent Microsoft Unlimited Potential, meeting with our partners across the public and private sectors to further discuss how Microsoft can best contribute to help create new economic opportunities in Africa.   I began my journeys in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, attending the second annual African ICT Best Practices Forum, a venue for government officials from across Africa to explore how best to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government in the region through the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).  For background, the first ICT Best Practices Forum, held in Ouagadougou in June 2007, drew hundreds from across West and Central Africa, including representatives from government, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the academic world, to discuss and share their own experiences and demonstrate successful technology solutions from their respective countries. 



The possibilities and challenges currently present in Africa are immense.  The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has demonstrated that if all of the IT innovations across African countries were to be combined into a single nation, it would be the 12th most technologically advanced country in the world.  Despite this existing core of ICT innovation and gradual improvements in economic performance, Africa continues to struggle in the global economy. The continent accounts for only about 2% of total world trade, and its share of global manufactured exports is similarly low.


However, Africa continues to hold massive potential and show impressive continued progress.  The continent’s deep natural and human resources—with over half a billion people under the age of 30—represent an almost unlimited engine for future possibility.    And Africa is already starting to deliver technology innovations that can have impact worldwide; for example, in Kenya, a new digital payment system allows users to transfer money across mobile phones with minimal cost using text messaging.  Similar innovations in technology have the potential to scale across a variety of development areas in Africa: enabling teachers and students to access quality educational materials with the simplest digital technology, or linking people with limited access to health care to world-class treatment from doctors on the other side of the world. Initiatives like these represent a new wave of technological progress that can speed technology adoption across all of Africa and have a significant impact on African development.


As I saw time and again during my travels last week, the level of interest in adopting ICT solutions like these to address Africa’s critical development challenges and the associated optimism for how this can positively impact economic growth is high.  But it’s important to remember that technology is only a tool that can help to realize this growth. To translate innovation into tangible progress will take the cooperation and commitment of parties across the public and private sector, investing together in education, local business development, and other initiatives that can drive positive social and economic change.




One of Microsoft Unlimited Potential’s core strengths is our work to develop these sorts of strong public-private partnerships with NGOs, governments, business leaders and educators.  The potential of these partnerships to empower citizens with ICT skills that can create new social opportunities, cultivate strong local software economies and increase competitiveness in global markets was a focus of discussion during the first day of the Forum.  We were privileged to have Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in attendance at this year’s event, and last Monday he announced a variety of new public-private partnerships to support social and economic growth across Africa.   


One of the other key themes of this year’s ICT Forum was the importance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as key agents of change and implementing crucial outcomes locally for Africa’s social and economic development. However, too often the management and technology resources of these NGOs fall short of their ICT skill set.  Microsoft has long been committed to offering training and support to empower the regional scalability and long-term sustainability of these NGOs, as they are critical partners in UP’s objective to bring the benefits of relevant, accessible, and affordable technology to the next five billion people, particularly underserved citizens in Africa.




On the second day of the Forum, I was proud to announce that Microsoft is expanding this ongoing commitment to NGOs in Africa with a new skills training and support program called the NGO ICT4D Academy.  In partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation and the Academy for Education Development (AED), we will be opening NGO ICT4D Academies across Africa that will provide technology and skills development, IT support services, and eReadiness services that will offer training and support to build the business and IT skills capacity of regional NGOs.  The first milestone of the NGO ICT4D Academy project will be the launch of the “NGO Connect” Web site, a forum for NGOs to share ideas and best practices across Africa, which will launch in June 2008.


After the ICT Best Practices Forum concluded in Burkina Faso, I spent the next several days continuing my travels in West Africa, moving on through Senegal and Ghana.   After hearing all of the amazing stories and examples of technology projects and partnerships that are helping to transform Africa at the Forum, I was able to experience firsthand the programs and work being done to increase Africa’s competitiveness and economic growth through technology; it was definitely a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see these ideas being put into practice.


Transforming education is one of Unlimited Potential’s primary missions, and we’ve been working hard to ensure that recent developments in affordable computing technology for education are supported and made available in Africa and around the world.   In addition to these efforts, Microsoft offers a wide variety of technology-based education solutions, programs and products through our Partners in Learning initiative—which we renewed earlier this year with an additional five-year investment of $235.5 million.  In Africa, Partners in Learning has already touched the lives of more than 11 million students, teachers and education policymakers since its launch in 2003.




We’re working to bring the benefits of educational technology to even more individuals in Africa.  At the ICT Forum, we announced a new agreement with the Burkina Faso Ministry of Education that will deliver relevant, affordable and accessible computing solutions to schoolchildren who would otherwise miss out on these significant educational benefits technology can provide. In partnership with Intel, Microsoft will provide students at the Lycée Philippe Zinda Kabore in Ouagadougou (which Orlando Ayala visited during last year’s ICT Forum) with 50 Classmate PCs running Windows software as part of an educational pilot program.




And last Wednesday, we announced a similar pilot program to benefit African students, carried out in cooperation with Senegal’s Ministry of Education and Asus, to deliver ultra-low-cost PCs directly to the Lycée John Fitzgerald Kennedy school in Dakar-providing students (pictured above) with Asus EeePCs loaded with Microsoft software, including Windows XP, along with localized education content, Partners in Learning Modules and Digital Literacy training.  These and other affordable computing solutions for education will undoubtedly contribute positively to the development of an economically competitive Africa—Microsoft has long believed that education is the cornerstone of economic opportunity. 


However,  encouraging economic development in Africa will require a multifaceted approach, incorporating strong relationships with public and private sector partners.  I addressed this in more depth on Thursday in Accra, Ghana, where I had the immense privilege of delivering a speech at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  The theme of this year’s conference was “addressing the opportunities and challenges of globalization for development,” and I spoke about the role of technology used as a “digital bridge” in conjunction with public-private partnerships to accelerate social and economic development, as well as global competitiveness.  I reiterated a theme that was stressed at the African ICT Best Practices forum: for technology to have value beyond that of just a tool, it needs to deliver a human benefit that exceeds its cost.  By collaborating with all participants in these public-private partnerships, we can help 5 billion citizens of the world cross the digital bridge and enjoy the benefits of sustained social and economic opportunity that technology can help to provide.


After I was last in Africa (attending the Connect Africa summit and visiting Kenya and Nigeria), I noted here that only through partnership with local governments and programs can Unlimited Potential effectively scale our impact to help create sustainable economic growth and enable people and businesses throughout Africa to reach their full potential.  I believe that the events of the past week fully support that statement, both in terms of witnessing the substantial progress that has already been made, as well as in the clear potential that exists for governments, IGOs, NGOs, and corporations to continue to partner and create new opportunities in the region.   


By the next time I return to Africa, I know that there will be even more progress to see and challenges to address.  For our part, Unlimited Potential will continue to work together with our partners across the African continent and around the world to forge strong partnerships and find the best solutions and technology tools needed to transform education, foster local innovation, and create job and economic opportunity.




Thank you,

Michael Rawding, Vice President, Unlimited Potential Group



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