Microsoft’s Africa project highlights the continent’s importance to technology players

Microsoft’s new drive to target Africa – the 4Afrika
initiative, as the software giant’s marketing people have styled it –
highlights the growing and deserved importance of the continent to global technology
players.

Microsoft’s 4Afrika includes two major components. One
is the launch, in partnership with Huawei, of a low-cost smartphone, the Huawei
4Afrika, which has been tailored to the African market and, of course, uses the
Windows Phone operating system. (The Huawei 4Afrika will reportedly cost about
US$150, which as an aside is still quite pricey for its intended market.)

The second major component of the 4Afrika program
sees Microsoft, somewhat unusually, getting involved in an infrastructure
project, in this case a wireless broadband network in Kenya’s Rift Valley that will
use white spaces (unused broadcast spectrum) and solar power to bring Internet
connectivity to people living in remote, rural areas. Microsoft is working
alongside the Kenyan government and local ISP Indigo on the Rift Valley broadband
project.

Other elements of the 4Afrika project include a
portal for SMEs; a training center that will offer technical and business
courses; an AppFactory to encourage the development of African apps for the
Windows Store; and a female empowerment portal, aimed at North African women.

A lot of this is reminiscent of the activities that
Microsoft’s arch-rival Google already has underway in Africa. Low-cost
smartphones based on Google’s Android OS – such as the Huawei Ideos – have
proved very popular in African markets, notably Kenya. Google is involved in
network projects in Africa, such as the Wazi WiFi service, again in Kenya. Google
has a project to help small businesses in Africa to get online. Google has also
worked hard to make its core search service available in African languages, and
to encourage the creation of local content for YouTube.

So why are Microsoft and Google going to all this
effort and expense? Most likely, it is due to the recognition that Africa
offers one of the last big growth opportunities for access to the Internet and
all the products and services that are associated with that: devices; software;
applications; content and advertising.

New submarine cables have improved Africa’s previously
poor connectivity to the rest of the world in the past few years (although
terrestrial connectivity often remains a bottle-neck). 3G and even 4G access networks
are being rolled out on the continent. Economic growth and changing consumer
behavior mean that there is rising demand for data services including Internet
access. And that growth is taking place from a low base, which suggests that
there is substantial further growth yet to come.

Some of the projects that Microsoft and Google have
underway in Africa might not have an obvious commercial rationale. But helping small
businesses to get online and providing broadband in remote areas helps to
fulfill these technology giants’ broader aim of encouraging Internet use in
Africa. Microsoft and Google are unlikely to complain if such efforts burnish
their reputations locally. And along the way Microsoft and Google will be
hoping that their websites, software and services are the ones that Africa’s
new Internet users come to regard as their default choice.