IMB, Microsoft and Salesforce.com are among the big global technology companies investing in Africa.
Are they driven by philanthropy? A desire to get in on the ground before their competitors? Or does Africa offer other opportunities? BBC spoke to the three tech giants about why they are investing in Africa.
IBM has bolstered existing investments on the continent by opening a research facility in Nairobi, the first in Africa that does both applied and exploratory research. “We believe research for Africa, solving Africa’s grand challenges, has to be done on the ground in Africa,” said Kamal Bhattacharya, director of IBM Research Africa.
To that end, IBM has hired some of the top talent from all over the world, the African diaspora, people of African origin and people who contribute to the growth of Africa.
This very significant investment into Africa starts with Kenya, Bhattacharya said, “and we bring them all together here.”
Uyi Stewart is chief scientist at the lab. Originally from Nigeria, the job brought him and his family back to Africa after nearly 10 years in New York.
“People ask us: ‘Can you do African research from New York?’ Yes you can. It is possible, you can do research from anywhere.
“But you will miss the mark… In order to capture value, and deliver innovation that leads to commercially viable products that impact people’s lives, we have to be here, in the local ecosystem.”
Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative encourages innovation, increases access to technology and builds skills in the local workforce.
Headed by Fernando de Sousa, the division backs projects across Africa including access to training, roll-out of broadband in rural areas, infrastructure, agriculture and healthcare projects, as well as App Factories – hubs designed to nurture young developers creating apps for the Windows phone platform.
Building these projects has been personal for de Sousa, who was born in Mozambique and spent time in a South African refugee camp as a child after the outbreak of civil war.
“We said we want on focus on young people. We want to focus on skills, we want to focus on small and medium enterprises. We want to focus on access to technology.
Microsoft’s TV white spaces in a village in the Maasai Mara has evolved into a national policy conversation. President Jomo Kenyatta said he wants 1.3 million students to have a device by September 2013 and he traveled to the Masai Mara to go and see what Microsoft is doing.
“It’s not just about networks, it’s not just about PCs. It’s about the end economic impact, it’s about the skills,” said de Sousa, underscoring that the company’s objective is enabling economic development.
But it’s also about business.
“We have 11 countries that have formally submitted requests for us to implement TV white spaces technology,” he said. “There is a corporate social investment part of Microsoft which has nothing to do with Microsoft 4Afrika. And I think that that is a well-established process. We do a lot of donations in that space.
“This is about being on the ground and creating huge consumers.
“In proving the value of technology as the enabler for that development, it’s not just creating consumption of technology, but it’s actually more importantly creating the ability for knowledge to be developed, for technology to actually be built in Africa.”
Isabel Kelly is the international director of the Salesforce.com Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the customer relationship management and services technology giant.
She joined the company 11 years ago from campaigning group Amnesty International.
Salesforce.com is a global cloud computing company headquartered in San Francisco, Calif., best known for its customer relationship management product.
The foundation was started with an initial investment from the company, as well as access to Salesforce.com software, which is licensed to non-profits, and staff members volunteering.
The first project in Africa was at a school in the Kibagare slum in Nairobi.
“We gave some refurbished hardware to them, we paid for them to get the internet,”Kelly said.
The school took on a technology focus, and Salesforce.com sponsored 40 girls over 10 years.
One of the sponsored pupils from a particularly difficult background became a lawyer working for the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.
The foundation has its own revenue stream from the non-governmental organizations it works with (customers include the Grameen Foundation) and also funds training on the Salesforce platform, and workshops for start-ups at places like Nairobi’s iHub and mLab.
Other social enterprises are using Salesforce tech to power their organisations – like Juhudi Kilimo, a micro-finance social enterprise focusing on small rural farmers in Kenya, and Honeycare, an organisation that helps farmers turn to honey production.