Microsoft is set to introduce an affordable smartphone tailored specifically for Africa as the global software giant moves to kickstart its 4Afrika Initiative, a drive to boost the adoption of smart devices, empower small businesses and accelerate skills development on the continent.
Announcing the 4Afrika Initiative at launch events in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa last week, the Washington-based company said that it planned to help place tens of millions of smart devices in the hands of young Africans by 2016.
At the same time, the initiative aimed to "bring 1-million African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) online, upskill 100 000 members of Africa's existing workforce, and help an additional 100 000 recent graduates develop employability skills, 75 percent of whom Microsoft will help place in jobs".
Huawei 4Afrika phone
To get the ball rolling, Microsoft has partnered with Chinese manufacturer Huawei to introduce the 4Afrika phone, a full-functionality Windows Phone 8 which will come pre-loaded with select applications designed for Africa.
The phone will initially be available in Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa later this month.
To support this drive - and as part of the company's move into an area so far dominated by rivals Apple and Android - Microsoft is moving to unearth Africa-relevant Windows and Windows Phone applications through AppFactories recently opened in South Africa and Egypt.
According to the company, the AppFactory teams of student interns have already built 73 Windows apps and 39 Windows Phone apps, and at full capacity plan to contribute up to 90 new apps a month to the Windows Store.
SME Online Hub, Afrika Academy
Microsoft also announced a new SME Online Hub through which African SMEs will have access to "free, relevant" products and services from Microsoft and other partners - starting with a "welcome offer" of one year's free domain registration and free tools for SMEs interested in creating a professional web presence.
The hub is expected to open initially in South Africa and Morocco in April, and to expand to other African markets over time.
To complement this, Microsoft has established the Afrika Academy, an education platform leveraging online and offline learning tools, to help Africans develop technical and business skills for entrepreneurship and improved employability. Starting in March, the academy will offer training at no cost to recent higher education graduates and government leaders.
"The world has recognized the promise of Africa, and Microsoft wants to invest in that promise," 4Afrika Initiative general manager Fernando de Sousa said in a statement last week. "We want to empower African youth, entrepreneurs, developers, and business and civic leaders to turn great ideas into a reality that can help their community, their country, the continent and beyond.
"The 4Afrika Initiative is built on the dual beliefs that technology can accelerate growth for Africa, and Africa can also accelerate technology for the world."
'TV white space' technology
As part of the initiative, Microsoft has also announced a pilot project with the Kenyan government and local internet service provider Indigo Telecom to provide low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband in the East African country.
The initiative - dubbed "Mawingu" which is Kiswahili for cloud - will involve the first deployment of solar-powered base stations working together with "TV white spaces" to deliver high-speed internet access to areas lacking even electricity.
Microsoft said it hopes to implement similar pilots in east and southern Africa in the coming months to further explore the commercial feasibility of TV white space technology.
"These pilots will be used to encourage other African countries to accelerate legislation that would enable this TV white space technology to deliver on the promise of universal access for Africa," the company said.
Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, said the company believed "there has never been a better time to invest in Africa", and that access to technology, particularly cloud services and smart devices, "can and will serve as a great accelerator for African competitiveness.
"The launches of Windows 8 and many other new products in the coming months represent a new era for Microsoft, which we believe will redefine the technology industry globally. These additional investments under the 4Afrika banner will help define our company's new era in Africa."