Using a new scheme called Microsoft 4Africa Initiative, the technology giant hopes to spur entrepreneurship and Small, Medium Enterprises growth in Nigeria. Crusoe Osagie reviews the initiative and notes that people must be ready to compete in order to benefit
The biggest economic challenge facing Nigeria today is the fact that nearly 60 per cent of the nation's citizens are either under-employed or totally unemployed.
With the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics declaring that over 50 per cent of Nigeria's huge 160 million people fall between the ages of 0 and 24 years, simple deduction therefore reveals that Nigeria apparently has young people within the age range of 0 and 40 years, numbering more than the entire population of Germany; one of the biggest countries in the European Union.
Such an army of young people, most of whom are either unemployed or underemployed, are ticking time bombs and unless they are put to productive economic use, a humanitarian crisis is inevitable in the next few years, analysts believe.
Instead of perceiving this scenario entirely as a monumental risk, Microsoft Corporation, through its 'Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative', sees it as a enormous opportunity to put millions of young and talented people into gainful employment, most of which will be created by the young people themselves.
According to the General Manager, Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, Fernando de Sousa, "The world has recognised the promise of Nigeria and Africa, and Microsoft wants to invest in that promise. We want to empower African youth, entrepreneurs, developers as well as business and civic leaders, to turn great ideas into a reality that can help their community, their country, the continent, and beyond."
The Microsoft Initiative
The technology giants revealed that the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, is a unique strategy by the Microsoft corporation to help place tens of millions of smart devices such as smartphones, personal computers and tablets in the hands of African youths, bring one million African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) online, up-skill 100,000 members of Africa's existing workforce, and help an additional 100,000 recent graduates develop employability skills, 75 per cent of whom Microsoft will guarantee job placements.
The 'Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative' will be tightly connected to Microsoft's network of more than 10,000 existing partners in Africa today, a network, which the corporation disclosed was built in over 20 years of investing and operating on the continent. The 4Afrika Initiative will leverage these existing partnerships and create new ones across both the public and private sectors to help advance common goals and to create value for Africans.
Competitive Process Benefits
Usually, when multinationals launch schemes like this, it is almost taken for granted by host communities that by virtue of being hosts, it is their entitlement and as such no individual or collective effort is made by the people to take advantage of the opportunity.
This negative attitude has mortified many laudable schemes initiated for the development of host communities by multinationals and large corporations in the past and Microsoft Country Manager for Nigeria, Emmanuel Onyeje, pointed out that for innovation to work, they must be based on business models and given the right approach.
"This project has to be community-driven for it to work. It is about knowing what is right for the community that needs it," he said.
In most cases multinationals and large corporations out of carrying out their corporate social responsibilities embark on laudable projects for host communities without expecting any form of contribution by them other than showing up to collect the largesse.
In the case of Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative, while the objective is to improve the level of competitiveness in the African economy as part of giving back to the continent that has played host to them for the last 20 years, it will require beneficiaries to make some effort in order to enjoy the benefits of the initiative.
Countries that believe that economic development does not come without hard work and a genuine desire for improvement will get the best out of the Microsoft initiative. Also, nations with policies and infrastructure that encourage collaboration, especially between the public and private sectors, with reap tangible benefits from the initiative.
According to Onyeje, "Access to these opportunities is going to be free for all. We will consider as many that can come from any country with the necessary qualifications until the whole quota is filled," he said.
The implication of this is that these promised opportunities would not just land on anybody's lap; rather some home-work is expected from the beneficiaries and their governments if they are to enjoy the benefits that these opportunities offer.
To some people this is actually bad news while to others it is good news; bad news in the sense that if you are not prepared you will get nothing, and good news in the sense that if you are prepared you stand the chance of getting many of the available slots.
Benefits for Youths
Under the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative scheme, tens of millions of smart devices such as smart phones, personal computers and tablets would be placed in the hands of African youths.
One million African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would be brought online, 100,000 members of Africa's existing workforce would be upgraded, and an additional 100,000 recent graduates would be assisted to develop employability skills, and 75 per cent of them will be employed by Microsoft and their other partner organisations.
Even though the scheme targets other countries in Africa besides Nigeria, it is easy to see a clear cut relationship in the objectives of the 4Afrika initiative and the Transformation Agenda such as youth empowerment, SME development, vocational and industrial skills training, and job creation; an indication that the necessary ground work has already been laid for the success of the scheme in the country.
It is clear that Microsoft intends to partner SMEs to take them global through web visibility and connect them to new international markets from wherever they are cited, including rural and remote areas of Africa.
This will no doubt mark a huge leap for many SMEs who are unable to build websites for their businesses and as such cannot present their products and services to the global market.
It will also translate to more income for SMEs who have globally appealing products but lack the technological platform to showcase them on the internet, which has become the world's number one marketplace.
According to Senior Faculty member of the Lagos Business School and Pan-African University, Pat Utomi, who was at the event, the initiative is of fundamental value to Nigeria's economy. To him, "the spirit of enterprise is very palpable in the country but it needs to be driven appropriately for it to make maximum impact and that is what Microsoft has done."
He said it may not be part of the company's corporate social responsibility but indeed it is smart thinking that is bound to yield positive economic results.
According to recent data provided by the National MSMEs collaborative survey undertaken by SMEDAN and the National Bureau of Statistics, the number of MSMEs in Nigeria was put at 17,284,671, providing employment for about 33 million people and contributing about 45 per cent to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Underscoring the importance of SMEs, the Minister of Trade and Investment, Olusegun Aganga, during a visit by members of an international development agency, said, "Globally, Small and Medium Enterprises are the drivers of economic growth and job creation. For us in the Ministry of Trade and Investment, this is where we have the opportunity to make the biggest change."
Going by the above statistics and the great importance placed on SMEs by the government, one is expecting that an opportunity like this offered by Microsoft will not be passed up by Nigerian entrepreneurs and the government.
They should do everything possible to see that a large percentage of our SMEs benefit from this opportunity as this will not only generate more revenue but it will also serve as a platform for creating more jobs from the business expansion it is bound to bring as sales go up.
Aganga was on point when he said that given the strategic role of SMEs in the ministry's Industrial Revolution Plan in terms of job creation and wealth generation, there was a need to harmonise the efforts and activities of all stakeholders in the SME sector, including the IDAs, to achieve optimal results.
"However, most of the SMEs, about 65 per cent of them, are in the rural areas. Therefore, to reach the rural areas, we need to have a robust strategy to make sure that they are included in our financial inclusion strategy and that we work with them so that they can start new businesses," he added.
Noting that 65 per cent of our SMEs are based in the rural areas, it therefore becomes challenging to link them up with the latest technology. However, challenges in themselves are opportunities in disguise and Microsoft seems to have found the right solution to bridging the technological deficiency suffered by rural dwellers through the use of white space technology.
Using 'White Space'
The term White Space refers to portions of licensed radio spectrum that licensees do not use all the time or in all geographical locations. Presently, several regulators around the world are moving towards allowing unlicensed access to these frequencies, signalling a more effective and efficient use of the radio spectrum.
Much of the availability of white spaces stem from the discontinuation of analogue TV signals in several countries and the spectrum that it frees up.
Radio signals at these frequencies have characteristics that make them suitable for travelling long distances over hills and around/through buildings. Examples of applications currently envisaged include rural broadband, city wide data networks; campus/hospital data networks and machine to machine communication.
It is with the aid of this new white space technology that Microsoft also announced plans to deliver low-cost, high-speed, wireless broadband and create new opportunities for commerce, education, healthcare, and delivery of government services.
Already a pilot scheme has been deployed in Kenya called "Mawingu," which is Kiswahili for cloud. It is the first deployment of solar-powered base stations together with TV white spaces, a technology partially developed by Microsoft Research, to deliver high-speed Internet access to areas currently lacking even basic electricity.
Microsoft said that it hopes to implement similar pilots in East and Southern Africa in the coming months to further explore the commercial feasibility of white space technologies. These pilots will be used to encourage other African countries to accelerate legislation that would enable this white spaces technology to deliver on the promise of universal access for the African continent.
However, what is our government doing to improve access to data technology in the rural areas, bearing in mind that 65 per cent of our SMEs are located in rural areas?
Chairman of the Government Committee to Accelerate Broadband in Nigeria, Ernest Ndukwe, during the presentation of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative in Lagos, remarked that the initiative was timely, stressing that most of the advances that have been made in technology, have been achieved through and working with young people.
He said that the government was also anxious to see to a fast improvement in connectivity by tackling the issues of congestion.
"We are also working on seeing new spectrum by bringing on-board new operators on 4G to ensure that some applications can be accessible in the rural areas." On broadband he noted that affordability, access, attractiveness and local content/appeal were critical for its growth in the country.
To help empower African SMEs, Microsoft announced a new online hub through which African SMEs will have access to free, relevant products and services from Microsoft and other partners. The hub will aggregate the available services which can help them expand their business locally, find new business opportunities outside their immediate geography, and help increase their overall competitiveness.
As a "welcome offer," Microsoft will provide free domain registration for the period of one year and free tools for qualifying SMEs interested in creating a professional web presence. The hub is expected to open in April initially in South Africa and Morocco and will expand to other African markets over time.
Microsoft intends to provide access to technology particularly cloud services and smart devices that will serve as a great accelerator for African competitiveness. The 4Afrika Initiative also intends to help provide affordable access to smart devices to improve access to the internet in Africa broadly, and to facilitate access to free web services for small and medium businesses.
Entrepreneurship and Youth Empowerment
President Goodluck Jonathan had once noted that Bill Gates' the founder of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook are eloquent testimonies to the capacity of the youth to dream big and win big in an innovative manner.
And according to him "We have such men and women in this land too, our challenge is to find them early, nurture them and encourage them."
And in matching words with action he had gone ahead to launch the "YouWin" programme for youth economic empowerment in 2010.
During the launch he said, "While I commend our development partners for their support on the YouWin initiative, let me use this occasion to re-emphasise the need for productive partnerships with global businesses and organisations on our job creation agenda."
To accelerate capacity building and skills development, Microsoft has established the Afrika Academy world-class education platform leveraging online and offline learning tools to help Africans develop both technical and business skills for entrepreneurship and improved employability
Training through the Afrika Academy will be made available starting in March at no cost to recent higher education graduates, government leaders, and the Microsoft partner community. One of the first offline training sessions will take place with Microsoft managed partners in the coming months, focusing on capacity building in both business and technical skills.
According to Onyeje when it comes to development it is not just about the government, but rather it is to be considered as a shared responsibility. "It is about everyone's involvement and more of a partnership than abandoning the whole project for the government," he said.
He stated further that Africa has great potentials but that most organisations are waiting for something to happen whereas Microsoft was taking another approach.