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 $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 the project is 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.
Matthew Reed is a principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media