Why the world’s technology giants are investing in Africa
- 15 October 2013
- From the section Business
"I don't understand. Why is it that the media only seems to talk about Africa when bad things happen?"
The man behind the counter at my hotel in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, was talking to me about my job, and why I was visiting.
He looked genuinely pained. He told me he is a big fan of the BBC - in west Africa the World Service and language services have a big following - but it seemed to him that the media outside the continent often only noticed when bad things happened.
It's arguably a fair point. That's not to say the positive stories don't get reported, but he can be forgiven for seeing the headlines and thinking all the world sees is war, famine and pestilence.
The middle class in sub-Saharan Africa is expanding rapidly. With the seemingly unstoppable growth of the mobile phone, greater access to the internet, and an increase in access to education, change is happening, and more people have more disposable income to spend.
So it's no surprise that the big technology companies are investing in Africa. But is this the whole story?
Is it driven by philanthropy or a desire to get in on the ground before their competitors? Or does Africa offer other opportunities? I spoke to three tech giants about why they were investing in the continent.
The company has bolstered existing investments in the continent by opening a research facility in Nairobi, with the official inauguration celebration happening at the end of October.
According to IBM, this is the first research facility that does both applied and exploratory research on the continent.
"The key thing is… the great growth story of Africa," says Dr Kamal Bhattacharya, the director of IBM Research - Africa.
"We know that financial inclusion is the big challenge. About 80% of the population has no access to financial services. There is the lack of access to energy, safe water, sanitation, food security.
"As scientists we believe that science and technology is an enabler to express your needs, it is an enabler to shape your own future.
"And this is why IBM is making this very significant investment into Africa, starting with Kenya. We've hired some of the top talent from all over the world, the African diaspora, people of African origin, also people who contribute to the growth of Africa, and we bring them all together here.
"We believe research for Africa, solving Africa's grand challenges, has to be done on the ground in Africa and this is why we set up and made this investment."
His colleague, Dr Uyi Stewart, is chief scientist at the lab. Originally from Nigeria, the role has brought him and his family back to the continent 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."
Fernando de Sousa heads Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative, which focuses on encouraging innovation, increasing access to technology and building skills in the local workforce.
The division backs projects across the continent including access to training, roll-out of broadband in rural areas, infrastructure, agriculture and healthcare projects, as well as their App Factories, hubs designed to nurture young developers creating apps for the Windows phone platform.
Building these projects has a very personal resonance for Mr de Sousa, who was born in Mozambique and ended up spending 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.
"Let's take Kenya - so we start with TV white spaces in a village in the Maasai Mara.
"It's now evolved into a national policy conversation - President Kenyatta has said he wants 1.3 million students to have a [connected] device by September 2013. And he travelled to the Masai Mara to go and see what we're 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.
"[Now] we have 11 countries that have formally submitted requests for us to implement TV white spaces technology."
But Mr de Sousa is clear about the motivation behind the initiative.
"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. There's no debate about the fact that our objective is enabling economic development.
"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.
"Because that actually drives the IT ecosystem, that drives the IT industry, that makes technology relevant."
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.
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 for the Foundation was the suggestion of an employee, who had a brother who was volunteering in a school in the Kibagare slum in Nairobi.
"We gave some refurbished hardware to them, we paid for them to get the internet," Ms Kelly says.
"And so the school has taken on a bit of a focus on technology, we sponsored about 40 girls through the school, over the 10 years."
One of the sponsored pupils from a particularly difficult background would go on to become a lawyer working for the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.
The Foundation has its own revenue stream from the bigger NGOs it works with (customers include the Grameen Foundation) and also funds training in how to use the Salesforce platform, and workshops for start-ups at places like Nairobi's iHub and mLab.
Meanwhile, a host of 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.