Technology can help solve some of the endemic problems plaguing Africa, but the first step is to address a variety of issues that prevent people there from accessing technology, said the chairman of Microsoft Africa. After meeting with leaders of African countries during a United Nations meeting in New York this week, he hopes to begin tackling those accessibility challenges.
"Most of the leaders in Africa agree that now technology is probably the single tool that can enable Africa to accelerate advancements in all areas, whether it is education, whether it is health, whether it is agriculture or whether it is simply transparency for good government," said Cheick Diarra, Microsoft's chairman for Africa.
Diarra holds an unusual role at Microsoft, crafted for him two years ago by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In addition to assisting Microsoft general managers across Africa in fine-tuning their business plans, he studies the unique needs of people in Africa, with the idea of helping Microsoft devise targeted products for them. "I try to advise Microsoft, as an ambassador from Africa, as to the needs and technology goals, and research and development of new products that the community might need," he said.
When he first accepted the position, he traveled around the continent talking to various communities, such as youth groups, women's organizations, academia, government agencies and the private sector, about the biggest problems confronting them. "It turns out that technology can help all these segments, but the question that came up was access to that technology," he said.
The access issue encompasses affordability of hardware and Internet connectivity, training so that people know how to use the products, availability of electricity to power the products, and basic literacy. "Once we do all that, there's still the issue of languages," he noted, of which there are many across the continent.
Diarra and his team developed a white paper that outlines the biggest impediments in Africa to technology access and describes some initial ways that governments and the private sector can begin to address the challenges. He distributed it to governments across Africa and organized a meeting with some heads of state of African countries while they were at the U.N. meeting to discuss it.
"I have invited them in the margin of the General Assembly to sit down, all of us together, along with [Gates] to see if we can have a discussion that will be like a beginning of identifying some path that can lead us to solutions," he said.
He hopes that groups of countries in regions of Africa can work together on joint projects to build infrastructure, for example, as a way to achieve economies of scale.
The meeting was just the beginning of the discussion, Diarra said. He plans next to talk with leaders at regional and subregional levels across Africa to develop projects.
Diarra is also thinking through some unique issues in Africa in order to come up with specific applications that can help people there. For example, in some countries in Africa, more than 80 percent of the people are illiterate, yet many of those people use technologies such as cell phones to help them do business. When those people make a new business contact, they may be asked to enter that person's name and number into their phone's address book. "Then they look at it for a while and try to memorize what your name looks like. It limits them in the number of entries, because your memory is limited," he noted.
While many governments are working on improving literacy rates, a simple application on a phone could help adults learn to read and write. Then they wouldn't have to rely on the government to send a teacher into their rural area, he said. "There are so many consequences to this simple thing. People can then learn how to do better farming, to access information about the price of crops without the help of someone who knows how to read and write. It will empower those communities tremendously."
He's also trying to come up with ideas for mobile banking applications. There are already a number of initiatives in Africa that let people do things such as transfer money to each other in the form of cellular air time. But one of the challenges is that often a family or a village shares a cell phone and cell phone number. That makes it more difficult to allow each of them to use the phone to do banking applications, he said.
Diarra did not specify whether Microsoft is promoting the use of Windows Mobile, which is traditionally regarded as an OS for high-end phones, in Africa. In fact, he seldom mentioned individual Microsoft products.
The company has, however, been actively pushing its products in Africa as it battles against open-source software for a foothold in the African market.
Diarra was born in Mali, educated in France and the U.S., and was a professor at Howard University. He worked for many years for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he oversaw missions to Jupiter, Venus and Mars. He also started an organization that helps women in Africa pursue an education in the sciences, before Gates hired him to work for Microsoft.