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Behind the Tech Solutions Helping to Bridge Africa’s Divide

During a 2015 visit to Lagos, Nigeria, I spent time observing the happenings around one of Africa’s aesthetically superior pieces of infrastructure, the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge. There were joggers running back and forth, as well as the characteristically heavy traffic. It was during this time that I also discovered the other side of Africa’s most populous city: The phenomenon of families living on water, in Makoko – a sprawling waterfront informal settlement where around a third of the homes are built in the lagoon, on stilts or floating.

There was a family living under the bridge, sailing to and from the shore using a canoe. It later dawned on me that the dynamics surrounding that bridge, the settlement, and the city – the difference in circumstance between those riding and running on it and those living under it – was in effect the story of Africa, a story of contradictions, but also ingenuity and innovation.

Across the continent, there are initiatives aimed at narrowing these stark differences, reducing the gap between those on either side of the literal and figurative bridges. From aid to intervention, there are many approaches, but the initiatives with longevity and proven impact seem to be the ones taking a collaborative tactic. These, such as Microsoft’s Africa initiatives, succeed by working with partners to provide education and skills training to Africa’s vast youth; by helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) scale up, access markets, and create jobs; by providing access to the internet and digital services; and more importantly, building communities. These types of partnership-driven initiatives work not by imposing solutions, but through seeking innovative partnerships in existing ecosystems.

Half a continent away, at the foothills of Mount Kenya, is the town of Nanyuki, a remote community that is now connected to the world through such a partnership: schools, clinics, and businesses thriving through a home-grown project that found its own way of bridging the gap they faced.

Project ‘Mawingu’ – which means cloud in Swahili – is connecting the previously unconnected town, using a combination of solar power and the under-used broadcast spectrum known as “TV white spaces” (TVWS). With support from Microsoft, Mawingu Networks has developed a thriving business model based on this technology, which today connects over 100,000 users to low-cost, high-speed internet through thousands of WiFi hotspots.

Similarly, in the village of Qunu, South Africa, local internet service provider Brightwave, together with Microsoft’s country office, are using TVWS to connect a clinic to the cloud, reducing patient waiting time and providing a quick and secure storage solution for patient information. Now connected, the clinic’s nurses are also using an app developed by Phulukisa Health Solutions that will help them capture medical information. The app uses an algorithm to analyse this data and alert healthcare workers to any anomalies, and well as assisting them with e-triage of serious conditions.

In countries where the average wage is less than $2USD per day, and traditional telephony infrastructure is lacking, mobile-first solutions like these are giving those without traditional access the chance to drastically improve their lives. Take the company M-KOPA Solar, for example, who is replacing kerosene lighting in low-income homes with a single solution that offers families access to the internet, TV, radio as well as more efficient lighting for just 50 cents per day through a pay-as-you-go service, powered by the Microsoft Cloud. Or MoVAS Group, who are connecting the unbanked to financial services, by assessing credit worthiness through mobile phones. Both M-KOPA and MoVAS Group are beneficiaries of Microsoft 4Afrika, a continent-wide initiative working to uplift African businesses and individuals through practical, cost-effective ways and thoughtful, progressive collaborations – that are context aware.

As important as access to these kinds of digital tools and services are, people need the appropriate skills to use these, to create more of these, and to navigate an increasingly technological world. ‘Tech literacy’ and coding – plus the creativity and logic thinking this instils – is key here. Microsoft partners with Code.org each year, during Computer Science Education Week, for Hour of Code. This global movement attracts more than 100 million students from 180 countries in an effort to spark an interest in coding. Together with the African Development bank, Microsoft is also rolling out Coding for Employment to create over 25 million jobs and reach 50 million youth and women across Africa. And, with the support of various partners from airlines to universities, eager young ICT apprentices are joining the Microsoft AppFactory programme to gain digital and AI skills, with the hope of securing higher paying jobs, or starting their own businesses, in faster growing industries.

All of these initiatives are improving access to knowledge, skills and opportunities for innovation. Today, Microsoft has touched the lives of over eight million young people in Africa, from school children to job seekers and start-ups. Just like building a bridge and connecting people, Microsoft’s work in Africa continues to bridge a gap to meet the needs of Africans in the continent.