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Africa needs holistic approach to technology

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South Africa may currently be haggling over cable rights, but connectivity is just one of a number of problems hampering technology adoption in Africa.

Dr Cheick Diarra, Africa chairman at Microsoft, says the main obstacles curtailing progress on the continent are convincing decision-makers about the importance of technology, connectivity, literacy and the availability of electricity. The high cost of software and hardware is another factor to consider, he adds.
Cheick says that a holistic approach has to be taken if technology is to benefit Africa.
"In South Afica we don't have to convince the decision-maker what technology can do," Cheick says. "It is now a matter of how they go about implementing it and what to prioritise.
"But on the rest of the continent we still have to convince the decision-maker that technology is no longer an either/or choice – either we give people food to eat, or we give them technology. Technology is a second priority."
As far as connectivity is concerned, Cheick says a hybrid model utilising both cable (fibre) and satellite is the best solution for Africa.
"Look at the populations of South Africa and Mali, for example," Cheick says. "They are scattered. So while fibre may be an option to connect major cities, is it cost-effective to take fibre across all the towns and villages? Or is it more cost-effective for villages to have a connection point and install satellite?
"A hybrid model is the answer for countries with vast territories and scattered populations," he says. "Where there is high density of population have fibre; for rural areas use satellite."
Cheick wouldn't be drawn on the current spat in South Africa between government and service providers over cable landing rights.
"I don't know all the details," he says. "But I have the perception that the people doing these cables are probably looking for one group to implement and manage them, and this exclusivity could be a difficulty.
"If you have this exclusivity, no matter what the benefits are to users, companies are in business to make money," he says. "And when a company makes an investment, it wants to amortise that in the shortest time it can. Unfortunately, because it is Africa, a lot of foreign investors want to amortise their investments in five years instead of the customary 20 years elsewhere.
"This is the kind of scenario that can be a problem."
Cheick says that while companies such as Microsoft have outdone themselves when it comes to localising, or translating, their software into local languages, it really has little impact if people can't read.
"We've done the first step in translation, now let's get young people in various countries involved in writing applications on top of that – with associated voice and graphics.
"Applications where the user points the cursor and the information is read out to them by the computer."
The availability of electricity is an ongoing concern in Africa, but Cheick believes that this problem could be alleviated by promoting and grooming young entrepreneurs.
"A model that could be created is to identify a young entrepreneur in a village, help him to get a loan to buy a generator, and let him supply electricity to villagers to light their houses," he says. "The villagers could pay an account based on how many light bulbs they use.
"And, during the day, the generator could be hooked up to a pump for irrigation."
From this base, a young entrepreneur could climb up the value chain in terms of supplying electricity for additional applications or technologies.
While companies such as Intel and AMD have launched low-cost PCs targeting developing nations, Cheick says there is an even better way of making technology available – refurbished PCs.
And again, he adds, young entrepreneurs could benefit from this.
"Why not help a young entrepreneur with a loan to start a refurbishing business?" he asks. "They could set a threshold on which PCs they'll refurbish – Pentium III, say – bring them in for a couple of dollars, and get them out to schools for a lot less than a low-cost model.
"They could also look at schemes whereby they charge a modest fee to safely dispose of any redundant technology."
But are refurbished PCs acceptable to Africans, many of whom aim to emulate their overseas counterparts with "the latest and greatest" in technology?
"Yes, yes, yes," says Cheick. "I've had several heads of state tell me they'd take 50 000 to 100 000 of these computers just for schools. You don't need brand-new computers to train kids – just something that will run software and help them to master technology."