Microsoft is setting up new innovation centres across Africa – including two in South Africa – in a bid to help spawn a new generation of African start-ups, while accelerating skills development. 

The Microsoft Innovation Centres (MICs) will provide about 6 000 businessmen and -women per year with the technology they need to start up businesses or further their careers.
The two new South African centres will supplement South Africa’s existing MICs at SmartXchange in Durban and the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University in Braamfontein.
Robynne Erwin, the chief executive of SmartXchange, says that based on the experience of South Africa’s MICs, approximately 1 500 people per year will use each MIC, including start-up companies, students, academics and industry associations.
“These new MICs will provide a huge boost for skills development in the local technology industry by providing world-class facilities and support programs in innovation, intellectual capital, technology and business skills for start-ups, software developers, IT professionals, government and universities,” says Erwin.
The locations of the new MICs will be confirmed following further discussions with interested governments. The company also plans to launch MICs in Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda.
Prof Barry Dwolatzky, the chief executive of the JCSE, says the innovation centres play an important part in developing the vital high-level technology skills that the country’s IT industry needs.
“We’re trying to produce start-up companies, but the real issue is that we’re giving people real skills to take into the industry, whether their companies succeed or not,” says Prof Dwolatzky. “High-level technology skills have a multiplier effect on employment: the more highly qualified people there are, the more people with entry-level skills can be absorbed by industry.”
Microsoft SA’s developer platform executive, Dave Ives, says the company is further stepping up its skills development efforts by expanding its S2B job enablement programme, which helped more than 1 000 graduates find jobs in its first year in South Africa.
S2B helps local companies to find and hire talented technology students, and provides the necessary certification to qualified candidates enabling them to participate in the technology economy and helping to fuel new growth and innovation at local companies.
Ives says the company’s goal is to place 10 000 S2B graduates in jobs by 2010.
“The MICs and S2B programme aim to support poverty reduction by supporting the development of local technology solutions applicable for local circumstances, whether in education, healthcare, e-government, mining, agriculture and business, and helping bring these to scale; and by expanding the pathways from technology education to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities,” says Ives.
“The MIC and S2B programs are business-led investments that aim to grow and sustain vibrant local software economies that drive local innovation, jobs and growth, and Microsoft’s long term business success. “
SmartXchange’s Erwin says the MICs perform a vital function by enabling small development companies to perform proof of concept testing on state of the art equipment. This not only enables them to fast track the development process, but also ensures a more robust product.
“In Durban we are also working with the tertiary institutions to provide ‘live’ work experience to final year ICT students, and Microsoft has made the MIC available for architecture and design workshops. A good spin-off from these skill sessions is the fact that it provides an excellent networking forum for businesses of all sizes,” says Erwin.
Ives says that investing in Africa’s innovation potential requires investing in networks and partnerships as well as facilities, because software innovation is generated through inspiring collaborations that are nurtured from idea to marketplace.
“Our company already sells more software in Africa than in China or India, so growing Africa’s local software economies is a business priority, to which both our business investments and corporate citizenship programs are directed – in education, software language localization, community technology skills training, and so on,” says Ives.