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Tech giants set sights on Africa's innovators

By Lucie Morangi in Kenya | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2019-05-16 21:11

Microsoft is to tap into the growing software engineering talent pool in Africa. [Photo/VCG]

American tech giant Microsoft has becomes the latest company joining the rush to tap into the growing software engineering talent pool in Africa. The company has announced plans to spend $100 million on a center with offices in Kenya and Nigeria.

The Africa Development Center offices will be located in Lagos and Nairobi. It will absorb 100 full-time developers who will work in artificial intelligence, machine learning and mixed reality innovation, according to a statement from the company. This number will balloon to 500 across the two sites over the first five years of operation.

"The ADC will be unlike any other existing investment on the continent. It will help us better listen to our customers, develop locally and scale for global impact. Beyond that, it's an opportunity to engage further with partners, academia, governments and developers, impacting sectors important to the continent, such as FinTech, AgriTech and OffGrid energy," said Phil Spencer, executive vice president at Microsoft.

The firm is keen to partner with local universities to create a modern, intelligent edge and cloud curriculum. Graduates will have access to resources provided by the ADC.

"Our desire is to recruit exceptional engineering talent across the continent that will build innovative solutions for global impact. This also creates opportunities for engineers to do meaningful work from their home countries and be plugged into a global engineering and development organization," said Michael Fortin, corporate vice president at Microsoft.

Previous ventures in Africa may have informed the tech company's latest move. In Kenya, Microsoft partnered with Africa Digital Media Institute through its 4Afrika Initiative to address skill mismatches in the regional market early this year. Moreover, the firm partnered with a local firm to launch its first software testing center in Africa last year.

On the continental front, the firm has two data centers in South Africa. Amazon.com Inc has announced plans to set up its first data center next year, while Chinese global tech company Huawei has plans for two cloud data centers in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

This has upsides for the continent, said Salesio Kiura, director of the School of Computing and Information Technologies at the Technical University of Kenya. He noted growing interest by global firms as a stamp of confidence in Africa's local talent.

"The local engineering talent is going to coalesce in these centers and access cutting-edge technology that would push their competiveness to global level," he said.

Despite skill mismatches, which are prevalent in Africa, he said the IT landscape has been able to match global levels and the talent pool is slowly matching the ecosystem in India. This follows increased collaboration between academia and industry players such as Huawei Technologies. "Most of these graduates have been absorbed in the market by Huawei and other tech contractors."

He noted global tech companies are also banking on the modern infrastructure available in Africa. "South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, among other African countries, have already rolled out 4G infrastructure technology with news of 5G available in SA. Challenges only exist when it comes to last-mile connection and high cost of the services, which will have to be revised downwards for IT innovation to thrive," the scholar said.

He said he is confident the centers would enable local innovators to come up with solutions for immediate societal challenges unique to Africa's environment. In addition, the centers would also scale up and replicate nascent innovation from developers found in incubation centers located across the continent.

"It is a very exciting moment, especially when such big companies are willing to invest heavily. They recognize Africa as the next frontier and home to a quarter of the world population in a few years. So it is a market one cannot afford to ignore."

He said cutting-edge technology available in these centers would boost Africa's development. "We do not need to build from scratch, but use these platforms to build our own relevant aspects unique to our environment. The speed at which technologies are received by the masses is much faster now. This is an indication the global digital divide is being bridged fast in Africa."

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