Despite the much hyped technology revolution sweeping across Africa, the continent’s one billion population still largely consumes technologies from the West. Microsoft is, however, working with African developers to boost the development of software solutions by Africans for Africa. Dele Akinsade, Microsoft’s director for developer platforms, looking after the West, East & Central Africa and Indian Ocean islands region, was in Nairobi recently and told Dinfin Mulupi about the steps Microsoft is taking and why African developers need to have a dose of realism in their ambitions.
You led a Microsoft team through a series of activities in Nairobi this week. What was the agenda?
My responsibility is around developer engagement. We were basically engaging with developers. We were also introducing our new Africa Apps team to the market. The team will travel across Africa to train and support developers with the aim of helping them realise their potential and provide the technical assistance needed to build the best apps. While in Nairobi, we had activities at innovation centres and higher learning institutions.
What are the opportunities for software developers in Africa?
There are lots of opportunities for [software] developers in Africa. There may be quicker and innovative ways of doing things, from as simple as buying bus tickets electronically or linking students that are looking for jobs with employers that have vacancies. We have seen opportunities where people have come to us with ideas and we have supported them with those initiatives. Microsoft has the number one developer platform that is user friendly and easy for them to pick up. In the future, we are looking to make devices more affordable and readily available.
The only way Africans can harness and develop these opportunities is if we take control of our destiny. One of the ways of doing this is by empowering developers. They know the environment and the issues affecting the continent. They can come up with ideas and solutions to address these issues and make products available not just to the continent but also other third world countries outside the continent. We are here to foster this; that developers can use their intelligence to come up with solutions made my Africans for Africa.
Every techie wants to be the next Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. How do they get there?
First of all, we have to encourage them that they can be whoever they want to be. But there is also a reality that not everybody will be Bill Gates. It’s just like with anything else, not everybody is going to be Lionel Messi and play football every day. They need to do the fundamentals and have a plan A and plan B and not get carried way. We want the passion and hard work to still be there, but there also needs to be a dose of realism in their ambitions. Maybe the best you can be is the head of software development at a bank or be the one in charge of mobile app development at Safaricom (a Kenyan mobile operator). It is still a decent living.
From your engagement with African software developers, describe some of major challenges they face.
One of the challenges they face is the availability of devices for them to test on, as well as access to the developer tools. A lot of people are not aware of the programmes that we have. For instance, startups have access to basically all the products that Microsoft makes for a period of three to five years without having to pay a dime for it. We also give them some space in the cloud. Other challenges are around commerce, like acceptance of M-Pesa (a mobile money transfer platform in Kenya) and credit card payments. These are challenges that are beyond Microsoft, but we are working with other partners to address this.
There have been concerns about the quality of developers in Kenya. Share your thoughts on this.
We monitor developers that download our software and they are in the thousands here in Kenya. Quality is an issue, however. It is a depth and quality issue. This is because people are not taught this in a structured way in universities. Some of the principles in software development are not there. We are going to work with developers on the software development cycle from the beginning to the end. Building software, after all, is what we do.
You are based in Lagos, how vibrant is the technology sector in Nigeria?
The technology sector in Nigeria is booming. It is probably just a year behind Kenya. We are having a lot of discussion on how to take Nigeria to the next level in terms of software development and establishment of startups similar to what we are seeing in East Africa. The challenges there are much similar to what we see in Kenya. For instance, depth is an issue. The infrastructure is, however, not as robust as it is here (Kenya) and that in a way slows down innovation. It is still an industry that other stakeholders, like the financial sector, are trying to understand. It is a country of 150 million people, so that number in itself gets a lot of young developers excited. Investors are also really interested because they see that it’s just a dot that is missing, before things explode and spread out to neighbouring countries.
How come African investors are not at the forefront of investing in technology companies?
They don’t really understand the industry yet. They are not ignoring it. They are focusing on other areas like real estate, but they are asking questions. Software is sometimes difficult for some people to grasp. African investors are doing their homework. Once we are able to showcase more success stories, then the money will come in.
So, which countries should we watch in Africa?
Generally, interest is very high across Africa. You will be surprised where innovation hubs pop up in the continent. They are everywhere, but the maturity levels are different. For instance, a country like Liberia has an innovation centre, but the maturity level there is a little bit different because they are just coming out of war and their needs are going to be different compared to countries that have been peaceful. But overall, the big players on the continent are Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. They have people that are interested and they are looking at the whole lifecycle.
Intellectual property infringement is a concern among developers. Do you have any initiatives to address this?
Intellectual property (IP) is very important because that could be the key motivating factor in somebody really putting in their energy to develop something. We are in the process of making available legal support for incubators to have them understand what is needed to protect their IP. Young developers also need to be patient. Some of them come up with a great idea, they develop a prototype and they sell it without due diligence. They see the money and sell without knowing that they could be selling themselves short.
What outcome does Microsoft expect from its initiatives with developers?
We are looking at the big picture to align with government initiatives and strategies. We are also looking at development of apps by Africans for Africa and the world. In the academic space, we are looking to ensure that from a curriculum perspective, more relevant technologies are taught in schools. We will train faculty members to be able to train students on technologies that people actually use in the workforce.