Posted by Aben Kovoor
Director of Developer & Platform Ecosystem Group, Middle East and Africa, Microsoft

It’s amazing how a little imagination and forward thinking can change the world. Where would we be today without advances in medicine like the MRI, technology like PCs and the Internet, or communication devices like cell phones?

To help cultivate creativity from around the globe, Microsoft annually hosts the Imagine Cup, a student technology competition created to showcase innovative ideas that can change the world. The 2010 event has just recently concluded; where more than 100 countries competed in Warsaw, Poland. This year’s theme was to imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.

Looking over the innovative solutions created by our three African finalists, it is indeed easy to see the new perspective that students can bring to the world:

  • Team Indwell, Nigeria: Providing access to quality education for all is an extensible platform that allows the development of computer educational applications. The system includes a desktop application, a web application and a central XML Application Programming Interface (API).
  • Team Simulacrum, South Africa: “Simulacrum” looks to address disasters that have occurred from poor crowd management. The software provides a full crowd simulation system that predicts the way crowds will behave at large events such as the 2010 Football World Cup. 
  • Team Zenj Coders, Uganda: “Saving Tomorrow” is an SMS based system that focuses on improving prenatal and post natal care of expectant mothers in developing world. The solution allows doctors to predict date of birth, automatically schedule both postnatal and prenatal visits and automatically sends SMS reminders two days before a visit.

While we are inspired by the student projects at Imagine Cup, we should also use that inspiration to spark discussion on serious issues like education and skills across Africa. Education is the cornerstone of economic opportunity, so any efforts to help young people realize their full potential must begin there. For Sub-Saharan Africa’s 800 million people, especially the 500 million who are under 30 years old, enhancing education is vital if the continent is to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

When talking to national leaders we find a common theme around their wish to create diverse economies based on knowledge and with a global reach. The wish is to create doctors, engineers, scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, publishers, and the vast range of specialists who are needed to accelerate economic development.

Working towards achieving this needs efficient, diverse, and flexible learning programmes that go beyond addressing basic literacy to provide access to specialist knowledge and learning infrastructures, to help overcome the shortages of qualified teachers, and to forge learning communities that can share knowledge on a local, regional, and global scale.

This is why ICT has a special role to play in education - an objective that Microsoft has supported for several years, engaging with governments, educators, IGOs and NGOs across Africa to increase access to technology that can improve the quality of teaching as well as the learning experience for students of all ages – literally shaping the way education happens. In Uganda we have partnered with the Government to equip more than 200,000 teachers with computer skills, helping to improve learning through the use of technology in schools. The project also sees technology subjects integrated into the school curriculum from primary school to university level.

Implementing national education e-strategies is challenging in most countries and Africa faces specific and profound economic, geographic and infrastructure issues. We are involved to help break down barriers in access to education through effective education technology tools.

There is a lot of talk about the arrival of the undersea cable.  It is frequently described as connecting Africa to the rest of the world.  I like to look at it a little differently.  I think of it as providing a pathway to a new and dynamic future for Africa, where education and skills development can be accessed easily by all and where young people will be able to develop groundbreaking software for Africa. But there are a number of factors that need to be in place for this to be effective. Models derived from countries that are ICT and bandwidth rich cannot be replicated in Africa, and nor should they. Africa has its own needs and aspirations and any use of ICT should be adapted to help developing the society each country aspires to.