Posted by Rizwan Tufail
Regional Technology Officer, Microsoft West, East, Central Africa & Indian Ocean Islands

Imagination. It is a characteristic often most strongly noticed in young children in their tendency to create imaginary alternatives to their reality. In human society, the ability to imagine one’s self in another’s place is a critical part of our social fabric. And, it is linked to the nature of what we define as progress: developing better and easier ways to accomplish both new and old tasks.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the theme for Microsoft’s 9th annual student technology competition,  Imagine Cup is geared at encouraging innovation in technology to address the challenges set out by the United Nations Millennial Development Goals (MDGs). There is much work to be done globally - and even more so in Africa - if we are to reach these goals by 2015, and in order to pick up the pace of progress, harnessing the latent imagination of the continent’s youth is truly indispensable.

The winners of the Imagine Cup 2011 regional finals from West and Central Africa, East Africa, and Nigeria have recently been announced ahead of the worldwide final which will take place in New York City from 8 to 13 July this year. I am very excited about the quality of work that has come out of the regions this year – here are the winners:

Team Quest-O, East Africa: ‘Crimex’ is a desktop, mobile and web-based crime pattern analysis system for developing countries, which also includes facial recognition capabilities. It aims to solve the problem of under-staffed law enforcement and crime investigation units in East Africa, which usually lack experienced crime analysts. Crimex is linked to the 8th MDG of global partnership, as the team believes that reducing crime will assist business and thus assist to combat poverty. Team Quest-O are students of Makerere University College of Science in Uganda.

Team Cyan Girls, West Africa: ‘PAGEL’ is a database which helps identify markets and places where food is available at lower prices. The project brings together agriculture, fishing and breeding sectors to address the 1st, 3rd and 6th MDG’s of reducing extreme poverty and hunger, enabling gender equality and fostering sustainable environments. Team Cyan Girls hale from the Polytechnic College of Dakar in Senegal.

Team Nerd Inc, Nigeria: ‘Medicare’ is an application that solves the problem of inadequate medical support systems in rural communities. It is aimed at addressing the 4th, 5th, and 6th MDGs: reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/Aids, Malaria and other diseases. Team Nerd represent Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA) in Nigeria.

I wish the respective finalists from West and Central Africa, East Africa, and Nigeria the best as they represent the continent in New York at the worldwide finals on July 8-13. They are a symbol of the innovative potential of the Africa and should inspire students from all African countries.

Imagination is the glue that connects our thinking on the past, the present and the infinite possibilities of the future. It must be remembered, however, that innovation can’t stem from imagination alone. There is no doubt that the sort of innovation necessary to really ‘change the world’ is dependent on good education. And that’s why Microsoft has invested so thoroughly in education in Africa: it is the only means to unleash the true potential of the continent’s collective imagination.