Posted by Mteto Nyati
Managing Director, Microsoft South Africa

Earlier this year, South African president Jacob Zuma joined his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and China on China's Hainan Island for a summit meeting of the informal group named after the initials of its members. Formerly BRIC, it is now the BRICS club.

Many commentators were surprised by the decision to bring South Africa into the club. How could they bring in South Africa, and leave out the likes of Mexico, South Korea and Turkey? The answer came from none other than Jim O’Neill, the chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management International who originally coined the acronym: On purely economic terms, it makes no sense – but South Africa as a representative of the African continent is a different story.

We cannot underestimate the importance of this move for Africa. Suddenly, BRICS is no longer an artificial body based on similar economic performance, but increasingly a forum representing the developing world. The inclusion of South Africa not only marks a significant milestone in Africa’s developing role on the world stage, but also talks to a potential shift in focus within BRICS from purely mercantile interests to a stronger development agenda.

It’s important to bear in mind that Africa is largely a young continent. This in itself has several implications and opportunities. There’s no doubt that the opportunity for the continent is immense. But it also highlights the critical need for African countries to grow genuine knowledge economies, instead of old-style economies based purely on natural resources that are never beneficiated in their country of origin. We’ve seen far too many examples of the so-called “resource-curse”, where countries with huge natural resources tend to have less economic growth.

In Africa, all of the elements for growing successful and sustainable knowledge economies are falling into place. We have numerous platforms and structures aimed at speeding Africa’s progress toward the much-discussed Millennium Development Goals.

The continent is benefiting from a veritable broadband tsunami, with undersea fibre-optic cables landing practically by the day that connect Africa to the rest of the world.

Mobile telephony is booming in practically every country, offering many people the chance to be part of a global economy. Africa is now the second largest mobile market in the world after Asia, and the fastest-growing mobile market in the world by some distance.

The technology is available to grow modern and competitive knowledge economies in Africa. Now we need to redouble our efforts, with business partners, national and local governments, non-governmental organisations and civil society, to create the frameworks, policies and technology solutions that will spawn a new generation of knowledge workers on our continent.

What does this mean in real terms? At Microsoft we believe that it’s all about enhancing the competitiveness of countries by expanding access to education at all levels of society, and contributing to a thriving African technology economy by stimulating economic growth, innovation, and employment in Africa’s IT industry and beyond.

As an example, in South Africa, we’re busy nurturing six small black-owned software development companies as part of a ZAR500 million black empowerment initiative over a seven-year period. This investment directly addresses the key challenges facing South Africa, and the continent: creating jobs, developing enterprises, building the local software economy and developing scarce technology skills.

It’s also vital that we create jobs and opportunities through ICT-related capacity building, and help improve services for African citizens through e-government solutions that enhance transparency and efficiency. Last, but not least, we need to maintain our focus on empowering local communities through ICT skills training.

In June this year, Microsoft South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Science and Technology to increase access to e-skills and business skills training for students. The aim is to ensure that young people, particularly those with previously disadvantaged backgrounds, gain the key competencies to help fast-track their progress in future. So far, hundreds of partners, training providers, educational institutions and NGOs have joined us in driving this initiative.

It’s a lot of work. But we’re well on the way. We simply cannot afford to let the BRICS opportunity pass us by.