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

Technology is an undisputed enabler of innovation. And in Africa, it has the potential to revolutionize development.

In particular, the explosion of mobile phones across the continent, coupled with the rise in development of mobile apps to meet the unique challenges faced by people in Africa, has the ability to bridge the many opportunity divides across the continent.

Take, for example, the farmer in rural Africa, once isolated, now able to access information via his mobile phone about commodity prices and market fluctuations, allowing him to mitigate yield losses. Or, the small-scale producers and traders who can now use mobile technology to access inventory monitoring and supply tracking tools to improve supply chain efficiency - something particularly challenging in areas with small populations.

But, as our colleagues at SANGONet recently pointed out: “For every M-PESA, dozens of applications never get past the piloting stage. And, there are many remaining questions regarding effectiveness. A decade after mobile technology began blazing trails across the continent, it’s time to take stock.”

Taking stock – identifying barriers to innovation, addressing the challenges ICT has met - was precisely the aim of discussions that took place yesterday at the very first Innovation Forum, in Lagos, Nigeria.

The idea for the Innovation Forum was conceived by Microsoft, Nokia and others who were inspired by the dynamism of the new Ministry of Communication Technology in Nigeria – which is encouraging us all to re-examine the role that ICT plays in development and competitiveness.

We’re starting to see an exciting shift in the way governments in Africa view the role of ICT - they’re no longer approaching it as an isolated sector, but as an enabler of innovation, with the potential to boost growth and development across traditional work-horse sectors of our economies.

We know that ICT has the potential to create thousands of new technology jobs on the continent, but there are limitations in even this due to barriers like infrastructure, for example. But the smarter application of ICT can drive productivity gains in key sectors like agriculture, tourism, transport, and power, where even a 1-3% overall gain in the sector could translate to much more tangible, measurable and direct impact on many more lives.

Furthering great ideas requires a space to engage in dialogue, and a bringing together of a diverse set of voices and viewpoints to spur one another on. This is exactly why we – along with Nokia and others – initiated the Innovation Forum. So private sector players, academia, and representatives from the Government of Nigeria gathered yesterday to talk – with the ultimate goal to turn words into action – and identify a way to realize the enormous potential of ICT in the development of Africa. Watch this space for developments.