June, 2014

  • Getting to know Eric Odipo

    He loves football, reading, travelling and watching movies. He’s also a trained Mechanical

    Engineer – who is now the General Manager of Microsoft East and Southern Africa! We sat

    down with Eric Odipo to chat about his role at Microsoft, his advice for graduates, and why he loves

    his country, Kenya.

     As the General Manager of Microsoft East and Southern Africa (ESA), what do you enjoy most about your job?

    First off, I like the General Manager role because it’s broad and gives me an all-up view of the business. I also like that I have a really strong team who are good at what they do, are able to work independently and are highly motivated. We have a great diversity in the team – and in the partner and customer community as well. In ESA, each country has a unique culture, business practice and set of priorities, which makes my role very exciting and the interaction very stimulating.

    What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a General Manager?

    My key accountability is to ensure that the company’s priorities in each of my assigned markets are achieved. Broadly, these can be defined as:

    • Attainment of the business priorities – around software, devices and services, both in terms of revenue and share
    • Employee engagement, development and motivation
    • Customer and Partner satisfaction

    Everything I do is tied to making these happen.

    Why are you passionate about technology and the ICT sector?

    I’ve had a strong interest in science and technology from an early age, driven by what I observed from my older siblings. I naturally chose to specialise in sciences in school and I was great at it. I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked for several years in the motor industry, before transitioning into sales and marketing, then into fast moving consumer goods and now ICT. My joining Microsoft was quite by chance, but when the opportunity came I knew that I wanted to get back into the technology field.

    How did you go from being an engineer to working in IT?

    Microsoft was actually my first entry into an ICT firm! My first job after graduation was with General Motors as an engineer supporting production.  I found that a lot of the processes were very manual and much of the documentation was hand written. With my limited knowledge of computers then, I created the first digital Bill of Materials and also created the first technical drawings using AutoCAD (which I didn’t have formal training on). I was promoted in my first year due to this contribution. From then on I valued ICT and saw its potential to improve processes and, in my case, my career.

    What are your thoughts on the state of technology and ICT skills in Africa?

    I can’t comment about the whole of Africa, but the state of technology and ICT skills in the ESA markets is definitely not at par with some of the larger countries in Africa (such as South Africa and Kenya). However, the commitment to get relevant technology is strong. And the commitment to get technology into schools is even stronger. We continue to see this becoming a high priority for most countries. We want school children to have access to some form of device. I also see increasing efforts by Governments to minimise the digital divide by promoting universal access to technology and broadband. Microsoft TV white spaces technology, which we are pioneering in Tanzania, and Namibia, fits right into this.

    What advice would you give to any young African professionals looking to get into a career in ICT? What would they need to have studied or done to make them as employable as possible?

    As with any career, everyone needs to have a strong interest in their career of choice. When you are passionate, it becomes visible to prospective employers. ICT also offers more career opportunities than just technical roles. It offers Sales, Evangelism, Marketing and, of course, HR, Finance and so on. Technical roles certainly need deep professional knowledge of ICT. Technical training also gives you a head start in sales, but it’s not mandatory. I personally prefer a strong sales person who can learn what is required to create interest, and then call in a technical person if that’s required.

    What are your thoughts on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa?

    We have so many talented Africans who are capable of innovating and becoming successful entrepreneurs. However, they face a number of challenges. Laws which were once created to protect their Intellectual Property are now weak, or do not exist at all in many countries. This is discouraging to many. Startups also face funding challenges, because they are seen by the majority of commercial banks as not being ‘credit-worthy’. Added to this, many do not get mentoring or coaching opportunities, which are critical at the startup stage of their enterprise. 

    The support that Microsoft provides, through programs such as Youth Spark and BizSpark, help to address some of these challenges. With 4Afrika, we also provide some support to entrepreneurs to expose their innovation to prospective investors or venture capitalists, and then provide continuing mentoring. In some exceptional cases, we are also providing startup funding for these entrepreneurs.

    How important are the youth in Africa to you?

    I have two children in their teens and so the subject of youth, their development, their access to opportunities that furthers their aspirations and their eventual career success (whether in employment or as entrepreneurs) is very dear to me. Young people have big aspirations, which we don’t recognise many times, and a “can do” attitude around their areas of interest. We need to find ways of encouraging their interests in the short-term, so that they can develop possible viable commercial enterprises in the future.

    As a native Kenyan, what do you love most about Kenya?

    I love Kenya because of the diversity we have in the people. I love the spectacular natural resources that we have (wildlife, beaches, the Great Rift Valley, fertile and arid lands etc.) the way we socialise, the way we are generally welcoming, the way we can rally around some common issues and also in the way we can disagree on many issues. Kenya is a land of talented and hardworking people with very high aspirations, some of whom have won great international recognition in sports, education, nature conservation, politics, the arts etc. I’m very proud of them.


  • A window to the online world for visually-impaired students in Kenya

    Posted by: Djam Bakhshandegi, Citizenship and Partners in Learning Lead, Microsoft West, East, Central Africa and Indian Ocean Islands

    In my role at Microsoft I spend a lot of time dealing with organisations who are making a positive impact in Africa. But there is one that is especially close to my heart because it supports children that not only confront many of the common challenges faced by children in Africa, but are also visually-impaired or blind. The Thika School for the Blind is a boarding school that provides learning facilities for over 200 visually impaired learners. Serving as the only high school for the blind in East and Central Africa, the boarding school offers speech therapy, living skills, braille and low vision classes to kindergarten, primary and high school learners. 

     inABLE is an organization that works to connect these children – and many others across Africa-  with computers and technology resources. With support from its funding partners including Microsoft, it launched Kenya's first assistive technology computer program at the Thika Primary School for the Blind in 2009. 









    The learners at Thika use normal computers with standard keyboards, to ensure they will be able to cope in a ‘normal’ work environment. Using text-to-speech screen readers, voice activated software and screen magnifier tools for students that retain partial sight, pupils can easily navigate around a normal computer. They easily access online educational resources, communicate with new friends worldwide, type essays, and research homework assignments, all while developing employability skills. Carol Ngandi, the lead computer instructor from inABLE says that children really enjoy the program, “They are able to send e-mails to friends and parents. They are able to go get the news and so they are able to be updated and they really enjoy that”.

    Ngandi says that aside from providing the children with valuable skills, internet access alone gives blind children a window to the world that they can’t see. “Many of them weren’t blind from birth and they say that when they lost their sight their whole life was in darkness. But now that they have computers, they say their eyes have been opened through the internet”.

    Walking around the school and meeting some of the children, I was reminded about how important it is to ensure equal access to technology.

     “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it” – Helen Keller

     Irene Nthambi is one of the schools top learners excelling in computer literacy, despite being not only blind but also suffering from a disease that has left her unable to use her hands. She has mastered the unique ability to type with her tongue and lips, while using headphones to listen to what is written on screen. Irene’s teachers say she is one of the brightest children in the class, especially when it comes to using computers.  Her excellence despite the impediments she faces highlights the program’s success.

    The World Health Organization estimates that at least 26.3 million people in Africa are visually impaired. The work by inABLE and Thika School is a shining example of what can be achieved  when great people and organisations form strong partnerships; and at Microsoft we are very proud to have  inspirational partners carrying out such important work.