Picture: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Picture: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Africa’s burgeoning reputation as a source of programming talent got a major boost last month when Microsoft launched its Africa Development Centre (ADC) — a $100m investment over the next five years.

With offices in Kenya and Nigeria, Microsoft hopes to train 100 full-time engineers by the end of this year and a further 500 engineers by the end of 2023. The multinational believes in Africa’s "innovative spirit", especially in fintech, agritech and off-grid energy.

"We’ve recognised there is an innovative spirit here," says Michael Fortin, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president and the lead in establishing the first ADC engineering team in Nairobi. "There’s an enthusiasm [for] and rapid adoption of new technologies in Africa. We want to be a part of that."

Microsoft’s investment comes after programming company Andela announced earlier this year it had secured an additional $100m in investment, including from Facebook’s first couple, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

This brings its total venture funding to $180m.

"There is an incredible base of talent here," Microsoft executive vice-president Phil Spencer told the FM at the ADC launch in Nairobi, after meeting students from Nairobi universities’ computer science departments.

These talented youngsters are "equally important in the long run and you see so many of the innovations that are going to be important to the next generation".

He added: "Some of those products are going to be built by Kenyans, by Africans."

In software development, a new technique uses "containers" — small segments of apps or larger software, such as operating systems, that can be broken into smaller elements and used on different operating systems or in software environments such as data centres. It allows development teams to work on aspects of the software and run technology in new ways.

"It allows more rapid development, privacy, security and more," says Fortin. "How do we preserve the essence of [traditional software development] while moving forward? The team here will be part of the tip of the spear."

Microsoft is aware that locally relevant apps and services are the correct way in which to approach markets in different parts of the world. "You can’t just build it and hope they will come, as they say in [the movie] Field of Dreams," says Fortin. "All of these have to be relevant for the local market and globally. We come here expecting to learn."

The ADC investment follows the March launch of Microsoft’s first Azure data centres on the continent — in Cape Town and Joburg. These centres allow the company to deliver its cloud services more efficiently through servers located in the region.

"For many years passionate individuals have been pushing for us to be here," says Fortin. "We chose Kenya and Nigeria after we looked broadly across Africa. There are strong development capacities across East and West Africa. There is a growing internet population in both regions, and universities doing a great job turning out students to satisfy Microsoft’s needs."

Microsoft has partnered with Kenyan and Nigerian universities, which will create curriculums designed for the next wave of digital skills, including data science, artificial intelligence (AI), mixed reality and application development.

Microsoft has already partnered with companies including Interswitch, Virtual City, energy start-up M-Kopa Solar and agritech start-up N-Frnds.

Amrote Abdella, regional director of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, says: "The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Kenya and Energyrathon Consulting in Nigeria are also two recent AI for Earth grant recipients that are using AI to prevent nutrition crises and protect marine ecosystems. We’re excited to drive more innovations like this from the ADC."

Spencer, the project’s executive sponsor, is responsible for Microsoft’s gaming and is the head of its Xbox brand. When the project team inside Microsoft asked him to be executive sponsor, Spencer said he saw that Africa’s novel approach to mobile could help realise Microsoft’s ambitions in the mobile gaming market.

"There are over 2-billion people who play video games, on any device. We want to innovate on mobile. There are more than 1-billion people in Africa and 300-million people who play video games, mostly on phones. We thought it’s a great opportunity for us to be here."

He added: "This is not a nice-to-have for us. [Microsoft] having customers on this continent who love to play games is something that we have to get right."