US tech giants eyeing Africa’s education sector: On the road with Microsoft

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With rising minimum wages in countries such as China, Thailand and Vietnam, there has been hope that parts of Asia’s low-skilled manufacturing industry would shift to African countries, and in the process create much-needed jobs. However, before the continent’s manufacturing sector could even get started, it is now apparently facing an imminent threat from robots, which could replace millions of workers. For instance, a US company has already developed a sewing robot that can make as many t-shirts per hour as 17 humans.

As low-skilled employment positions become fewer, the demand for quality education is likely to continue growing. This situation is creating plenty of potential for the private sector to provide education solutions. For instance, Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed ADvTECH has built a diversified company with numerous basic and tertiary education brands, while Mount Kenya University, which, in addition to establishing a number of campuses in Kenya, has also expanded to Rwanda and Somaliland. And on the other side of the continent, Ghana’s International Community School, with three main campuses, recently attracted investment from private equity firm AfricInvest.

But the opportunities in the continent’s education sector are not restricted to the operation of schools. As classrooms become digital, the provision of technology solutions is big business. This is the reason why some of the world’s top technology companies – such as Microsoft, IBM, HP and Intel – made the trek to Mozambique’s capital Maputo for the recent Innovation Africa summit, a gathering of African education and technology stakeholders. Each showcased their digital classroom solutions at the seafront Gloria hotel – a palatial, Chinese-inspired facility that is definitely an acquired taste.

A window into Microsoft’s business

I was invited to the conference as a guest of Microsoft, which gave me particular insight into the Redmond-headquartered company’s activities in Africa’s education sector. To be honest, I wasn’t aware that education is such a prominent part of its business.

The Maputo AFECC Gloria Hotel, where the Innovation Africa summit was held

Microsoft currently works with education ministries in numerous African countries – including Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Kenya, to name a few – by providing technology to assist in teaching and learning processes. During the conference, it added to its list of territories by announcing a new partnership with Mozambique to “modernise the way learning is done in the country”.

The company also used the summit for the official African launch of its Microsoft 365 Education solution, which is designed to “unlock creativity”, “promote teamwork”, and “provide a simple and safe” user experience. Among various features, the package includes an educational version of the popular game Minecraft (which teaches students how to code); collaboration platform Microsoft Teams; and the software giant’s Intune service which helps schools set up and manage classroom devices.

Cracking the education sector

One of the challenges Microsoft faces is perceptions around the pricing of its educational products, with many people unaware that school kids don’t have to pay the same price to use Word as a corporate customer.

“I am always constantly surprised how many institutions in Africa are unaware that we have education licencing. Many institutions tell me when I visit them that, ‘Your software is too expensive,’ but the fact is they are buying commercially-priced software,” commented Mark East, Microsoft regional leader for education in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Another barrier for education companies targeting African countries is that they often must work with governments, which can be a slow and overly-bureaucratic exercise. The appeal of the Innovation Africa summit is likely its ability to attract a large number of government officials to one place.

Commenting on what education service providers need for success on the continent, East highlighted “beachhead wins” – proven success stories which can be used to land further business. He added those looking to enter a particular country should partner with bigger technology companies already active in a market. They should also align themselves with the respective governments’ digital transformation plans.

It is estimated that 40% of Africa’s population is under the age of 15. It truly worries me thinking about which industries will provide jobs to these hundreds of millions of young people over the coming decades. Hopefully having some of them educated in these high-tech classrooms will make us slightly better prepared for this scary new world.