This week Microsoft announced its 4Afrika initiative. This is a new effort through which the company will actively engage in Africa’s economic development to improve its global competitiveness. By 2016, the 4Afrika Initiative plans to help place tens of millions of smart devices in the hands of African youth, bring 1 million African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) online, upskill 100,000 members of Africa’s existing workforce, and help an additional 100,000 recent graduates develop employability skills. But Microsoft's involvement in Africa isn't new. As a company we have been doing business in Africa for 20 years both at a consumer and enterprise level across multiple industries, and in that time we have seen massive shifts in computing technology and devices.

One of the key projects announced in the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative is with the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications. Working with Indigo Telecom, Microsoft will be working on the development of solar powered base stations to deliver internet access to remote areas of the country. This means that areas with limited sources of electricity will be able to receive internet connectivity via battery powered mobile devices (I am of course assuming there are electricity points for charging those devices). Another project is with mobile phone manufacturer Huawei to deliver a special series of affordable Windows Phones.

To anyone in financial services these should be interesting developments.

I am no economist, but I do understand that a key to growth in is the access to financing to start or build businesses. In remote rural areas it has been traditionally difficult for financial institutions to provide that cost-effectively. This is a market that has simply been too expensive for many banks to service via traditionally hosted and operated systems. For a long time Kenya has been a global pioneer in mobile payments with M-PESA, bringing digital payments to communities that lacked the land-line infrastructures to process traditional 'wired' payments transactions. Microsoft has also been instrumental in providing access to financing in Kenya and Nigeria. With the Microsoft Windows Azure cloud platform, financial institutions have the ability to deliver banking services to the poor, or to rural populations, at very low cost.  In late 2012 Microsoft banking and microfinance solution partner - Temenos - announced the deployment of microfinance in the cloud for Fountain Credit Services. Not only is this a new microfinance institution (MFI), it is the first solution to be cloud-based in Kenya. Just weeks later, another African MFI, Renaissance Credit in Nigeria, also launched in the cloud on the Temenos solution running on Microsoft Windows Azure. 

So now think about how the cloud and devices - powered by Microsoft - can support economic development and growth across Africa. Microfinance solutions from partners like Temenos, running in Windows Azure, delivered to rural communities through solar-powered base stations, and accessed by customers by an affordable Windows Phone.