Kabelo Mekwane is the country manager of Microsoft in Nigeria. In this interview with digitallagos.tv, at the recently concluded DemoAfrica conference in Lagos, he argues that it is imperative for tech innovation hubs within Africa to collaborate. The prize for such collaboration, he msitains, is that tech start-ups get more ideas, more dimensions around the same sort of products in order to make sure that they don’t recreate something that the market already has. He also spoke on other initiatives that Microsoft is involved in while also sharing insight into the expectations of DemoAfrica, its implications for African start-ups and Africa’s technological landscape.

What informed the sponsoring of DemoAfrica by Microsoft?

Demo Africa is a very important conference. It is the coming together of different stakeholders who are very interested in seeing the evolution of innovation. People that are very interested in essentially interested in investing and supporting the start-ups. So in Microsoft as you know, one of our key areas is how to enable start-ups in Nigeria through incubation programmes and essentially how we incubate them and help them to grow so that they in turn can contribute to job creation and help the economy. We have about 60 million small enterprises in the country and you know that unemployment is a big challenge in the country, so what we aim to do is to potentially contribute to the creation of more tech start-ups so that they in turn contribute positively to the alleviation of the unemployment scourge.

Is there a market for these start-ups?

From what we have seen there is actually a big gap in the market currently. This is where i think we can make meaningful impact because if you look at the big enterprises, the reality of it is that if you look at the banks, the telcos, and other major corporations, they are not going to be employing people in droves instead the reverse will be the case. This is because as big corporations, they are always looking at how they can optimise cost by reducing overheads. And so we have to look up to the start-ups, because even government for instance will not be contributing significantly to the eradication of unemployment. Research has shown that when you begin to make investment in SMEs, this is when you will begin to make meaningful impact.

Is Microsoft going to invest in any of them?

We have teamed up with few industry stakeholders and others that are of like minds. For instance we have teamed up with USAID, and a few other stakeholders. There are a few other ventures capitalist, investors that essentially want to provide seed funding. Beyond that there are lots of others in the DemoAfrica conference that will be interested in helping these start-ups to move from a start-up face to running sustainable businesses. It’s not a single handed thing for Microsoft; there are a number of partners who are con-investing with us in order to

Help these guys be successful.

Why has Microsoft decided to participate in Demo Africa for third consecutive time?
Demo Africa represents an opportunity for us to participate and get to know like-minded stakeholders who are essentially looking to invest in young people particularly young people that are starting up businesses. Our purpose is to focus on businesses that are innovative to create opportunities and to bring product and services into the market. So, it’s an opportunity for us to collaborate with the likes of AfriLabs, USAID, venture capitalists and other stakeholders.

What did your being a platinum sponsor entail?

As a platinum sponsor, we are first and foremost in the evaluation and judging panels. We are very much informed about their opinion of whether they are businesses or whether their ides or innovations are viable businesses. As a platinum sponsor, it also meant that we had a commitment to seeing those start-ups through in terms of direct investment in their success and their partnerships with all the other stakeholders. So we are going to be investing very directly as Microsoft in some of the winners that will emerge from this event.

The idea of this is not to do a conference for the sake of it. It is to showcase what is impossible and what innovations there can be. The idea behind this as far as we are concerned is to take this a step further because one of the challenges we are solving is that of unemployment. We are also trying to address the challenge of youth employability, lack of unemployment opportunities in the market. This goes beyond awarding a prize to tech start-ups as a winner. It goes to the next level where through our African investment, we are then able to invest in those start-ups where we are also able to incubate those start-ups and help them to invest in successful businesses that can employ people within the economy and contribute to alleviating the economic challenge of youth unemployment. Specifically, we have had lots of experience within the context of Nigeria and other African countries where we have invested in a few tech start-ups. We want people want to create economic opportunities using their innovations. So this start-ups’ idea is really about how to monetise and essentially about creating products that is of global standards.

Having said these, what does the investment landscape for Africa look like?

It’s getting better. I believe that we are starting to see momentum in terms of more and more youths realising the opportunities around creating mobile apps, creating companies that will deliver services leveraging the benefit of technology, innovations that could talk to agriculture, the financial services sector, etc. One of the realisations in the Nigerian context after the rebasing is that the services sector was a significant contributor to overall GDP in the country. And so what is in the services sector apart from the financial services and legal services is also technology services, that is, in terms of how we consume technology. So when you talk of landscape, we have lots of young minds who needs someone to take what they have, help them to actualise it, incubate it, make it sustainable and help them to actually create businesses and participate meaningfully in the local economy.

What is your collaboration with AfriLab going to play out?

We have been collaborating with AfriLabs across the continent. Afrilab is an important incubation centre for us who provide beyond skills to technology of which we are significant contributor. But also they provide skills in terms of business like how people can put together a sustainable business plan, how to monetise and create a viable business out of an idea or something based on intellectual property. So we provide the technology and they provide the skills in terms of development skills, technological skills to enable businesses produce their products and make them saleable. The complement us in terms of business and technological skills needed to be viable.

Why do you think it is important for innovation hubs to collaborate?

The significance of innovation hub collaborating is that you know we have seen more and more innovation hubs springing up and I think we need to do more. We have good support from the ministry of communications technology challenging the tech industry to thrive. The significance of the collaboration really is that these innovation hubs can learn from one another, exchange skills and accelerate. There are more benefits that can be derived from the hubs collaboration because operating in isolation will certainly lead to slower progress. Two minds are better than one in any given circumstances. So the prize for the collaboration is that you get more ideas, more dimensions around the same sort of products in order to make sure that you don’t recreate something that the market already has. I think it is important that ideas are passed on to more than one person. Ultimately at the end we are all struggling for the same idea, outcomes and objectives, so it makes sense that we essentially pull resources together so that we can begin to make more meaningful impact.

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