Microsoft is investing in Africa's next big idea

Wed, 2014-10-15 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

There are nearly a hundred innovation hubs in Africa. Together, they’ve launched hundreds and hundreds of startups. But it likely will take them working together to not only uncover the next great idea, but also find a way to turn that idea into a successful business that helps the economy grow.

Council Lead Partner Microsoft believes collaboration is critical to helping Africa’s high-tech industry thrive, and it announced it was investing $15,000 to help get that effort moving.

Its investment is part of the Microsoft 4Afrika Collaboration Challenge. Working with AfriLabs, which supports the network of technology hubs, Microsoft is committed to helping the various companies and groups think of a way to work together and then to put that idea into action.

This month, Microsoft and AfriLabs are inviting entrepreneurs to think of tools, incentives and other ideas that encourage collaboration. The people behind the winning idea will get the $15,000, as well as technical assistance from Microsoft to make it happen.

Good ideas lack follow through
In announcing the challenge, Microsoft says the problem is not a lack of good ideas. The issue is they struggle to get past the idea stage.

Few of Africa’s innovation hubs are sustainable. New hubs are opening all the time – one every two weeks, according to one report. The hubs provide shared spaces where entrepreneurs can work together, but the hubs themselves don’t work together. Hubs typically are launched with a government grant, but with nobody sharing best business practices, they aren’t able to turn the innovative ideas they develop into revenue that can keep them running.

According to Microsoft, that is what collaboration is all about. Everybody has a unique skill set, and it’s only through collaboration that someone who has the spark of an idea meets others who have financing and go-to-market skills that can turn that idea into a viable product.

"To remain relevant and sustainable, the hubs will need to not only promote innovation, but also focus on their monetization," said Fernando de Sousa, General Manager of Africa Initiatives at Microsoft.

Also, by sharing their best practices, they help others avoid stumbling blocks they have already tripped over themselves.

Microsoft says the idea of collaboration isn’t all that novel. It points out that is how the Silicon Valley area of California has operated for years. There, researchers, educators and businesses all have an extensive track record of working together.

How the contest works
Anyone who is a member of an African innovation hub can submit an idea that helps people with different backgrounds work with each other or share their knowledge with a wide audience. Ideas are due by Oct. 24 and the proposed applications would have to be hosted on Microsoft Azure, the cloud-based software-as-a-service platform.

Beyond the ideas, the way the contest operates also encourages collaboration. The contest itself is hosted on Hylo, a social network. Ideas will be posted there, allowing everyone to see everyone else’s ideas, as well as offer suggestions and provide help to execute them. The winning idea will be the one that gets the most support on the social network.

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