Africa needs mobiles as much as aid, says Microsoft’s South African MD

February 16, 2012

Africa needs enterprise and mobile technology as much as it needs aid, said South Africa’s Microsoft chief, Mteto Nyati.

Nyati, who has been Managing Director of the software giant for three years, spoke exclusively to Conversations in the run-up to the launch of the Nokia Lumia 800 in South Africa.

He is convinced the future of the continent depends upon technology that engages young people, and encourages enterprise and business, not charity.

That technology includes the new Nokia Lumia:
“The opportunities for young people to come up with solutions that address our challenges, using a platform like this phone, are huge. That’s what we need to be doing in Africa, instead of looking for aid.”

And he should know. Nyati was born in 1964 and grew up under apartheid, supporting his mother as she struggled to run a small business selling groceries beside the road in the rural Eastern Cape. As a young boy, Mteto Nyati often got up at dawn to go out and buy her produce. It’s a habit he keeps up today, getting up hours earlier than everyone else to spend the first hours of the morning thinking and working.

“My mother trained as a teacher, but really she was an entrepreneur. She opened a series of trading stalls, and we helped her. I was her eldest child and I’d get up early to make sure there was bread for the customers, and so on…”

That work ethic, combined with a spirit of enterprise and customer service, is at the heart of what Nyati is doing today – and what he believes is the right course for South Africa:

“My childhood taught me about serving customers, and respecting the people you work with – as well as knowing that you have to really work hard for whatever you get.”

It is the sense of connection, and liberation through technology, that excited him the most about the Nokia Lumia. He believes the key to the phone’s success will be enabling young South Africans to take up the challenge:
“Africa and South Africa have a huge number of young people. Nearly a third of our population is under 14. And we have very high unemployment too, in some areas as high as 25%. That’s a time bomb.”

“Look at the opportunities for this phone. This is a great phone – but for us to recognise its potential we need a lot of apps that are relevant to Africa and South Africa. People are separated and we need more apps to help them transfer money across regions and borders.”

“In healthcare, we have cameras and video conferencing. We could liberate the doctors we have to work across many more areas. We’re leapfrogging the desktop, and going straight to mobile – but we need our youth to develop apps and services to liberate this platform.”

South Africa is, he admits, “mobile mad”, with more phones than people. It’s a country that’s embraced mobile technology, from Twitter to the social network MXit, which is wildly popular with teenagers.

Now, finally, he believes, the launch of the Nokia Lumia brings together the kind of connection and services that he’s been waiting for in the South African market:

“As Microsoft we have seen the decline of our Windows Phone share in the South African market, and over the last two years we’ve seen a trickle of units being sold, much lower than what we used to see in the past…

“We’ve been looking for an alternative, we’ve been looking for something we can compete with. The new Windows Phone has great software, and we believe that joining that with great hardware from Nokia will be a winning combination.”

Nyati shows off his own Nokia Lumia. His favourite feature is the family tile he has pinned to his homescreen. Nyati has an extended family spread across several continents. He manages the family network online – and keeps up to date with everything that people are doing through their status updates.

“This phone puts people at the centre. It doesn’t just connect to social networks through a patchwork of add-ons. People are at the centre of this phone, and we believe that is unique. I love the fact that it goes away and does all the hard work behind the scenes, and then just tells me what I need to know.”

Mteto Nyati got to the top the hard way – working with his mother at her stall, taking advantage of a teenage science trip to the in UK – even though it meant singing the words of the old apartheid National Anthem through gritted teeth – training to be an engineer, and then working his way up through IBM for 12 years before taking the helm at Microsoft.

He’s focused on transforming education, tackling unemployment, and promoting innovation through the power of technology – and he believes the new generation of smartphones is the next step in that direction.

This article was for Conversations by Nokia and Republic Publishing

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