When talking about Africa, Cheick M. Diarra’s voice crackles with enthusiasm. He wants to make it very clear that he is referring to the other Africa. “It might not be as sexy for the newspapers, but there is a large majority that is not sick or at war. I have always focused on the [millions] of Africans who get up every day and work hard to try to develop this continent,” says Diarra, Africa chairman at Microsoft.
As chairman, Diarra supports the software giant’s business activities throughout the continent’s 54 countries including surrounding islands. The Mali native, who holds a doctoral degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Howard University, oversees a team of roughly 700 personnel from the company’s regional headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa. Diarra, an astrophysicist who also worked for NASA as an interplanetary navigator on several major space missions, has been mapping out an ambitious course, designed to alter perceptions of Africa as a war-torn continent, plagued by disease and poverty. Although it’s going to take time, Diarra firmly believes that there is a remedy to the image of Africa in the eyes of the global business community.
His prescription boils down to leveraging technology to promote human development. In Diarra’s own calculations, education breeds entrepreneurs. “Africa is always perceived as very poor, and since most corporations are not implanted on the continent, the perception becomes a lasting one,” he says. Microsoft, he adds, has been in Africa for more than 10 years. “In every single country, we have people on the ground going to academia, to the business communities, and to governments to try [to meet] the peoples’ needs.”
One of the primary issues affecting entrepreneurial growth in Africa is access to technology. To begin to address the local needs of the various populations across the continent, Microsoft works with a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), relief agencies that aren’t affiliated with any particular government, to assist in implementing localized solutions. These days, relief can come simply by providing access to the Internet.
According to Diarra, there are 50 Microsoft-sponsored computer training centers in South Africa. In addition, the company has invested in translating its operating system into several languages including Zulu, Kiswahili, and Afrikaans, to meet the needs of the diverse ethnic populations across the continent.
“Wherever we find NGOs that share the same passions [as we do],” says Diarra, a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) goodwill ambassador, “we partner with them to provide the resources, the software, training content, and connectivity grants. We are in the business of really trying to empower the communities in which we live.”
At the heart of those communities sits an untapped resource. Diarra says there are roughly 450 million Africans under the age of 30. This is what excites him—the combination of opportunities for entrepreneurs, both in and outside Africa, and a wealth of natural resources in the form of human capital.
“Sometimes the best way to get on a marching train is to create a bridge,” says Diarra. But