Microsoft woos the affections of African developers--through their wallets

US multinational raises the stakes in battle for continental technology market by offering to foot intellectual property bills.

Kunle Awosika shows up for this interview in a brown pin-striped blazer that carefully hugs his sharp—and costly— looking shirt, matching coffee-coloured pants, and that confidence so identifiable with Nigerians. 

“This is big. It’s huge,” he says, as the rays of rare Nairobi sunlight glint off his mega sized wristwatch as if in rivalry with the kaleidoscope of lights on his incessantly chiming smartphone, which must of necessity run on Windows Mobile.

Kunle, Microsoft’s country manager for Kenya, is referring to the launch of 4Afrika IP Hub, a portal to which developers will publish their apps, in return for having the legal headache of protecting their intellectual property taken off their hands—and paid for.

The gateway is part of the 4Africa initiative, Microsoft’s attempt at staying ahead of the competition curve as technology multinationals continue to pitch camp all over Africa.

The initiative, launched in February 2013, is a three-pronged multi-million dollar project that aims to increase internet accessibility for Africans, give a leg up to developers and incubate a rash of new Afro-centric technologies.

Kunle is cagey with the exact outlay, but  an incremental price tag of $75 million accompanied the initiative at inception.

IP Hub comes on the heels of the likes of Philips and IBM which have all followed the pioneering iHub in setting up innovation kernels in Nairobi, charmed by the story of big technological leaps fronted by the continent’s tech-savvy innovators.

But Kunle refutes that the launch of IP Hub is Microsoft’s bid to keep up with its competitors, as multinationals like Google and Cisco all aggressively grow their Africa footprint.

“I am not sure any of our competitors have had a head start. None of these guys can say they have invested in Africa like us, both in terms of resources and ecosystems,” he says, annotating Microsoft’s 20-year tenure in the region. 

Newer challengers
He has a point. Microsoft software—especially its Windows operating system, is ubiquitous in African offices despite gains by rivals, though it has struggled to keep up with newer challengers like Android in mobile telephony.

The choice of Kenya as the pilot station for IP Hub is not by chance. Kenya has fashioned itself a solid name in tech innovation, riding on the back of the global success of applications such as Ushahidi and M-Pesa.

But the low churn out of groundbreaking applications is worrying for the country’s vibrant developer community, who have their unofficial headquarters along Ngong Road, one of the city’s main arteries to the West.

Microsoft blames this on the inability of developers to monetise their ideas, which by extension denies them resources, taking the edge off their motivation. This argument is at the core of the Washington-headquartered giant’s wooing of the hearts and minds—and wallets— of African developers, simultaneously hoping to imprint its brand in their psyches. 

“We are thought leaders in this space,” Kunle says. “We see a major gap in the market…around the need for people to understand the importance of intellectual property in Kenya, and by extension the rest of Africa.”

Patent complexities
Going by the numbers, few would accuse him of overstating. In the three years to 2012 Kenya reposited only 382 patents, compared to South Africa’s 608 and Egypt’s 683. By contrast, over the same period, the United States racked up 268,000.

This disparity is both a problem of awareness and complexities around patent registration, where in most of Africa it is a tediously manual process, Kunle says.

To tackle this, his firm has retained a big law firm, Coulson Harney, to review the applications for legal aid by developers. The lawyers will then wrap selected software in legal cotton wool; the entire tab being picked up by Microsoft. 

It  is an announcement met with excitement by developers at the glitzy launch the day before at a top city hotel. 

“Geek is not a four letter word, but a six-figure salary,” was the rallying cry bellowed on stage by Paul Roy Owino, a leading voice in Kenya’s techie community. 

IP Hub will also be indifferent to platform, drawing further cheers from the developers at the launch, a mostly casually dressed young crowd toting the latest smartphones and tablets.

Leading developers at the launch tell me that the inability to earn from their ideas has meant they are too often bogged down by run-ins with bigger players, including some giant telcos, and in addition to being ill-prepared to defend themselves, find themselves spending precious few resources in agonisingly slow justice systems. 

Others, unable to leverage their assets and operating mainly on secrecy, are often bought out for peanuts.

Ringfence legally
The message to African developers is that there is money to be made in assetising their ideas. After meeting up with their investors and co-founder, the next meeting needs to be with a lawyer.

Old hands in Kenya’s developer market appreciate the potential significance of IP Hub. 

“In our time we had to start from zero. Now with this people can build on existing IP,” John Waibochi, chief executive of renown mobile solutions provider Virtual City, says at the launch.

His firm has attracted investment from venture capitalists such as Acumen, which in 2012 sunk in $1.5 million in convertible debt.

Microsoft plans to hand over the project to the Kenyan government after a two-year trial. If successful, it will then be rolled out to other African countries, including South Africa and Egypt.

Is there then a possibility that it may fold up if response is poor?

“There is no way this pilot can fail,” is Kunle’s typically assured reply.

Twitter: @LMAfrican


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