Start ups

MS skills programmes to help SMEs pump R81bn into economy

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Lillian Barnard, MD of Microsoft SA.
Lillian Barnard, MD of Microsoft SA.

The local Azure data centres, combined with Microsoft’s small and medium enterprise (SME) skills development programmes, will help local SMEs contribute around R81 billion to the South African economy by 2022.

This is the word from Lillian Barnard, MD of Microsoft SA, speaking at the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative event this week, aimed at providing an update on Microsoft’s skills development programmes and their impact on the local SME sector.

Barnard explained the technology giant’s multibillion-rand investment in the two Azure data centres introduced in SA in March, will enable world-class cloud infrastructure that will power emerging cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of things (IOT) and edge computing innovations across Africa.

These technologies are expected to help SMEs develop innovative products and solutions, createbetter customer experiences, improve efficiency and make informed decisions, contributing to increased profit margins.

However, she pointed out that emerging technologies require a specific skillset, and without adequate ICT skills development initiatives, the SME sector would miss out on the infinite opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution.

Microsoft has heavily invested in its freely available skills development programme, Cloud Society, which has thousands of local trainees taking cloud computing courses, with face-to-face engagement with Microsoft's cloud experts.

The tech giant has other skills development programmes which have trained local entrepreneurs and helped fund unemployed graduates to establish their own start-ups. These include Head Start, 4Afrika Initiative, AI for Good, Equity Equivalent Investment Programme (EEIP) and certification courses targeted at young software developers.

Referencing research conducted by Microsoft, Barnard pointed out that these multiple skills development programmes, combined with the opportunities presented by the Azure data centres, are expected to contribute billions to the local economy in the next three years.

“SA is currently at a crucial point of technology innovation, presenting endless possibilities for businesses. As Microsoft, we have set aggressive targets for ourselves to drive deep innovation among SMEs, which can be achieved through four key pillars – infrastructure development, innovation, digital skills development and building trustworthy technologies.

“Our many skills development programmes provide access to skills like software engineering, data science, AI and entrepreneurship, which are essential for creating opportunities that drive economic growth in SA. These will enable SMEs to develop online businesses, innovative products and solutions, and provide borderless opportunities to global markets, bringing the promise of new jobs and opportunities, resulting in increased revenue streams.”

Participants in Microsoft’s EEIP.
Participants in Microsoft’s EEIP.

Job creation

Last year, Microsoft commissioned an IDC study, titled “Economic Impact of IT and Microsoft in SA”, which found the cloud ecosystem in SA will create around 112 000 new jobs by 2020.

“Of the 112 000 net new jobs mentioned in the IDC report,50 000 of these sit in the Microsoft ecosystem. Some of these will be cloud engineers, data specialists and cloud security analysts, which will be highly driven by the requirements coming out of the innovations that are being built by SMEs now and in the future,” Barnard pointed out.

The Head Start programme is an example of how these skills will be created. The online support initiative, introduced last year, provides access to over 100 Microsoft Azure skills and services, including AI with Azure Cognitive Services, Azure Machine Learning and Data Science services. The platform has 15 000 local SMEs learning to build their products and services through Office 365 tools.

“If you look at a typical start-up, their high base costs and infrastructure costs are often their disablers. When start-ups built an AI-based solution during the pre-Azure period, they invested heavily in every piece of innovation – data scientists, software developers, building the platform, etc, on constrained budgets,” explained Barnard.

“What Azure offers, is almost like an ‘all-in-a-box’ solution for AI, IOT and other innovations, meaning businesses don’t need to build these solutions from scratch, eliminating a lot of the high basic set-up costs which often cripple start-ups financially.”

For start-ups and innovators in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors that require a funding boost, EEIP helps to fund projects created by young software developers, supporting them to take their innovations to market, helping them with copyright, patent and trademark processes.

Another platform that affords local SMEs access to global markets, continued Barnard, is business and market development engine for entrepreneurs, 4Afrika Initiative.

The tech giant partnered with over 100 public and private sector organisations, to offer support to develop skills and innovation across Africa.

Also speaking at the event, Microsoft 4Afrika regional director Amrote Abdella explained: “In Africa, we understand that for people to meaningfully use and benefit from technology, we have to have the foundations of affordable access, digital skills and enabling environments for innovation in place.

“This has been 4Afrika’s mission since its inception in 2013 – supporting entrepreneurs, building digital talent pipelines and investing in technology-enabled solutions that grow economies and impact societies.”

In the past year, Microsoft has invested $2.8 million (R42 million) in local education and skills development programmes, which have been made freely available, it says.

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