by Erika Amoako-Agyei
From navigating interplanetary missions to mapping out technology strategies, Microsoft Africa chairman Cheick Diarra’s remarkable life journey has always been one of exploration.
The distinguished scientist left his small farming community in western Mali as a youngster to study in Europe and the United States, where he went on to become NASA’s first African astrophysicist.
“Working at NASA has done a great thing for me in the sense that I wanted the youth of Africa to realize that your potential really is unlimited — it depends on you,” Diarra says.
The latest chapter in his career has seen him return to Africa, where he has been heading Microsoft’s operations since 2006, trying to make technology more accessible on the continent.
“This is a unique opportunity because somebody like me, who is known for his scientific achievement, being able to have the opportunity to use, to leverage a company like Microsoft to really put the technology-access issue at the middle of the table,” he says.
“I’m talking about the affordability of hardware and software, as well as the connectivity issues — having electrical circuit in our rural areas which doesn’t exist — but principally training people to even be able to use the machine if one day they gain access to it,” he says.
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Business Challenges on the Ground
While working to promote digital literacy, Diarra is also trying to help Microsoft maintain its relevance in a fast-changing and competitive industry.
One of the main challenges faced by the technology giant in Africa is rampant software piracy — estimated to cost $150 million in northern Africa alone.
For Diarra, the best way to tackle the growing problem is by helping the development of the local software industry.
“Having small software companies who are going to deal with the direct need of the people around them and developing a software to respond to those people’s needs, and us coming and helping those people develop, and those people growing the market share, paying taxes to their own government, hiring people that they pay — then people will start seeing the value in respecting intellectual property,” Diarra says.
Microsoft also has to compete with the growing popularity of free and open-source technology. According to the New York Times, more than 10 million people are currently using South African IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu operating system, which costs nothing.
But Diarra argues that nothing is really given for free. “It is just two business models that are different,” he says.
“I can give you right now a software for free but every time you use that software and you need me to help you with part of the code or whatever, then I charge you,” he explains, pointing out that Microsoft offers 24/7 free customer support.
However, Diarra goes on to say that Africa has to use all the available resources to catch up with the global technology revolution.
–Cheick Diarra, Microsoft Africa chairman
“I personally think that Africa has to take advantage of everything, open-source software, proprietary,” he says, adding that the focus should be on developing interoperable systems that can work across both models.
“That will give us the flexibility where we can and where it is available to get software for free, or at least cheap, or to get software that is not free but that works very well and put the two together to work.”
Diarra, who has a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering, says he developed a fascination with astronomy from an early age, growing up in the West African country of Mali.
“I’ve been interested in what NASA does since the time I was in secondary school when, in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon,” he says.
Diarra joined the U.S. space agency in 1988 where he went on to work for a decade on several key missions, including the Magellan mission to Venus, the Ulysses mission to the poles of the Sun, the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Pathfinder mission.
A few months after the Pathfinder landed on Mars in 1997, Diarra was invited to Mali to lecture about the high-profile mission.
“The fact that the media broadcast the landing of that mission with my face as a member of that team has given so much hope to young people around the continent. I used to receive over 1,000 emails a day,” he says.
In June 1998, Diarra was named UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador for science and technology education to Africa. And in his current role with Microsoft he says he has the opportunity to work with companies such as HP to help open up technology to ordinary Africans.
“We can bring to the table some approach that will enable to make this access issue a reality, so that we can finally give access to this technology to the huge number of Africans,” he says.
Cheick Modibo Diarra (born 1952), was born in Nioro du Sahel, Mali. After graduating high school in Mali, he studied mathematics, physics, and analytic mechanics in Paris at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. He then went on to study aerospace engineering at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was recruited by Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA FFRDC Contractor, where he played a role in several NASA programs.
In 1999, he obtained permission from NASA to work part-time in order to devote himself to education development in Africa, founding the Pathfinder Foundation. He took a further sabbatical in 2002 to found a laboratory in Bamako, Mali for the development of solar energy. In 2000 and 2001 he also served as a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In 2002 and 2003 he served as CEO of the African Virtual University, based in Kenya.
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