Microsoft Chairman for Africa: Cheick Diarra, Maps out his Vision for the Continent by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

From Mali to Microsoft  . . . and inbetween, Dr. Cheick Diarra, became NASA’s first African astrophysicist

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.

However, Diarra is quick to point out that access to technology will do little to accelerate Africa’s economic and social development if it is not accompanied by investment in the continent’s most important resource — its people.

“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.

Cheick Diarra: Technology and people power can unlock Africa’s potential


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.

I wanted the youth of Africa to realize that your potential really is unlimited.
–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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Africa Bids to host World’s Most Powerful Telescope by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

Africa is bidding to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). When constructed, in 2025, it will have 50-100 times greater sensitivity than any other radio telescope on Earth. This telescope will contribute to answering fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter.


From the earliest humans, people have wondered about the planets, the stars, the galaxies and the Universe itself. New telescopes have almost always revealed things that we had not imagined. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe. With about 3000 receptors linked together and a total collecting area of one square kilometre, the SKA will have about 100 times more sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed than any other radio telescope on Earth. 

The SKA will be able to probe the edges of our Universe. If there is life somewhere else in the Universe, the SKA will help us find it. It will help us to answer fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter. It will be a powerful time machine that scientists will use to go back in time to explore the origins of the first galaxies, stars and planets. 

“There is a strong science case for building the SKA, but, because there is so much about the universe that we simply don’t know yet, the telescope will most likely be celebrated for discoveries that we can’t even imagine now,” explains Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Director of the SKA South Africa Project. “South Africa has a ringside seat for observing the universe, and we are doing our best to bring this mega science instrument to this continent.”


Astronomy allows us to see back in time, because the light waves from very distant stars or galaxies take a long time to travel through space to our telescopes, so we see them as they were a very long time ago. Now astronomers want to build the most powerful telescope ever, to see back to before the first stars and galaxies formed. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a radio telescope – instead of seeing light waves, it will make pictures from radio waves.

South Africa, with eight African countries as partners, and Australia have been picked as possible sites to build the SKA. South Africa has proposed the Karoo in the Northern Cape as the core site. Scientists are now comparing the radio interference at both sites, as well as the cost of buildingand operating the telescope in Africa compared to Australia.

From the dark ages to extraterrestrial intelligence

By looking back in time approximately 13.7 billion years to the “dark ages” of the universe, the SKA will be able to provide detailed pictures of the cosmic web of neutral gas to unravel how the very first black holes and stars were formed. It will track young galaxies to investigate the increasing rate of expansion of the universe, thereby helping to identify the nature of dark energy. By measuring the radio emissions of millions of distant galaxies, the SKA will create three-dimensional galactic maps, and thereby allow us to study the nature of cosmic magnets throughout the universe and reveal their role in its evolution. It will even be able to detect extremely weak extra-terrestrial signals and may pinpoint other planets capable of supporting life. Astrobiologists will use the SKA to search for amino acids, the building blocks of life, by identifying spectral lines at specific frequencies. The SKA will also explore the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity. Pulsars, the collapsed spinning cores of dead stars, will be monitored to study gravitational waves and black holes.


The bid to bring the SKA to Africa

Winning this bid will put Africa on the world stage of science and will ensure a sustained boost for expertise and infrastructure development across the continent. “This year – 2011 – we have to pull out all the stops to show the world that Africa is ready to host the SKA,” Dr Fanaroff says.

South Africa’s bid proposes that the core of the telescope be located in an arid area of the Northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa, with about three antenna stations in Namibia, four in Botswana and one each in Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya, Ghana and Zambia. Each antenna station will consist of about 30 individual antennas. The African Union fully supports the continent’s bid to host the SKA.

Competition for Africa’s SKA ambitions comes from a collaborative bid between Australia and New Zealand. An international site selection committee must make a final recommendation on the best site for the SKA towards the end of 2011. A SKA Council will be constituted to make and announce the final decision in 2012. 

The Budget

The budget for building the SKA is €1.5 billion and it will cost about €150 million per year to operate it. The SKA will be built and funded by a consortium, which currently consists of sixteen countries. The African Union Heads of State have given their full support to the African bid. A decision on where to site the SKA will be taken in 2012.

With global investment supporting the project and astronomers and engineers around the world already working on its design, construction on the SKA is scheduled to start around 2016. The first astronomical observations are expected by 2019 and the telescope should be fully functional by 2024.

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Online game seeks to empower Africa by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

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Recently awarded #1 Social Impact Game of the Year!

VIDEO: Trailer: What is EVOKE designed to do?

  by Erika Amoako-Agyei

Designed with a focus on helping communities in Africa, EVOKE  is a ten-week crash course in changing the world. The goal of the social network game is to help empower people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems. It is free to play and open to anyone, anywhere. In 2010, EVOKE received top honors  from Games for Change, the leading global organization for games designed to have a positive real world impact. 

EVOKE was developed by the World Bank Institute, the learning and knowledge arm of the World Bank Group, and directed by alternate reality game designer Jane McGonigal.

VIDEO: What is an EVOKE?
Game designer Jane McGonigal sees “superheroes” with untapped potential that can be used to fix vexing real-world problems.

“Gamers are willing to work hard all the time if they’re given the right work,” she said. She calls them “super-empowered, hopeful individuals,” and includes herself among the bunch.

McGonigal’s latest online game, called “Urgent Evoke,” launched in March 2010. Her hopes are to channel the obsessive focus online games create into something more productive than conquering monsters and earning virtual weapons.

She wants to encourage people in Africa to solve problems like environmental degradation, lack of food, water scarcity, poverty and violence.

To do this, the Urgent Evoke game — classified in the emerging “alternate reality” genre — straddles the online and physical worlds. Players, a few hundred of whom are in Africa, earn points and power-ups by completing real-world tasks like volunteering, making business contacts or researching an issue, then submitting evidence of their work online.

At the end of the game, McGonigal expects some players to have business plans about how they will improve the world.

Play a game, get a job

Depending on how well the game goes, Urgent Evoke could influence the future of alternate reality gaming and spur innovation in Africa.

Bob Hawkins, senior education specialist with the World Bank Institute, said one big reason people in African countries aren’t as entrepreneurial and innovative as those in the West is that they don’t feel as empowered to create change. That’s largely why his international development group is funding McGonigal’s project to the tune of $500,000.

“There have been studies, for instance, in South Africa that the public investment in universities isn’t producing the types of new ideas and innovation that industry wants,” he said. “What happens is that industry is importing ideas from outside the continent and outside of South Africa.”

He hopes Urgent Evoke will empower people in Africa to change their own futures. This game will act as a kind of hyper-engaged online social network, he said, setting people in the developing world up with contacts in Europe, the United States and elsewhere who may offer insight or even cash.

An unannounced number of game “winners” will be given mentorships, internships, start-up money and scholarships for playing the game.


Results from Season One

The game’s first season began on March 3, 2010 and ended on May 12th, 2010. Top players also earned online mentorships with experienced social innovators and business leaders from around the world, seed funding for new ventures, and travel scholarships to share their vision for the future at the EVOKE Summit in Washington DC. (Learn more about these rewardsand take a look at past winners). Successful participants formed the first graduating class of the EVOKE network.

The game continues as it enters a new season. You can request to join the game with a group now. 

How ‘Evoke’ Works

Game designer, McGonigal, said the power of Urgent Evoke is that it doesn’t feel like work when you’re immersed in the story and working with other gamers around the world to chase bite-sized goals.

Urgent Evoke gamers follow a story that’s presented each week like a comic book online. The central figure of the Evoke narrative is a mysterious character who spots the world’s big problems and sends out “Urgent Evoke” messages to a team of game players on Wednesdays, asking for help.

A new challenge, such as a famine or water shortage, is presented to players at midnight for 10 weeks. Players earn points by accepting the challenges and then responding with evidence that they’ve used their real-life “superhero” powers to help. A person might, for example, contact a community organization that specializes in environmental issues, or try to provide meals for someone in their neighborhood.

Players catalogue their activities and submit the evidence in the form of a blog post, a video or a photo, which players post on the Urgent Evoke Web site.

Other people in the game network read these posts and, if they feel the player has done a good job, can award them further power-ups in a number of categories like creativity, collaboration, sustainability and courage.

Players with the most points at the end of the game win, but McGonigal and Hawkins said the experience of playing is what’s most valuable.

The game will “open their eyes to the range of challenges that they could roll up their sleeves and take on,” Hawkins said.

Potential for addiction

McGonigal makes the controversial argument that if people played more online games like Urgent Evoke or World of Warcraft, our society would be better equipped to battle big problems.

That’s because gamers are trained to believe they can win, and because they’re matched with tasks that are fit to their skill levels, based on what level they’ve achieved in the game, she said.

McGonigal wants to see people exhibit the same level of enthusiasm and optimism they display in games in their real lives.

People spend a collective 3 billion hours per week playing online games today, she said. That number must be 21 billion — seven times the current amount — for our society to realize its innovative and creative potential, she said.

Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.

Kimberly Young, a PhD psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, argued that online games, educational or not, are an addictive force in our society.

People can learn and develop skills in online worlds, she said, but “they do that to the exclusion of developing those skills in the real world.”

EVOKE’s impact?

According to game designer, McGonigal’s website, More than 20,000 players in 130 countries enrolled in a 10-week online crash course in changing the world. As a direct result of the game, more than 50 real world social enterprises on five continents were founded by players by the end of the 10 weeks. The enterprises were matched with mentors for an additional summer of training — and they collectively went on to raise tens of thousands of dollars in startup funding from Global Giving.

EVOKE is for all ages; recommended age 13 and up.

Learn the five secrets of the EVOKE Network.
Plus: view this low-bandwidth version of EVOKE

Group inquiries: Use this sign-up form


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Ugandan President Campaign Rap Hits Airwaves and Goes Viral by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

 By Erika Amoako-Agyei

Photo: Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni addresses a campaign rally at the Makerere university Freedom Square in the capital Kampala, February 14, 2011. Credit: Reuters/James Akena

President Yoweri Museveni says he might release an album after a rap he performed became a smash hit on Uganda’s radio stations and in its nightclubs.

 Campaigning around Uganda the past few months, President Yoweri Museveni showed that he was in touch with the youth by performing folk chants behind the podium. “These young people taught me about this ‘rap’,” he told reporters. “Well, I can even give you some rap myself,” he says, before launching into a rhythmic rendition of the chants in his distinctive gravelly voice.

The leader, who is the NRM flag bearer in the presidential election, performed the song on Saturday, February 18, 2011 at a concert held for youthful supporters of his party in Kampala and ever since then, the song is the hottest thing on the streets and on the radio.  The song has also gone viral on social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and is being used as a ringtone by some party faithful.

Museveni has also, apparently, contracted a couple of top Ugandan musical artists to go on his campaign tours with him, giving the artists free exposure and President Museveni a youthful following. Like it or not, the combination has worked as a powerful campaign tool.

Over the last few months, the leader, nicknamed “M7” (for the likeness to his name), performed two children’s folk chants from his birthplace in Western Uganda at several election rallies — “Naatema akati” (I cut a stick) and “Mp’enkoni” (Give me the stick).


“I was very happy with the reaction of the youth because that means they are very thirsty for the music of their ancestors,” the 67-year-old told a news conference before elections on Friday, February 18, 2011.


“So after the election you may get quite a big album of the classics.”

Record producers have since mixed the performances with hip-hop beats and audio of Museveni talking to the crowd about a genre of music that he said was new to him. The song is titled, “You want another rap?” after a question Museveni shouted to crowds of young people and quickly appeared for sale in Kampala.




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“Those poems which I gave to the youth are classical poems they were being recited before colonialism,” Museveni told reporters. “There are quite a number of other songs and recitals which I will make available to them.”

Ruling party officials were pleased with the popularity of the song before the poll but issued warnings to some newspapers after they published doctored photographs of a topless Museveni with a muscled and heavily tattooed torso.


On Sunday, February 20th, it was announced that President Museveni, one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, won election to a fourth term in office by a 68% margin but the opposition rejected the outcome.



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Etiquette in Africa: Four Gestures to Avoid by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

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African Entrepreneurs: Doing More with Less

In Uncategorized on February 14, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei

Africa’s challenges are creating business opportunities.




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Lawyer Advises: Expanding into Africa can be profitable provided companies follow official protocol by Erika Amoako-Agyei

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2011 by Erika Amoako-Agyei


In an article that first appeared in Mining Weekly, I came across the legal advice of attorney and partner, Bruce Dickinson, of law firm Webber Wentzel Attorneys. I found his insights into the policies governing mining in Africa worth sharing.

“Companies planning to expand into Africa must strictly comply with the host countries’ legal requirements,” he says.

In the hope of regaining a semblance of order in an industry that is often key to economic advancement, Dickinson says that many African countries are tightening up legal requirements and processes. 

“Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe are not putting laws in place to discourage investment; rather, they are trying to build a strong economy off a sound legal base, which would make the administration of the mining industry easier,” says Dickinson.

He adds that companies must take cognisance of the operating environment and the processes governing it.

“Companies expanding into Africa need to really look at their mining rights and the concessions they have been granted. First, have all the correct procedures been followed in obtaining the licence? Does the entity that has issued the mining rights have the relevant authority to do so? What associated infrastructure needs to be established around the concession area, and does the company have the authority to 
establish such infrastructure?” Dickinson 


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He warns that companies failing to ask and answer these questions could land in hot water with government departments, 
financiers and the like to the detriment of their future in the region.

During the first DRC War and the subsequent transition, which lasted from 1996 to 1997, former President Mobutu Sésé Seko’s government and later rebel groups and govern-
ment loyalists issued a number of mining concessions to international mining majors. In 2007, rumours were rife that the mining 
licences issued were unfavourably skewed in favour of the mining companies. To resolve this, the current DRC government suspended 
a number of mining operations pending a 
licence review, with some companies subsequently having licences revoked.

Dickinson warns that a similar situation, where mining licences come under review and are suspended, could happen in other African countries, such as Guinea.

Webber Wentzel Africa Group director Steven De Backer tells Mining Weekly that the days of fast-tracking projects while legal processes are being put in place are a thing of the past.

Expansion Arrogance 
One of the major pitfalls that companies 
encounter when expanding into Africa is an inherent arrogance that private companies can run roughshod over African governments and circumvent certain laws and requirements.

“This has a lot to do with companies coming into Africa where sound geological data has identified low-hanging fruits. 
“However, a strong case can be made for companies that do follow protocol, as these companies foster good relations with government departments and will have greater legal protection when operating in the country,” says Dickinson.

Empowerment Necessary 
“One of the most critical aspects for the African continent today is meaningful empower-
ment. Given that mineral resources are finite, it is critical to turn these to account now for the benefit of those living on the continent so as to pave the way for sustained economic growth and development – turning the finite into the infinite,” says Dickinson.

Although Africa is a big continent, De Backer points out that almost all the countries have taken lessons from best practices elsewhere, including South Africa, and are starting to develop empowerment frameworks that benefit these countries as a whole.

However, this does not mean that the rest of the continent will be following South Africa’s nationalisation debate.

“The rest of the continent sees a need for 
empowerment and more countries aim to 
stimulate greater participation of nationals in the mining industry without, however, considering mine nationalisation, which could be detrimental for developing mining economies,” he said.

Changing Perceptions 
De Backer warns that the old perception of Africa being a legal and administrative cesspool no longer hold water.

He points out that a legacy of the past is that there are distinct areas of legal systems in Africa which have their own legal processes 
and protocols.

“Although all jurisdictions have hybrid systems, there’s a strong Roman-Dutch and common law influence in Southern Africa, while East Africa, although primarily based on English common law, also has Indian and Arabic influences. West Africa follows French civil law and North Africa follows a combination of French and Islamic law. However, many countries are starting to adopt best practice principles that are being tailor-made to fit in with the country’s traditional legal framework to render the mining industry more governable.”

He adds that this is partly a result of the growing presence of multinational mining majors.

“In order to build sustainable mining indus-
tries, multinational mining majors, which have long-standing administrative processes, have important roles to play in showing governments how administration should be carried out,” says De Backer.

Legal Handbook 
Dickinson reports that Webber Wentzel is in the process of compiling a handbook that 
will serve as a ‘legal Bible’ when expanding into key mining destinations in Africa. The book will cover most African countries and the legal requirements and procedures that exist within them as well as tips on how to manage these.

Apart from pure resource demand, he concludes that Africa is opening up significantly off the back of growing political stability and improving regulatory environments.

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