Microsoft aims to spread Africa project to 15 countries

Microsoft Corp. is wooing African customers, translating its software into more languages and readying a plan, already tested in Namibia, to deliver cheap PCs to 15 African countries.

For the last two years, Microsoft has been working on a project it calls African Pathfinder, to help African nations acquire and use IT. As part of that project, it supplied 13 schools in Namibia with computers, software and training, and helped set up a refurbishment center for old PCs shipped from Europe.

Microsoft has now signed agreements with 15 other African countries, where it hopes to replicate the project, according to Jean-Philippe Courtois, senior vice-president and chief executive officer of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa.

“What we are trying to do in Africa is develop the ICT economy and make our products accessible to many more people,” he said.

African Pathfinder has three components, he said: access to affordable technology, training of teachers and the development of innovative software.

A key element in providing access to affordable technology is the Digital Pipeline project. This ships used PCs donated by companies to Namibia where they are refurbished and kitted out with a common software suite based on the English-language version of Windows 2000. The project has processed around 1,000 PCs already, with a target of 3,000 more by the end of the year, Courtois said. The cost of providing a PC and software in this way is around US$130; the goal is to get that down to around $100 by the end of the year, he said.

Microsoft also provided staff and funding to support teacher training in Namibia, he said.

In addition to its work in education, the company also aims to make its software easier for non-English speakers to use. It plans to release new versions of the Windows XP operating system and its Office productivity suite translated into Zulu “any week now” and in Kiswahili (Swahili) by the end of August, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman. Zulu has around 8 million speakers, mostly in eastern South Africa, while Kiswahili has as many as 50 million speakers on the East coast of Africa, mainly in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The company is also working on versions in Afrikaans, Setswana and Wolof, said the spokeswoman. Afrikaans is spoken by around 6 million, mainly in South Africa and Namibia, and was brought to the continent by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Setswana is spoken in Botswana and in neighbouring South Africa, and is estimated to have around 4 million speakers. Wolof is spoken in Senegal and Gambia, in West Africa, and is estimated to have 7 million speakers.

Each localized version requires the translation of around 3,000 terms, the spokeswoman said.

Microsoft is often seen as competing with free or open-source software such as the Linux operating system or the productivity suite. The ability for local communities to freely modify these applications, translating them into their local languages, is often cited as a benefit of such software. The Web site itself lists only one African language among the 52 localized versions available or under development: Support for S

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