African governments must commit to transparency to eliminate barriers that hamper entrepreneurship and business and economic opportunity, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Monday.
Real progress requires that commitment, Ballmer said, speaking at the second annual Information and Communication Technologies Best Practices Forum in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Although some countries in Africa have made progress, according to the World Bank, African nations on average rank 136th out of 178 countries when it comes to the ease of doing business there, he said.
"Technology alone will not turn these goals into achievements," Ballmer said. "Technology is just a tool to empower people to make progress. It is an enabler."
Africa needs to increase Internet bandwidth to drive short-term benefits and long-term development, he said. Access to Web-based information and communications is essential to expand educational opportunities, improve health care and provide access to government services, Ballmer said, adding that it is vital for countries to develop Internet infrastructure.
He also observed that telecommunications deregulation could help improve the quality of fixed-line telephony and open the doors to even broader expansion of cellular communications.
African governments must also reduce taxes on ICT, Ballmer said. In many African countries, high taxes on imported technology limit the affordability of computing and hinder technology's ability to benefit people.
Partnerships between governments, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector are crucial to development, he said. "Together, we must invest in education and the development of local business to drive change and enable Africa to reach its potential," Ballmer said.
He cited three markets in Africa -- those who already have access to technology, those who want that access, and those for whom technology is currently irrelevant.
Relatively affluent businesses and consumers in Africa already enjoy the same level of technology sophistication as users in any developed market, he said, adding that there also is an emerging middle class that aspires to the same, but cannot now afford high-end computing.
"For this segment, access to computing will mean better educational opportunities, health care and government services," he said.
"[Technology] will provide opportunities to acquire skills that are relevant in the knowledge-based economy," he said.
"For the emerging middle class, access to more powerful, more affordable computing will mean the ability to become full participants in the knowledge economy. The coming information technology revolution will open the door to improved educational opportunities and skills training, along with better knowledge of local and even global markets. And it will support the rise of ... entrepreneurs," Ballmer said.
The third market is economically inactive, he said, and is what most people think of when they picture emerging markets -- people for whom technology is mostly irrelevant because they lack access to basic infrastructure and economic opportunities.
"The economically inactive are the poor of the poor of the world. ICTs will not solve all the issues they face, but in a world where a cell phone will have the power of a personal computer and wireless networks will provide access to the Internet from almost any location, technology can have a significant impact," Ballmer said.
The world is on the verge of a technology revolution that will speed the pace of adoption in Africa, he said, with more processing power in smaller devices. Storage will continue to expand, while wireless broadband networks will be more common. Meanwhile, natural user interfaces activated by voices, handwriting and gestures will become common, and high-quality displays will be cheaper and more portable, Ballmer said.