Microsoft's new product looks to provide a socially equitable, affordable marketplace, and and also to expand Microsoft's influence into a developing market

Information and communications technology (ICT) has been a critical part of the foundation on which the economic successes of countries such as India has been laid.  However, one of the most populous regions of the world, Africa, remains woefully behind in terms of developing tech industry potential.  Products such as the OLPC initiative and Intel's Classmate PC have looked to bring laptops to underprivileged children in Africa.

Now Microsoft is launching a more capitalist fair-trade solution.  Microsoft in 2007 entered into a partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).  Now Microsoft is launching Uganda Green Computers Co., a new fair-trade computer refurbishing business, which will bring affordable computers to Africa.

The new business should be key to Uganda, which has an economy built upon small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as coffee growers and clothing makers.  Typically these businesses have had trouble finding affordable software and hardware.  The new service center hopes to do its part to fix these problems as it will aim to offer 10,000 refurbished PCs at $175 (299,000 Ugandan shillings), about a third of what a typical new computer costs in Uganda.  The computers will come with an impressive one year warranty, and feature Windows software.

The president of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, represented by his prime minister joined director-general of UNIDO and the corporate vice president of the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Group in an opening ceremony.  Ham-Mukasa Mulira, minister of information and communications technology of Uganda praised Microsoft for trying to make a difference. 

He states, "The opening of the PC refurbishment centre in Kampala marks a major step forward for the economic opportunities available to SMEs, the majority of employers in Uganda.  Access to affordable PCs will help SMEs increase their productivity, share information, grow their business, create local jobs and ultimately help make Uganda a more competitive, knowledge-based economy."

Patrick Bitature, chairman of Uganda Green Computers Co., says the business while having altruistic foundations makes economic sense.  He states, "There is a significant market in Uganda for refurbished PCs, but until now no one has addressed the issues of affordability, training and recycling in a way that makes sense long-term.  The centre in Kampala has created 22 new jobs already and is expected to grow to over 50 within a year. It will help develop a local and regional industry for responsible and profitable PC refurbishment and recycling for the future."

The main center will source work to 6 smaller distributors.  By the end of the year, this number is expected to grow to about 20.  The central location will provide staff training on customer support and marketing.  The network will work closely with the District Business Information Centres, a series of computer cafes set up around the company by UNIDO to provide free access.

The new center is not only equitable, but also green.  RAM and circuit boards will be recycled.  The copper and other valuable components will be sold.  Steel and plastic will be locally recycled.  And toxic substances such as lead glass will be carefully disposed of in an environmentally safe fashion.

Will Poole, corporate vice president of the Unlimited Potential Group at Microsoft is thrilled to work on the project.  He states, "We have been working with UNIDO over the last two years to help create business opportunities for SMEs in Africa.  Our investments in sustainable PC refurbishment practices and programmes in Uganda are all the more rewarding given the potential we see for ICT to foster innovation, create jobs and accelerate the competitiveness of local SMEs."

Microsoft and UNIDO aren't setting their sights low.  Their goal is to bring technology to 1 billion more people by 2015.  And for all its good intentions, you can bet Microsoft has another good reason to support the initiative -- it surely hopes those billion people will be a billion new Windows users.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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