Microsoft ties services into new African e-commerce portal as app spreads

As I wrote a couple months ago, emerging markets will shape the smartphone world as costs fall and people use handsets to get online for the first time. Microsoft and Facebook know it: At the AfricaCom conference in Cape Town this week, the two companies announced moves to place themselves at the heart of that first internet experience.

In [company]Facebook[/company]’s case, we’re talking about an expansion of the existing initiative, which uses partnerships with local carriers to offer people free access to a limited subset of web services. These services, such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Google Search and Wikipedia, get to be the means through which users discover the online world. The carriers, who don’t charge anyone for the data used by these services, hope the users will like the online experience and pay to upgrade to general access.

Having begun in Zambia in July through Airtel, then expanded to Tanzania through Tigo, the portal app will later this week roll out in Kenya, again through Airtel. A list of the services available through the Kenyan portal can be found in the announcement statement.

E-commerce ecosystem

So far, the big U.S. firms to push into emerging markets with such “connect the unconnected” schemes have been Facebook and [technology]Google[/technology]. However, on Tuesday [company]Microsoft[/company] joined the fray.

At AfricaCom, Microsoft revealed a partnership with the British online payments firm Skrill (formerly known as Moneybookers) and local carriers such as [company]MTN[/company], [company]Etisalat[/company] and [company]Millicom[/company]. This is another portal play: a new e-commerce portal that will use Skrill’s mobile wallet to help the unbanked buy stuff from global online brands.

These brands will largely be providers of digital goods – the ones mentioned in the announcement include video-streamer iROKOtv, music download and streaming provider Spinlet, and unspecified social gaming providers. However, Skrill and the carriers will also use this portal to provide access to various exclusive product offers and discounts.

And Microsoft? The software giant will give these customers free Outlook email addresses to register their e-commerce accounts, as well as 15GB each of free OneDrive cloud storage. Apart from introducing newbies to Microsoft’s web services and making them fundamental to their subsequent online identities, the firm will also provide free access to educational content ranging “from basic numeracy games to courses on app development through its virtual academy.”

The idea here is to help people develop the skills to build online businesses, which can then make money through Skrill payments. This isn’t so much a matter of creating a portal to the web as it is one of creating a whole e-commerce ecosystem.

Here’s how Frank McCosker, the “affordable access and smart financing” chief at Microsoft’s 4Afrika division, put it in the statement:

As part of 4Afrika’s effort towards affordable access, this portal seeks to bring Africa’s offline economies online, enabling the continent to take part in the global digital revolution, which in turn, will drive innovation, inclusion, skills and trade.

Of course, taking economies online also means spreading connectivity. Unlike Google and Facebook, Microsoft isn’t planning fleets of drones and balloons to achieve this, but it is conducting trials of white space broadband technology across Africa (and elsewhere) to see what can be squeezed out of unlicensed radio spectrum. These trials are largely a lobbying effort, to demonstrate to various governments in emerging markets that they should free up this spectrum for low-cost, long-range broadband purposes.