In 2016, the United Nations declared access to the internet as a basic human right. Still, only 62% of the world has consistent access. The impact of COVID-19 has made this digital divide even starker: companies with internet access have been able to virtualize their operations at remarkable speed, while those without access are getting left further behind. With both the resources and global reach to meaningfully address these kinds of complex global challenges, corporations are uniquely positioned to affect systemic change — and are increasingly being called on by consumers and employees to do so.
Virtual collaboration technology and more meaningful investments in sustainability are here to stay as we rebuild our post-COVID new normal, and many companies are still grappling with how to adjust their course accordingly. But one company that has been ahead of the curve for years is Microsoft. In fact, companies around the world wouldn’t have been able to adapt to virtual work so quickly without the work Microsoft has been doing for years, developing tools and technologies to enable collaboration while also building capacity to close the digital divide.
Through its MySkills4Afrika program, Microsoft helps individuals and organizations build capacity to scale solutions by Africans for Africa, creating long-term sustainable impact in a way that advances its own sustainability and employee engagement goals. This kind of initiative — in which business objectives and social impact targets mutually reinforce, rather than compete with, each other — represents the future of corporate social responsibility, and should be looked upon as an example for other companies to emulate.
We sat down with MySkills4Afrika Business Development & Program Manager Wanjira Kamwere to learn more about the inner workings of this award-winning and industry-leading program, and how more companies can follow Microsoft’s lead to achieve meaningful systemic change.
The Business Case for the ‘CSR’ of the Future
Part of what makes the 4Afrika initiative so unique is that it is integrated into Microsoft’s core business operations, rather than standing alone as an ancillary CSR program. Launched in 2013 out of the business division overseeing growth in that part of the world, 4Afrika blends business and market development with long-term capacity building to drive economic development, inclusive growth, and digital transformation across the continent.
Microsoft employees can directly support these capacity-building efforts by volunteering their time, skills, and expertise through the MySkills4Afrika program, which has 3 main objectives:
- Promote global leadership and skills development amongst our employees
- Provide better understanding of the African markets throughout the company
- Transfer vital skills that help Africans grow, innovate and compete globally
Beyond volunteering, the 4Africka initiative also provides technology, grants, and other support to key stakeholders, including nonprofits, startups, entrepreneurship support organizations, and more.
Structured this way, resources invested into sustainability and social impact aren’t taking away from core business objectives – they are furthering them.
Leveraging Technology to Match Real Skills with Real Needs
When it comes to identifying host organizations to work with, Wanjira explained that “we look for partnerships with organizations that support Africa’s competitiveness through innovation for economic growth and societal impact.” That includes working with individual start-ups, governments, as well as accelerators and incubators to provide broader skill-building support. For example, “we collaborate with incubation centers, where we bring in young people for 6 months to undergo technical training and mentorship. These participants gain experience developing software applications and working on real-life projects, so that they can ultimately go on to build companies and organizations that leverage industry-level technology to scale solutions to local challenges. Our work is enabling access to technology to drive this kind of innovation, creating a way for them to create wealth for themselves and their communities. If they need support further along down the road, MySkills4Afrika can continue to support them,” Wanjira explained.
Like all MovingWorlds partner programs, the MySkillsAfrika program always starts with the local need. Representatives from organizations can partner with a local Microsoft employee (the project owner) to submit a request for support through the MySkills4Afrika program. The organization and project owner are guided through a process to focus on a specific need. Once approved, the MySkills team broadcasts the need for skills-based volunteers across the company to find the best possible support from out of the over 150,000 people that work at Microsoft.
To have this kind of impact on such a large scale, Wanjira explained that “we leverage technology a lot in the way we manage the program to ensure hosts get connected to the right volunteer, and to ensure that shared value is delivered for all stakeholders.” Through an online portal, Microsoft employees around the world can access a database of projects coming in from the field. Before a project can be added to the database, Wanjira and her team “ensure that we’ve collected as much information from the host partner as possible about the project’s scope, expected results and deliverables, and how the project will impact the community in the long-run.” Having this information all in one place helps automate the pre-screening process, which is key to being able to replicate the process at scale. “When a Microsoft employee sees a project that matches their skills and expertise, they can then apply through the portal. When the match is confirmed, we also have planning guides and goal setting documents to facilitate the preparation.” Investing heavily in this degree of planning and scoping up-front ensures that “by the time a volunteer is matched and arrives to begin the work, everything is very clear, and we can create a significant impact even in a short amount of time.”
Generating Shared Value for All Stakeholders
Most projects last for about 2 weeks, Wanjira pointed out, “which is why it’s so important to continuously track, monitor, and evaluate the results to ensure we’re delivering sustainable long-term impact.” After each engagement, surveys are sent to the volunteer, the volunteer’s line manager in the office they are based, the host organization, and the project owner in the field. Even during the upheaval of COVID, projects are still occurring, impact is still being measured, and all stakeholders continue to score the program very highly.
For host organizations, MySkills4Afrika projects transfer vital skills that help Africans grow, innovate and compete globally. According to the program’s latest impact report, 100% of host organizations reported impact on organizational capability and staff, and 90% reported increased ability to compete.
This is an aspect of the program that Wanjira is most proud of, sharing that “for us, it’s seeing the impact that a highly customized engagement can make. As a company, we have a lot of skill-building resources more broadly available through portals and online courses. But when you add the element of someone with experience in another market coming in to help tailor this best in class technology to a host’s unique needs, so much more becomes possible.”
One organization that recently received capacity-building support through the MySkills4Afrika program is Azubi Africa, a training and employability program to help recent graduates succeed in the job market. In order to build its internal capacity to train participants on high-demand data science skills, the team partnered with Microsoft Cloud Solution Architect, Tunde Xintia Gyenge from Microsoft UK, to host its first Data Science Workshop.
One of the participants in Azubi Africa’s skills lab, Queen Attipoe, shared “With all the technological advancement and rise in social media’s popularity, there will always be a need for people who can use this data to gain meaningful insights that will help shape the world. The [Azubi Africa Business Intelligence] program was exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to acquire new skills to become the Data Analyst I want to be; and to expand my network. Little did I know there was more to be gained from the program than I had thought.”
Queen went on to explain that, “The onboarding process was very smooth. We were given all the tools needed to make our virtual training experience a great one. I hadn’t used Microsoft teams before but with the training and help of Coordinators and Facilitators of the program, it was very easy to access materials for the program and join all the training sessions.”
The lead facilitator for Azubi Africa’s skill lab, Wendel Laryea, added that “Running the Power Platform training in our skill lab was very exciting and came with its own challenges. Fortunately, we had support from our expert volunteer, Microsoft employee Renato Leite. Our sessions together were very impactful and inspiring. He served as a sounding board to validate our ideas and also helped to mentor our trainees by sharing relevant tips and resources that can make our growth and learning well grounded. Renato always went the extra mile in making time for us; he helped us prepare trainees for their certification exams as well as connected us with other experts like Luis Filipe dos S. Nunes who also supported our trainees greatly through mentoring sessions and meet-ups.”
With support from facilitators and Microsoft employee volunteers, skill lab participants like Queen were able to make tangible progress towards their goals. Queen reflected, “One thing I never imagined myself saying before the program was “I developed an app”. But in the end, I did. I was able to leverage the Power Apps Canvas App for Mobile and Power BI to build a low code app which helps Mobile Money Agents save and track records of their transactions and have some insights on the performance of the business.”
Thanks to collaboration technology, even after completing the training workshops, Microsoft volunteers like Renato and Tunde can continue to mentor Azubi Africa students virtually. Tunde shared, “I am so excited knowing that we are going to continue learning together in the upcoming period (even though we will do it now remotely), empowering each other in making things better with small steps regardless of where we are in the world – it can be in London, in Accra or in my hometown.”
The positive impact of this program goes both ways, having a transformative impact on employees who volunteer their skills and expertise. We previously featured the leadership development and innovation benefits to employees from Microsoft in SSIR and the Seattle Times. Wanjira shared that, “A lot of the feedback we get from volunteers in the field is that they feel proud to be associated with a company that can offer them this kind of opportunity to grow as a leader while making a meaningful difference. Volunteers are being brought into situations that stretch them beyond their comfort zones, doing things they may not have done before in their full-time roles, like presenting to very senior leaders.”
By design, these stretch experiences also increase employees’ level of adaptability. “Even with all of the preparation that goes into the project ahead of time, being in the field forces you to think on your feet”, Wanjira pointed out. In follow-up surveys, Wanjira and her team specifically measure the impact of the experience on the six Microsoft core competencies: Drive for results, Customer focus, Judgement, Adaptability, Influencing for Impact, and Collaboration.
You can see this adaptability in action in a reflection that Software Engineer Neil Davis recently shared about his experience teaching core programming and cloud concepts to students at the Refactory SkillsLab coding bootcamp in Uganda. He shared, “Covid-19 added a few opportunities and challenges to the workshop. The whole workshop had to become virtual, allowing us to include students from Kenya. Due to time differences, we spread the program out over two weeks and held sessions each night over Microsoft Teams Live. I needed to make all the content accessible on OneNote and GitHub so that students could work during the day. Finally, due to more limited uses of data (especially with streaming the presentations), I needed to make all the content downloadable. Fortunately, the workshop was a success! The students seemed to have enjoyed the content and appreciated my efforts to include them and give access as much as possible. I’m excited about this initial response, and hope to see the impact continue to grow from there!”
The data below shows just how impactful MySkills4Afrika has been for employee volunteers, something that Wanjira has observed directly. “We have some volunteers who have done four or five engagements now. To find people who’ve wanted to keep coming back and supporting the program virtual and/or through onsite visits makes a difference I think really is a testament to the positive impact this program has for all stakeholders. Having a positive impact in the field in turn has an impact on how the employees feel about working for Microsoft and their day to day jobs – the value of the experience doesn’t end when they return home” she reflected.
Participating in this program also gives Microsoft employees a direct connection to the company’s mission. Technical specialist Felix Ndugwa, who traveled to Nairobi to help local partners safely migrate to the Cloud, reflected on LinkedIn that it was, “[an] amazing feeling, empowering everyone on the planet to achieve more.” The resulting increase in employee motivation and engagement has positive ripple effects that makes Microsoft a better company as a whole. Wanjira explains that participating in the program “increases employee’s awareness of how technology is being used in other parts of the world, exposes them to technology leaders within the continent, and gives them new insights based on direct experience that help ensure African voices are heard within the company on issues of accessibility, equity, and ethics in tech.”
What’s Next for MySkills4Afrika
Due to travel restrictions imposed by many governments across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MySkills4Afrika program is now operating fully virtually. But what sets best-in-class programs like this one apart from the rest is viewing change as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
Wanjira shared, “The necessity of adapting to virtual work has opened new opportunities and pathways for even more Microsoft employees and African businesses to experience the benefits of this program. When it comes to what’s next for MySkills4Afrika, I think we’ll be able to offer even more colleagues the experience and exposure to another culture through virtual engagements. This also opens up opportunities for longer-term support, perhaps even giving groups of Microsoft employees with similar roles but different geographic locations the chance to “adopt” a certain organization to work with over the longer-term to see how they can really move the dial.” The data being collected shows that the virtual engagements are not only powerful, but also more inclusive. One Microsoft volunteer, David Branscome, has trained over 1,200 people in best practices for cloud-based architecture, which is 10X more than the number of people it would be possible for him to train in-person.
In our work with Microsoft, we have picked up a lot of valuable lessons, some of which are highlighted in our e-guide on how to scale social impact programs. In particular, MySkills4Afrika demonstrates these key lessons for other companies to keep in mind when building their own programs at the intersection of social impact, employee engagement, and leadership development:
- Design with and for the local team. The key decision makers on the MySkills4Afrika and 4Afrika initiative are Africans. Stellar leaders like Wanjira, and her manager who oversees all of the 4Afrika program, Amrote Abdella, are from and of the continent. While the 4Afrika partners with teams from around the world and company, it oversees the budget and strategy of the program locally.
- Involve stakeholders, and measure impact for all. Assessments are in place for end beneficiaries, representatives from hosting organizations, project owners, employee volunteers, and the volunteers’ managers. You are what you measure, and by soliciting feedback from all, the program continues to get better for all.
- Focus on long-term impact. The success of an initiative isn’t measured the moment a project or engagement ends, but years down the road. Capacity-building takes time to show results, but it’s more sustainable than short-term efforts that may be ‘quick wins’ but ultimately not as impactful. By designing for long-term impact for all stakeholders, and consistently monitoring the long-term affects of the program, it can continuously improve
- Remain agile to keep improving and innovating. The way that MySkills4Afrika has adapted to COVID-19 by virtualizing projects, creating even more inclusive and numerous opportunities for employees to get involved, is a great example of turning an unanticipated challenge into an opportunity. Certainly, the right technology platform is a key enabler of this, but so is a growth mindset with a focus on impact.
- Don’t view CSR as a stand-alone category adjacent to your core business functions. As MySkills4Afrika demonstrates, embedding sustainability into your company’s core operations allows you to make a bigger impact while simultaneously developing employees and boosting engagement while better serving key customers and stakeholders.
Whether your company has an established CSR program or is in the process of developing one, keeping these key lessons in mind will help you tailor your program for maximum impact. Looking for customized support building an industry-leading program of your own? Learn more about our corporate social impact program development and consulting services, and be sure to follow the great work of Microsoft’s MySkills4Afrika program.