HP Africa’s MD – Elisabeth Moreno – talks about the challenges and the importance of technology in Africa

Technology is a tool made by humans for humans

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to sit down and talk to many of the world’s most interesting and influential people in tech, but unfortunately, many of them have always been cagey when it comes to certain topics, opting instead to give safe PR approved answers which never actually answer the question posed.

That’s exactly what I was expecting when I was preparing for my conversation with HP’s new MD for Africa – Elisabeth Moreno – at one of the company’s Elite Dragonfly events.

I knew that she was intelligent and that she’d been in the tech industry for many years before joining HP, but having never met or interacted with her before, I assumed that I’d get the same PR approved answers from an industry leader which consisted of a lot of words that ultimately amounted to nothing very useful or informative.

I was wrong.

What I got were open, honest, thoughtful and passionate answers to the questions I’d posed, from a woman who is incredibly passionate about Africa and the potential for good that technology promises.

reframed: Whenever I speak to someone about education technology in South Africa, I always get answers that are variations of the same thing and it always ends up being “why our product is better than a competitor’s.” That doesn’t answer the questions surrounding the importance of technology and education from an African perspective, not the American or European perspective that most tech companies adopt. We need to look at the realities of Africa and the fact that even if we’re able to get tablets and laptops to the schools and communities that need them, we need to address the lack of infrastructure and ability to actually use those devices. Everyone talks about AI and 5G and how those are the future of technology but in Africa, those are just buzzwords which don’t fit into our reality.

How do we solve that? Is HP doing anything in that space in South Africa?

EM: You are right when you say that. We just have to remember that tools and our devices like any other tool are made to serve people, and the way we use these products in Europe or in the US is totally different from the way we use it in Africa.

I am African I was born in Africa, and if it was not for education, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so more than maybe any other Western person I understand the importance of education in Africa. You know nowadays. I think we have half of our population in Africa, which are younger than 20 years old and all these guys are digital natives. With the level of poverty we have on the continent, if we do not educate our people by 2050, we will have a real human issue on the planet.

I’m not talking about Africa, I’m talking about the planet because when you are starving there is no wall, no sea, no mountain that can stop you from looking for something better for your family and for yourself. What we do in HP actually – and this is one of the reasons I joined this company. HP is the leader in this market we’ve been here for 30 years so we know what the African market is about and we have produced some products that are designed for the emerging market because the product that we need in Europe or in the US are not the same that we need on the continent.

Price is an important issue on the continent, okay, so we cannot sell the same products with the same features and sometimes these young people do not necessarily need it, you know. My main goal is to make sure that whether you are born in a rural zone or you are in Cape Town you have this access to the same products so you can study whether you study from home or you study from school. It’s a very tough thing to do because all these things require research, development, production and so on and so forth. Most of the people in Africa are earning less than a dollar per day, so how do you make sure that these products are affordable? We make them affordable by giving these people exactly what they need nothing more nothing less. I’m not saying we are offering under-qualified products or things like that no, these are very good products but with features that match their ability to buy.

That’s one thing, the second thing is we are currently working a lot with Microsoft and Google, as well as our partners at Intel and AMD – all of our tech alliances, to make sure that not only do we offer the right product but the right infrastructure. When you are in Uganda we have created a solution there so you can use your material through the cloud and you have connection anytime. That’s the thing that motivates us on a daily basis.

Are we solving all the education problems in Africa? Absolutely not, but we are doing our part.

I think that the only way to solve the problem of education in Africa is one to make sure that our governments understand the importance of education for the continent.

Corporations like us need to make some effort so we can cope with the needs of the market in terms of pricing in terms of features and so on and so forth and we also need our clients – parents or students – to understand what these tools are about because you can offer the best product in the world but if people do not know how to use it it’s you know, limited.

reframed: Touching on affordability and technological education, Microsoft South Africa recently announced a new initiative to combat the high amount of fake versions of Windows that are currently making their way into the country. There are people who are preying on people’s financial constraints and lack of general tech knowledge, which in turn is impacting people’s ability to get online and learn and develop themselves in a secure manner.

What is HP’s perspective on this?

EM: I cannot respond from Microsoft’s perspective. I can only tell you that fake and counterfeit is a real issue for us on the continent. I would say on computing it’s not such a big deal because we have no way to ship our material without Windows.
It’s something we simply can’t do it. You will not find any of our devices the one that we supply – I’m not talking about the grey market and so on and so forth –I’m talking about the products that we produce that we design and so on they cannot leave our manufacturing without Windows.

reframed: Do you think that this counterfeit or sort of the rise of counterfeit windows could possibly be seen as a deep desire for people to have some sort of connectivity or some sort of ability to make things happen and they just can’t get it or is it just a price point?

EM: I think you have multiple things. We Africans are very creative. Africa is not poor let’s make it simple but the health distribution is very poor. So when you have no means you have to be creative. So, I think it’s a combination of both things. On one hand, you have people who have I mean, they have no affordability. I mean, they can’t afford to purchase these materials because even if we reduce the price to the maximum, at one time in point it has to be paid.
So you have people who really have problems of finance and so on. And then you have these people who do not understand the importance of these materials. They tend to reduce its value. And they decide that they don’t want to pay more than X. And you have other people who are taking advantage of those and they are selling people products with like Windows and software and so on and so forth.
So the problem is when you do that there is always a limitation. Always. You will not get the most of your product but is it something we can stop as HP? No. Is it something we can fight against? Surely and that’s what we are doing with Microsoft but the fact that we have so many problems in terms of financing is not helping.

reframed: feels like everything keeps coming back to finance and access. When I say access I mean access to information access to devices or products to connectivity. And we obviously know that that’s affecting education, not just in South Africa but across the continent but another thing that I feel it’s affecting is women and girls in tech and then the default answer I always get is STEM and that’s not an answer.

EM: No it’s not.

Why are you doing the job you’re doing today? Because one day you’d seen someone doing it, you could imagine it and hence you decided why not you? The problem we have with women in tech is wherever you go in the world, we are very few. Less than 15%, okay. But the beauty of technology is nowadays technology is not only for men. When you see the usage, it’s for men, women, kids, students, everyone. I think the more girls and young women will see the usage of these technologies. The more they will see other women at high levels in this kind of industry, the more they will be able to dream about doing it themselves. There are more and more women at higher level in this industry, think about Ginni Rometty from IBM or our ex-CEO or Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, we are having more and more women at very high positions in the tech industry and this will hopefully motivate girls to think that they can do it as well but this alone will not be enough.

I think our government also need to encourage that because you know in Africa girls are very often left behind when we speak about education because of early marriage and many other reasons. When you think that the jobs of the future will be in tech, we have to educate these girls so they can go in this direction so they can understand that they don’t all have to be in HR or become a nurse or whatever, we have to show them that it is possible and we have to motivate them and they have to understand that you do not need to be a geek to to to work in tech nowadays. I studied law, my first job I had a business in the building industry and now I’m here. That’s the reason why I spend a lot of time sharing my experience and sharing my background with girls. Each time I travel in a country in Africa, I visit a school or a university and I share my experience because they need role models, if you do not have a role model, how can you even think about it?

reframed: What I’m hearing is educating people about their potential and the possibilities that exist out there is important but it comes back to the question of how do you educate them and bring the message to them if they don’t have access to some sort of infrastructure or some sort of ability to access this message because there are a lot of places where the message is very controlled. There’s a mentality of “this is the way we’ve always done things.” How do we solve this problem with the help of technology because it just feels like it’s a loop that’s kind of feeding itself?

EM: I will tell you that things are changing, slowly, but they are changing. Maybe too slowly but they are changing. There are many things that are happening now that couldn’t happen 10 years ago. When you think about communication nothing is hidden nowadays.

You can hide for a certain period of time but information is never really hidden and it’s going to be less and less possible. I am a strong believer that technology is going to eradicate always problems of corruption. Because everything will be visible.

I agree the problem is accessibility but that’s the reason why the role of our governments is so critical and fundamental. I have many examples of countries in Africa that were nowhere 20 years ago, and because the government has had a vision and has had a determination to get its people out of poverty things are changing in an incredible manner. I have other examples where the country was very rich and because the governance has been very poor the country is dying. It’s the same as If you are a good parent your kids will grow in a good environment and they will become good adults, that’s the reality.

When I told you Africa is not that poor, Africa is poor of governance not of natural resources or human resources.

reframed: How important is representation in technology and how difficult is it to drive that inclusion where it doesn’t end up with companies just trying to fill certain quotas? How much more work needs to be done?

EM: I think the question is not a question about technologies, it’s a question about humanity.

Take a company like HP. I think if you consider the current environment nowadays, we have everything it takes to solve all the problems of the planet.

Think about it. Look at the technologies we have, look at the intelligence we have, look at the means we have. We have enough food to feed twice the number of the world’s population. We have the technologies that may fix the problems we have with the environment, education, health and justice and whatever you want.

The problem is – and we come back to the same thing – these are private corporations. And these private corporations without working with the public institutions cannot make things happen. When you say that technology is crossing borders with humanity I agree with you. It’s a question of will.

reframed: As technology becomes more integral to our lives and influential on our lives, don’t technology companies have a responsibility to help drive and influence positive change?

EM: It’s a very very very valid question and I have no answer. I have no answer because you know every industrial revolution brings its own challenges. When you think about automotive, or steam engine and so on and so forth, each time you have these new things coming everybody wonders what threat it brings for humanity.

The difference between the first industrial revolution and the fourth one is the impact it is having in our day to day lives whether we want it or not. Who can really escape from companies like Amazon or Facebook?

The train has left the station and you can’t say “I don’t want it.” Whether you want it or not, it’s going happen with or without you so the question is how are we going to educate our people. We come back to education and we come back to regulation which is also very important. The question of how to make sure that your data does not appear in any newspaper or online because it does not belong to you anymore.

These things are very very important and who is taking care of that and who will be taking care of that at the worldwide level because Facebook is not only for the US, it’s also for Africa, Asia and so on.

We are at a turning point of our humanity, we are at a turning point where everything needs to be rethought and if we do not do that properly, we will not get benefits of all these good things that technology has to bring. Technology is a tool made by humans for humans, so it will multiply all the vices of humanity but it can also multiply all the good things.

reframed: How do we educate governments about the dangers and the importance and the benefits of technology? How do governments become more tech-literate so that they can use technology to improve the lives of their people?

EM: We come back to the question of willingness! If you are the president of any country in the world and you decide to educate every single team member of the government and tell them what Facebook is about, what Twitter is about, what Amazon is about, and you teach them what these tools are what consequences they have then you learn.

reframed: Is there a willingness from tech companies to do that?

EM: I can tell you that HP will be more than happy to educate any government on the planet if it was required. Do you really believe that if the Ramaphosa comes to me and says: “Elisabeth I want my entire government to be educated on what tech is about today”, do you really believe that I will say “oh no, I’m not interested”!?