Microsoft MEA President Samer Abu-Ltaif focuses on the positive, as he explains the important lessons and catalysts for change that have emerged from the worldwide pandemic
The 2020s have gotten off to a less roaring start than their 20th-century predecessor. While the worldwide mood was buoyant prior to the Great Crash of 1929, the global Covid-19 pandemic has dampened spirits this time around.
As the new normal begins to take its shape, some have chosen to point out the positives, including the enablement of digital transformation that accelerates greater agility and innovation. Samer Abu-Ltaif, Microsoft’s President for the Middle East and Africa believes that as aspects of daily life are rapidly digitised to adapt to the new reality, many shifts have been quick-marched to maturity and led to building capabilities of the region.
“Many governments, organizations and schools have acted responsibly preparing for the weeks, months, and years ahead as we recover and reimagine what working, and learning looks like in the future,” says Abu-Ltaif. “Healthcare providers and first responders working around the clock; public and private sector enterprises ensuring continuity of business; and educational institutions pursuing distance-learning programmes – it is inspiring to see how human ingenuity powered by technology is paving the way forward for the region.”
Even before Covid-19 was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, regional governments were balancing economic preservation and public safety. According to Abu-Ltaif, remote-working solutions and other technology tools were widely leveraged to address the dilemma. South Africa’s Gauteng Provincial Government deployed Microsoft Teams to allow its employees to work from home. In Lebanon, the Ministry of Public Health rolled out a COVID-19 Healthbot, compliant with WHO guidelines and built on Microsoft’s cloud-based Cognitive Services platform. The bot also has an inbuilt symptom checker that allows patients to perform self-screening for infections.
Kuwait Finance House also deployed remote-working solutions for staff. And to deliver distance learning, Egypt’s Ministry of Education introduced a new online education platform that is set to provide 20 million students with free access to Microsoft’s range of Office 365 apps. In the UAE, the Ministry of Education accelerated a pre-COVID plan to roll out Microsoft Teams and brought more than 600,000 students and teachers online in the first week to communicate, collaborate and learn.
Also across the UAE, from public sector organisations such as Dubai Executive Council, to businesses like Chalhoub Group, there has been a flurry of action to ensure continuity of services. And Zayed Higher Organisation for People of Determination adopted Teams to enable students with disabilities to continue with their studies.
Around the world, according to Abu-Ltaif, this pattern of accelerated pre-crisis digitisation projects repeats itself. “Globally, we have witnessed years’ worth of digital transformation happening in a matter of months,” he said. “The new normal has taken shape before our eyes.”
As remote working and distance learning become more common, there has been a parallel acceleration of AI and cloud adoption, as enterprises scramble to become smarter and more efficient. Internet of Things technologies are also being pressed into service in an attempt to stabilise heavy industry and healthcare providers.
“At the core of all this activity is what we call ‘tech intensity’,” Abu-Ltaif explained. “It is the ability of how quickly you can adopt latest technology and build your digital capabilities to harness that technology in entirely new ways – all for the betterment of our society. That is the commitment that we have always brought to this region. It explains our approach to education and lifelong learning; our call for digital transformation and the democratization of AI; and our efforts to support critical infrastructure with investments such as our cloud regions to serve the ambitions of the Middle East and Africa.”
To accommodate the mushrooming of transformation, Microsoft has urged stakeholders across the region to focus on skills shortages.
“We are always going to need trained professionals to design, build, test and deploy these technologies, and work alongside them” Abu-Ltaif said, ”but we do not have enough of these professionals to build the capacities we would like to see.”
Abu-Ltaif believes the fastest way to “reboot” economies that have suffered at the hands of the pandemic is to have workforces with rich technology skillsets. Microsoft has previously worked with the UAE’s AI Ministry on its AI Challenge Programme and supported the One Million Arab Coders initiative. The company has also replicated these efforts across the Middle East, including Africa to upskill youth in technology skills, from cloud to data science
“We entered into a strong partnership with the African Development Bank to upskill 50 million youth and create 25 million jobs in the continent,” he added.
Global regulators, governments, and environmental agencies the world over have noted the benefits that lockdowns have brought to the atmosphere. The UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment noted that since lockdowns began, nitrogen-dioxide emissions have been reduced by around 30% across the country.
According to Abu-Ltaif, Microsoft has awarded more than 34 grants in 12 countries across the Middle East and Africa to help with climate change, agriculture, biodiversity, and water projects. And in the UAE, the company launched the Microsoft Energy Core to contribute to environmental sustainability within the Energy Sector.
“Our goal is nothing less than sustainable societies everywhere,” he said. “Microsoft has long been committed to environmental sustainability. Since 2012, we have operated on a 100%-carbon-neutral model around the world. And by 2030, we aim to be carbon negative, with 100% of carbon-emitting electricity in our facilities shifting to renewables by 2025.”
Commenting on the general wave of accelerated digital transformation across MEA, Abu-Ltaif concluded that “Necessity has dialled up demand, leading governments and businesses to engage in rapid capacity building. But we have – in essence, not changed direction; we have merely begun to peddle faster. None of this should understate the courage and innovative spirit on display across the region and the world that has driven businesses of every scale and industry to adapt – with grace, and compassion – to a generation-defining moment.”
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