When Elizabeth Migwalla chose electrical engineering as her major at Nairobi University in the mid-1970s, “women didn’t do that,” she recalled in a recent interview. After more than three decades in the telecommunications field, she is currently the top executive in Africa at Qualcomm, a leading technology company that has launched a major expansion across Africa.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering in Kenya and an MBA from Bond University in Australia, she went to work for Kenya Posts and Telecommunications, the country’s only telcom operator at the time.
“I have done everything that you can do in engineering from climbing poles and connecting wires,” she recalled, speaking from her office in South Africa.
In 2002, she joined Boeing where she directed Africa-wide policy including regulatory affairs governmental relations and became Qualcomm’s first hire in Africa in 2006 – when the American company opened an office in Johannesburg. She describes Qualcomm as “both an inventor and an enabler.” Her first assignment at the company was creating the “enabling environment for 3G” – the third generation of wireless communication that offered faster data transfer and better voice quality for the mobile networks that were growing rapidly across the continent.
To prepare the continent for adapting new technology involved aggressive messaging. “We had to convince governments and operating partners we’re gonna need a set of spectrum – and that wasn’t easy,” she recalled. People were “happily doing SMS – and making money”
The latest standard – 5G – “is not just a faster 4G,” but “a developmental enablement for other sectors,” she said. “We now can do innovative things, appropriate things in education, health and transportation.”
Qualcomm pledging greater engagement for Africa’s emerging tech ecosystem.
In December, Qualcomm launched the Africa Innovation Platform, “a suite of mentorship, education and training programs created to support the development of Africa’s emerging technology ecosystem,” and pledged to support African universities and small-to-medium-size startups.
“The programs that make up this platform will ultimately help African companies service markets throughout the continent and realize their global ambitions, further accelerating the growth of Africa’s creation economy,” Migwalla said in the announcement released during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC.
Migwalla sees growing opportunities across Africa. “This region has been a good adopter, moving from 2G to 3G to 4G and now 5G.” With everyone getting digitally connected, new approaches are required. “Over 60% of Africa’s population under the age of 25 – equivalent to about 800 million people. They are digital natives and they are data hungry. Formal employment is not available or probably not desirable. They want to be entrepreneurs.”
Qualcomm wants to help create a generation of innovators, using the platform developed and used in other regions, she said. One element- the Qualcomm Make in Africa Startup Mentorship Program – is slated to begin in April. “This is an equity free mentoring program, and we want to use it to identify promising early-stage startups,” she said. The company will provide connectivity and hardware, as well as business coaching , engineering consultation and guidance on protecting intellectual property.
Africa’s expanding youth population is data hungry and eager to innovate.
Another element of the Innovation Platform is a university relations program “to bolster research and educational capabilities of select African universities” by providing research labs and Qualcomm developer kits. “We have kick-started the work with a university in Cameroon, and we have an association with a Safaricom digital talent initiative in Kenya,” Migwalla said, adding that other university partners are being identified.
Qualcomm Wireless Academy, which Migwalla describes as “the global training arm of our company,” fosters an early-stage talent pipeline and “drives digital, inclusive economic transformation” with 5G training and certification.
“It’s a combination of all these that we want to bring to Africa,” Migwalla said, with continent-wide reach. There will be lots of participants from countries like Nigeria and Kenya, where technology startups are numerous, but also from small countries. Gender equity will be a key part of every initiative. “Remember I’m speaking as one of the few women policy practitioners in this field for over 20 years, who has mentored ladies in many African countries,” she said.
Migwalla believes innovation is so important to Africa’s development. “Technology must be used to solve real problems, and it’s got to be relevant,” she said.
“Africa must digitally transform. We cannot be left behind.”