Microsoft South Africa has launched an online hub offering free access to email, web hosting and collaboration tools for established businesses and startups alike.
The hub, dubbed Biz4Afrika, will be financed through the company's 4Afrika fund and is described as a partnership between Microsoft, the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), the National Small Business Chamber (NSBC) and mobile operator Vodacom.
Access to the hub services is free for the first year, although tariffs for renewal at the end of that period haven't been set yet. As well as free access to Microsoft services, companies will be able to sign up for discounted offers from other suppliers through the same portal, including IT support, banking, accountancy and legal advice, as well as access to an online lead generation network.
Microsoft COO Kevin Turner was in Johannesburg for the launch and said that the 4Afrika project as the second largest investment the company has made in a single region.
Turner quoted a recent Boston Consulting Group report as showing that companies which adopt technology grow faster and create more jobs than companies which don't. Job creation is a key policy objective for central government, as South Africa's unemployment rate remains high, at 24.7 percent, and official figures for the 15 to 24 year age range are 31.4 percent.
Turner said that while other firms and government agencies had tried similar programs to get small businesses online, the key difference for the Microsoft initiative is that it will be funding an internship position for a business advisor in each of SEDA's 43 regional offices, who will be able to advise SMEs about how to integrate basic technology into their business.
Biz4Afrika is only available to South African companies at the moment, but will be expanded to other countries soon.