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Reimagining Egypt’s economy through digital transformation – Interview with Mirna Arif

Reimagining Egypt’s economy through digital transformation – Interview with Mirna Arif
Mirna Arif, General Manager of Microsoft Egypt

By: Marina Gamil

Cairo – Mubasher: In its recovery phase, Egypt has taken several initiatives to increase the contribution of digitalisation in its economic growth by advancing information technology (IT) infrastructure, supporting startups and entrepreneurs, and developing the education and healthcare sectors through technology.

As part of its ICT 2030 Strategy, the Egyptian government seeks to have a competitive and diversified economy that depends on innovation and technology to be in line with Egypt Vision 2030 by building Digital Egypt.

Furthermore, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated Egypt’s digital transformation plans; however, digitalisation in Egypt faces some challenges to reach its full potential.

Discussing the digital transformation’s impact on Egypt’s economic recovery, the General Manager of Microsoft Egypt, Mirna Arif, spoke to Mubasher about Microsoft’s role in promoting this area in Egypt

 

How could digital transformation reflect on the Egyptian economy at large?

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Egypt has seen a steadfast acceleration in digital transformation endeavours. The ICT industry has been a key enabler to the country’s economic engine. Now, in its recovery phase, the country has shown significant growth in IT infrastructure and technological advancement, which will be an ongoing trend for years to come.

Businesses across the country have been engaging strategically with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups with proven business models to undergo rapid growth and transformation. Additionally, cloud and emerging innovations have empowered SMEs and startups with an opportunity to accelerate technology adoption, so they can innovate freely. 

 

Could you tell us more about Microsoft’s role in promoting digital transformation in Egypt?

Microsoft has made noteworthy investments and partnerships to enhance the country’s IT posture and accelerate its digital transformation journey. For example, our collaboration with Telecom Egypt works to extend the Microsoft cloud network to local organisations by providing enhanced connectivity and faster delivery of our solutions.

Another example is the Microsoft Advanced Technology Lab (ATL) in Cairo that brings world-class engineers and applied researchers together to work on cutting edge projects from the early stages of experimentation and incubation all the way to implementation. Moreover, since 2011, we have established our Customer Service Support Centres in Egypt, an operation that has since grown to serve our customers across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

We are strategically collaborating with the government in their ambitions to promote technological innovation and significantly contribute to reimagining Egypt’s economy across a variety of areas such as infrastructure, job creation, education, upskilling, and youth empowerment, in addition to our philanthropic initiatives, to make a difference in society. 

 

What is the future of digitalisation in Egypt, especially after COVID-19?

The pandemic has challenged everyone including governments, private organisations, and individuals with public health and a global economic crisis.

While technology continues to enable everyone to transition from a response – to recovery – and to a reimagine phase – there lies an opportunity for each industry to reinvent itself.

For example, governments can harness cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) to better understand and meet the needs of businesses and citizens; healthcare providers can leverage chatbots, telemedicine, and apps to empower caregivers and engage patients. The financial services industry can make data-driven decisions and drive secured digital transformation journeys; retailers can reimagine customer experiences with e-commerce by harnessing data to better understand consumer behaviours. Also, workplaces and schools can adopt hybrid working and learning models to drive productivity.  

 

What are the challenges facing the digital transformation in Egypt?

The pandemic has intensified the need to prioritise technology advancement and skill up the Egyptian populace. Skilling up will not only move the country forward along a path beyond response and recovery from the pandemic but also will charter the nation on course to a vibrant reimagining of the economy.

We are optimistic about the benefits of technology, but also clear-eyed about the challenges. There are concerns about the impact on jobs, the vulnerability to cyberattacks, and whether technology is leaving some people behind. These concerns are real, and we are committed to earning and sustaining trust from our customers, partners, the communities we serve, and above all the government that represents them all.

These challenges are acting as a catalyst for our company in igniting Egypt’s future economy strategy and have sharpened focus on activating elements of Egypt Vision 2030.

 

 

So, how does Microsoft contribute to tackling these challenges?

Our investments and skilling initiatives sit at the core of these elements, contributing to the success of our customers and enhancing the country’s competitiveness by driving sustainable development, innovation, and digital transformation and fostering economic and societal growth through the power of technology. 

One such partnership is with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and the Ministry of Youth and Sports on the ‘Tawar w3’ayar’ [develop and change] initiative, which is upskilling youth in areas of digital skilling, computer science, business, and employability to empower them for the jobs of tomorrow.

To date, the programme has built the capacity of more than 900,000 youth through 500 youth centres and non-profits across 27 different governorates of the country. The project also worked on placing more than 16,000 youth into job opportunities.

We see digital transformation as a catalyst with cloud, data and AI, and modern tools at the heart of it that speak to some of these challenges. And this – rather than an opportunity, is more of collective responsibility for Microsoft, our customers, and partners to come together and do our part in helping the country realise an innovative, an inclusive recovery.

 

How does Microsoft engage with plans set by the public and private sectors in Egypt to accelerate their digital transformation?

Microsoft has established its presence in Egypt for over two decades and has been accelerating technology adoption across all sectors to foster digital transformation, economic growth, and prosperity of Egypt to be in line with the country’s Sustainable Development Strategy.

Over the years, we have collaborated with industry leaders across the public and private sector to promote technological innovation and significantly contribute to its advancement across many areas. The Microsoft partner ecosystem plays a vital role in the success of our customers across the country.

In Egypt, we have over 1,000 partners, independent software vendors (ISVs), and startups that are working closely to expedite digital transformation, enabling our customers to better harness technology, empower employees, optimise operations, and transform their products and services.

The Microsoft partner ecosystem also makes a strong impact on downstream revenue and job creation. For example, for every $1 that Microsoft generates, our partner ecosystem makes $9. IDC research found that almost 64% of IT professionals in Egypt are either part of the Microsoft ecosystem or work with or on Microsoft products.

 

In your opinion, what is the role of entrepreneurship in Egypt’s economic recovery?

Startups and SMEs will continue to play a crucial role in Egypt’s recovery, as they have the potential to be an economic and employment engine for the country. According to the IMF, startup and SME sectors combined contribute up to 40% to GDP and up to 50% to private sector employment in MENA.

Egypt has become one of the fastest-growing startup ecosystems in the region. We are seeing several tech startups increasing across industries - whether retail, education, healthcare, e-commerce, and more. It is inspiring how these innovators are looking at technologies such as AI, Mixed Reality, and the cloud as catalysts to enable them to identify challenges and bridge gaps by coming up with new business ideas.

 

What are the initiatives that Microsoft has taken so far to support SMEs and startups? And how could they benefit from your digital solutions, such as the cloud?

We understand the pain points of budding businesses that range from tackling rising costs to acquiring technical talent, managing IT infrastructure, as well as ensuring security, scalability, and compliance in order to support their customer needs in a growing digital economy.

Fortunately, the advent of cloud and emerging innovations has eliminated such obstacles while empowering small and medium businesses with the opportunity to focus on growing their business while leaving their technology needs to a trusted cloud provider. With over 60 regions worldwide, the Microsoft Azure Cloud has a wider global presence than any other cloud provider, offering the scale needed to bring applications closer to users around the world and preserving data and comprehensive compliance and resiliency for customers so they can innovate freely.

Recently, we partnered with the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce in its Digital Future ‘Mostaqbal Raqamy’ initiative that is in line with the government’s efforts to provide SMEs with necessary platforms, resources, and industry know-how to lead their digital transformation journeys. As part of our efforts in this initiative, Microsoft will provide the country’s SMEs with cloud, productivity solutions, and business applications to better digitise and streamline their business processes while remaining cost-efficient and agile.

Our programmes such Microsoft for Startups, a $500 million global initiative, is exclusively dedicated to providing access to cloud resources and mentorship to help startups transform their ideas into reality and scale up globally and locally. Microsoft for Startups can help fledgeling companies gain global exposure and enable faster development of their innovations while delivering go-to-market access programmes to expand their customer and revenue base to be able to tackle challenges such as costs, scalability, and security.

 

As for education, how does Microsoft cooperate with the Egyptian government to improve the sector through digitalisation?

In education, we have recently partnered with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and launched ‘Bina'a Insaan’, an initiative that reached 82,000 fresh graduates and job seekers to date, empowering them with the most in-demand digital skills required to boost their employability. This is part of Microsoft’s global skilling initiative that aims to provide 25 million people worldwide with skills needed in the COVID-19 economy.

We are working closely with the Ministry of Education and Technical Education to ensure continuous learning by providing students and educators with solutions like Office 365. Technology and digital skilling are key engines for building Egypt’s workforce of the future.

We have also concluded the first virtual Reimagine Tomorrow Summit, in collaboration with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, to elaborate on the country’s vision of ‘Digital Egypt’. The event discussed how technology can empower the digital transformation journeys for the healthcare and education sectors by implementing AI and also provided learnings from various experiences.

 

What are Microsoft’s future plans and projects in Egypt?

Our mission is to empower every individual and organisation in Egypt to achieve more. As technology continues to enhance capabilities, our innovation will play a profound role in crafting the new normal. We will continue to work closely with organisations to empower them with our solutions to become future ready.

The intelligent Cloud is the foundation for enabling digital transformation in Egypt. From data storage needs to computing power and infrastructure challenges, Azure addresses the core needs of businesses by meeting evolving regulatory requirements, providing flexibility, scalability, and developer extensibility, as well as delivering security across all applications and environments to fuel unprecedented innovation journeys. 

Whether it’s our cloud services to support critical infrastructure services or tools and applications for remote working and learning – it has never been more important to connect people and keep organisations running with secure and modern tools, enabling them to sustain and scale – all while preparing for the new normal. We will continue to support the country as we move from a recovery phase to the reimagining of industries, advancing tech innovation.

 

Could you tell us more about your journey to becoming Microsoft Egypt Country Manager?

My journey has been a roller coaster ride, though being interesting and fulfilling. Being a computer scientist, I have spent my entire work life around the digital realm. I started my career in the oil and gas sector where I spent 18 years working for various multinational organisations and public sector entities across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Then, I joined Microsoft in March 2019 as the Middle East and Africa Business Group Director, tasked with leading the strategy and execution of the company’s Surface portfolio in the region.

My inflection point was when I joined the Egyptian government in 2015 as the Minister’s assistant for Investment and International Cooperation at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. I was assisting in the development and implementation of the petroleum sector strategy and unlocking the sector’s potential through the evaluation and promotion of a variety of investment opportunities and the reinforcement of international cooperation and strategic dialogue.

Driving impact for my country and making a difference in society is what gives me purpose. This is trully fulfilled through my current role as Microsoft Egypt Country Manager, where I am overseeing Microsoft efforts in Egypt to empower public and private organisations to accelerate their digital transformation agendas to better engage customers, empower employees, optimise operations, and more importantly to position Egypt as the regional digital hub it ought to be.

 

 

What is your advice for entrepreneurs and women in tech?

I believe entrepreneurship is a key driver of growth for any country. Entrepreneurs drive the fresh ideas and innovations of the future and as such are fundamental to economic development, particularly in the field of technology. I advise entrepreneurs to utilise the fertile opportunities on offer.

We find that many entrepreneurs are female, and I would encourage women to bring their skillsets and abilities to reimagine economies, as they make the most of opportunities that originate from development and growth - especially in the tech sector.

Hence, our company continues to work with other, like-minded organisations in the non-profit, private, and public sectors to bring about awareness and change for the benefit of women in the workplace.

To further empower women in tech, we have partnered with the MCIT and Care Egypt Foundation on an initiative that will contribute to social, economic, and human capital development in the country by equipping the upcoming and existing female workforce with future-ready skills.

Another such programme is the ‘Qodwa Tech’ initiative, which is run by the MCIT’s Central Department for Community Development. It focuses on capacity building for women in digital fields of study and strives to encourage female entrepreneurship and enable them to work across the country’s public and private sectors, including heritage handicrafts. It is also aimed at raising awareness of AI and other technologies among the nation’s female workforce.