At the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum Africa yesterday, Microsoft announced a number of initiatives in cooperation with local and global organisations that are aimed in part at boosting tourism in Africa as a way to spur economic development on the continent.

A partnership between Microsoft and the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) plans to use technology to introduce services that can improve tourist access to information and offer distance training. As part of the cooperation, Microsoft will support UNWTO’s collaboration with the New Partnership for Africa's Development to create a portal called Windows on Africa.

The portal will combine pan-African tourism content on one website. The site will link to information from visitor centres, museums and libraries. The organisations hope ultimately to make the information available on mobile devices. The portal will feature a tourism industry and skills curriculum to help local people learn more about the tourism industry.

Speaking during the conference, Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft, said that the goal of many such Microsoft initiatives in Africa is to help build local knowledge-based economies to generate jobs and growth opportunities, the company said.

Microsoft also said that, along with UNWTO, it will build an emergency-response system to support information sharing and messaging throughout the tourism industry during natural or man-made catastrophes. The system will combine existing networks in industries such as hotel, airline and cruise ships that already provide disaster communication. The first application for the system will be to offer support for bird flu preparedness.

On Monday, Microsoft announced other initiatives including one with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation that will offer skills training and resources to help small and medium sized businesses in Africa use technology.

Microsoft said it will continue to develop support in its software products for additional African languages.

The Microsoft Government Leaders Forum took place on Monday and Tuesday in Cape Town. In addition to Gates, former US President Bill Clinton spoke. The purpose of the conference was to bring together government and business leaders to discuss Africa’s global competitiveness.

Gates recently said he plans to leave his daily role at Microsoft to devote more time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity organisation he started with his wife. The foundation is well-known for the health and education initiatives it has spearheaded in Africa.