Googling Africa

The tech giant is diving into the continent -- but are Africans interested?


The Google office in South Africa is no different from the Google office in Washington — from the outside. Tucked into a sprawling, high-tech office park in Johannesburg, Google’s hip, young Africa team has taken the company’s beanbag-chairs-and-jeans culture global. But in practice, their mission is different — and far more difficult. They’re out to prove that Google can be an African verb.

Since 2007, the American search giant has entered the African market head first, establishing offices in Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg, Dakar, and Kampala, with its largest presence in Nairobi. It has placed a premium on improving access to the Internet and importing its well-known suite of applications (Maps, Gmail, Books, Chat) to African users. It has held six "G-Africa" gatherings designed to build the brand among local webheads, most recently in Kenya, with another planned for Cape Town in November. But despite all the money and attention Google is pouring into the continent, some developers and engineers here say that the company doesn’t quite "get" Africa. Within the vibrant, competitive, and decentralized African tech space, Google is going to have to do more than just show up.

Just as other multinational companies have discovered in recent years, Google knows that there is a lot of money to be made in urbanizing, newly wired African markets. In June, consulting firm McKinsey concluded that rates of return on investment in Africa are higher than in any other developing region. Since then, global banks and corporations have brokered regional mergers and acquisitions worth more than $15 billion.

When it comes to Western tech companies, Google is unmistakably ahead of the curve. While Finnish Nokia and Canadian BlackBerry have offices and research centers in Africa, Silicon Valley darlings like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter don’t have a single warm body on the continent.

This commitment to Africa has produced some exciting firsts. Google Earth’s high-resolution satellite imagery was central to the recent excavation of new hominid fossils in South Africa. Browsers in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Senegal can search in the Amharic, Shona, and Wolof languages, respectively. "The whole goal of the Africa team is to make the Internet an integral part of African lives," says Bridgette Sexton, a Google development manager who helps organize the G-Africa program.

In many ways, Google is well suited to the challenge. An Internet company can circumvent bad roads, casual corruption, and limited purchasing power — the traditional barriers to doing business in Africa. In a region where there are 10 times more cell phones than desktop computers, Google is piloting its recently announced "Mobile First" strategy, with strong results: The company recently took a prize from the Mobile World Congress for "best use of mobile for social and economic development" for creating Africa-specific applications like "SMS Tips," which answers questions on health or agriculture sent through text messages, and "Google Trader," which matches small businesses and buyers in real time. "Everyone in Africa is a power phone user," says Stefan Magdalinski, head of Mocality, an online directory for businesses in the region. "No matter how [simple] your phone is, you know every feature, every application, and you use every one."

Local programmers are making their own contributions. Alex Nyika, a 26-year old Ugandan programmer, developed "iChecki"– a real-time, GPS-based tracker for Nairobi’s notoriously unpredictable public transit "matatu" vans — as an app for Google’s Android phones. Although the Android operating system trails emerging-market leader Nokia in Africa, American competitors Apple and Microsoft are even further behind.

Google hopes to consolidate that advantage by training more African designers in Android protocols. "These are the guys [who] will create the companies that will be our Facebooks and Googles," says Tidjane Deme, Google head for Senegal. "We try and give them tools to bring content online." At G-Kenya, Joe Mucheru, head of the Africa practice, announced that programmers like Nyika can now join the global Android Market.

But when it comes to translating this advertised openness into a connection with local designers and consumers, the company has hit some snags. "You’re not thinking of Africa if you’re going to launch an Android phone for over $100," says Erik Hersman, a Nairobi-based technologist who recently hosted a group of 25 Googlers at the iHub, a shared office space for local programmers and entrepreneurs. "They launched Android Market, but there’s no Google Checkout for us to receive money. It’s a huge hole that almost all the tech companies have in Africa. They globalize, but they don’t engage."

Take Gmail, for example. Globally, the service has trailed those provided by Yahoo! and Microsoft. Magdalinski suspects it’s just too complicated for African modems. "Gmail is always loading with flashy chat and all this JavaScript," he says.* By contrast, "Yahoo! loads fast — it works on a shit modem in an Internet cafe." (As in the United States, users can opt to load a stripped-down in-box, but new applications like Google Chat to SMS — rolled out in Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya this year — require using the clunkier version.)

Likewise, Google proudly unveiled digital maps of several African cities that had never been well cataloged — even driving a red, camera-mounted Toyota Prius around certain cities in South Africa to create "Street View" maps in time for this year’s World Cup. But in practice, Google has left out wide swaths of African cities — the Kibera slums of Nairobi, most notably. Google’s "Map Maker" permits users to fill in the blanks, but has yet to account for the visual orientation ("bear left at the Tusky’s roundabout") more familiar to locals than Google’s gridded logic. And, despite partnership with the Grameen Foundation and South African telecom MTN, the prizewinning Google Trader has barely made a dent in challenging existing classified services. A search for a used car, for example, turns up only 17 ads over the last six months.

"I’m a huge Google fan; I have Google merchandise and a Google coffee cup," says Rob Spokes, head of Quirk Marketing, a leading South African web-services firm. "But there’s very little scope for development here." Stafford Masie, head Googler in South Africa who left the team for personal reasons last year, says, "There’s no imagination" on the ground. "I couldn’t do what I wanted there." (It took Google six months to replace Masie’s successor, Stephen Newton, who quit in May.)

Then there is the issue of whether African techies need or want Google around. In mid-2009, Google approached Teresa Clarke, then a managing director at Goldman Sachs and proprietor of "They made me a pretty generous offer," says Clarke. But she ultimately turned them down, preferring to develop her own news site. Clarke is still in contact with Google about future partnership, but others are spurning Google more definitively. Jessica Colaco, a self-described "technology evangelist" in Nairobi who manages the iHub says, "I want to be Jessica Colaco, not Jessica who works for Google…. I’d rather do my own thing."

Maybe this is part of the reason why Google isn’t yet making a profit in the region, and the focus on social services carries a whiff of corporate social responsibility. Google rebuts that its push is part of a short-term strategy for innovation and a long-term strategy for, well, world domination. "It’s a volume play," CEO Eric Schmidt told me in September — a response to the overwhelming numbers of Africans coming online. Google’s piecemeal withdrawal from a market of 340 million Chinese web surfers makes Africa’s 500 million mobile web users a worthwhile consolation prize."We are not positioning ourselves as a charity or NGO," says Julie Taylor, one of Google’s 50-plus employees in the region. "Africa is the last frontier for the Internet."

There is definitely space for Google in Africa. The company wouldn’t share projections for profit outside South Africa (which makes money), but "the economic opportunity of the Internet both for Africans and in the longer term for Google is significant," says Taylor.

And of course, not everyone is giving Google the brushoff. Loren Bosch, a sales director for Internet Solutions, one of the oldest information-and-communications-technology solutions firm in Africa, welcomes Google’s incursion. "We’re excited about all those guys coming here. The more of them enter the space here, the better the environment will become and the more resources are available in the market," he says.

To succeed, Google has to live out its biggest selling point: its openness to new ideas. The company has spent millions contrasting its open-source, free-web, access-for-all vision with its more reticent American competitors. But, Deme told a gathering in Washington, "We’re still doing what I don’t like. We’re going there and telling them what to do." Now it must make good on the promise to be innovative and adaptive, even willing to change its model — rather than simply export it — to Africa. If not, the company will go down with every other misguided incursion in African history, something that’s not lost on the Googlers themselves. "There’s a difference between California and Africa," says Sexton. "You have to be a local company if you’re working here."

*This sentence was updated to correct an editorial mistake in a quote.

Dayo Olopade is the author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.

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