Combine low levels of internet penetration, meagre financial inclusion and an underdeveloped private sector, and you might wonder why Google – which earns most of its cash by selling advertising on its search engine – has Africa firmly in its sights.
The American technology giant is the first of its class to get serious about the continent’s fast-changing online landscape. New undersea data cables and skyrocketing mobile phone subscriptions – now in excess of 500m – are reshaping Africa’s connectivity, and internet users have quadrupled in the five years since Google established a presence there.
Google does not disclose how much it invests or earns in Africa, but it is playing a waiting game. “It’s difficult to be making any big money in Africa, and we are not yet really focusing on advertising,” Joseph Mucheru, Google sub-Saharan Africa ambassador, and country manager, Kenya, says. “But we have a good sized population, a young population, there’s a lot of entrepreneurship, so it’s just a matter of time.”
Mr Mucheru, who was the first African to be hired by Google in 2007, is now part of a fast-expanding team whose priority is getting Africans online and using Google services. The company’s play has been transformative. It has launched dozens of projects dedicated to local requirements; most recently a Gmail SMS service, which lets users send and receive emails via their mobile phones regardless of whether they are connected to the web.
Africans can now access the internet’s most-used search engine in more than 30 local languages, including Amharic, Swahili and Zulu, opening search up to people who do not speak former colonial languages. Google Maps is helping to chart previously unmapped territory, giving locals access to realms of new information. The company is also working with governments to bring their data and services online.
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