Google’s African affair: An internet giant puts its money where its mouth is

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Africa Map

At the start of last year I wrote an article for Memeburn with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek headline: “Instead of smallpox Google is colonising Africa with ‘cool stuff’”. As a rule I tend to prefer African solutions for African problems, and am also always somewhat sceptical of geeks bearing gifts (sorry!).

Twenty months later, I need to concede that it does look as if Google is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to the African continent. It has offices in eight African countries and has launched, whether intentionally or not, products that have the potential to be game changers on the continent.

Android
Sure, the African continent has yet to make as a dramatic shift that other markets have from dumb phones and feature phones to smartphones – according to Informa Telecoms & Media, smartphones account for 3% of cellphones across the continent, and are predicted to reach 15% by 2015. But when an African consumer upgrades, or buys a tablet, they are more than likely going to choose an Android device. This is according to IDG Connect, whose research paper “Tablets 2020” says that African tablet owners demonstrated the lowest percentage of iPads (46%) and the joint highest number of Android owners (49% – tied with Asia).

What’s more, while overall tablet ownership was low (55% of those surveyed), Africans are the most active tablet users, with 80% of people using their tablets for work. Globally, the average is 61%. The clincher though is that 44% of non-tablet owners would buy an Android device in the next year, compared to 21% who favoured an iPad.

This preference is no doubt partially price motivated: for instance Nigeria’s Fasmicro produces Android tablets that sell at N59 900 (R3 380 / US$390 at time of writing). In addition, Samsung is pushing hard across the continent building an Android-based ecosystem, as is Huawei with its cut-price handsets.

SMS 2 email
Not wanting to leave the “dumb phone” owners out in the cold, earlier this year Google launched GMail SMS, a service that lets you send and receive emails as SMSs. Previously Gmail users were only able to access the service via a PC or a smartphone. So it made sense for the search giant to pick Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya as the countries where it would launch the service. Clever Google — it’s just introduced itself to a huge group of mobile-only people it would previously have been irrelevant to.

These maps are made for walking
Also in July, Google added walking directions to its free Google Maps and Google Maps for Mobile in 44 African countries in addition to South Africa and the North African countries where it was already live. Google warns that the service is still in beta so commuters should use common sense. The company is hoping to crowdsource corrections to any errors via its Map Maker service.

Google speaks your language
Google currently offers 33 distinct African language user interfaces for Google web search, according to the Google Africa Community Translation site, which invites volunteers to translate, localise and review Google user interfaces. Some, such as Afrikaans and Swahili are well on their way, 89% and 79% complete respectively; others have a way to go: Zambia’s Bemba language sits at 0%.

Unsurprisingly, according to the company, search requests from sub-Saharan Africa ramp up faster on African language pages than those in languages such as English, French or Portuguese.

Caching
Google Global Cache sets out to circumvent some of Africa’s bandwidth constraints by allowing ISPs and companies to serve Google and YouTube content from inside their own network. Because the content is cached locally, accessing it becomes faster and cheaper. On the one hand, not that much of a game changer when it comes to accessing videos of Justin Bieber or cute kittens, but on the other, changes the playing fields when one considers content such as YouTube EDU.

Nelson Mandela archives
And, finally, earlier this year Google announced the launch of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (NMCM), which includes thousands of archived documents, such as letters written by Mandela, that have been digitized to both preserve them and make them accessible to people around the world.

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  • Tubman S.

    That’s all great, but why does one of the world’s most successful companies rely on “crowdsourcing” and “volunteers” to develop its maps, fix its map features, and translate its services? There’s a google-sponsored lab in the African capital city that I live in, and its always having these so-called “Mapping Parties” where people are invited to come and add features to Google Maps of the area. Sounds fun, but the actual proposition is that one of the world’s premier companies is soliciting your intellectual know-how, for no compensation other than pizza and soda, which then instantly becomes its copyrighted property when you add it to their products. These are normally regular African students and young people who could actually use an income, especially for providing local know-how services to a huge multinational. Google is doing this across the continent and not paying for the labor, but we’re all supposed to feel great about it because its a “party” or we’re “crowdsourcing.” I find the whole thing distasteful. No one should volunteer for a for-profit enterprise, especially underprivileged Africans for a Silicon Valley giant.

  • fad

    Couldn’t agree more, despite having a close affilliation with the company. But it all makes for a nice PR, right?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/danny.graphy Danny K A

    Thanks for your honest assessment and rightfully placed disdain for the greed and exploitation at work here. I hope more people will care about this enough to effect the change required to make this diatribe of ours more meaningful…

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  • VelaSwami

    Create a culture of contributing to society. Without any expectation. Hope that others will follow. Share knowledge. And this knowledge (shared for free) maybe, just maybe, will answer query which might have tomorrow. Do this and you are needing a sustainable fabric in society.

    These ppl are not working for free. It is a batter. Batter is never free.

  • http://www.facebook.com/olympia.mcenhill Olympia McEnhill

    Its pains me to read the comments here! When last did any of you pay to use gmail, or google maps or google for that matter? NEVER!! The rest of the world take opportunities like these collaborative initiatives and contribute for greater good but bring those to Africa and we see exploitation! When we as a society come together to do great things like google maps etc it unlocks so many other opportunities; just listen to some of the amazing projects on TED.com to see how these have served as launch pad for those keen to do it for themselves as well as their community. In fact many of these ‘unpaid african unemployeds’ could actually benefit greatly from working along side the great brains this century has to offer; this in it self is far more beneficial than money.

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