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google

Instead of smallpox Google is colonising Africa with ‘cool stuff’

Vanessa Clark
A journalist by training, Vanessa Clark was tempted over to the dark side by a London-based startup in the early 2000s, and so her love affair with... More

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Sitting at the southern tip of Africa you get used to giving a resigned shrug and half-smile when the entire continent gets lumped into something called ROW (rest of world), especially when it comes to scheduling the release dates of new technology.

Which is why part of me is almost pathetically grateful for Google’s hands-on approach in Africa. On the other hand, it seems that Google really has set its sights on Africa and is determined to take over the continent … digitally in any case. Granted, the search giant is being very nice about it.

Previously colonists arrived with small pox, their religion and inappropriate political systems, and took natural resources, people and equality. Google is arriving with free technology, promises of better caching and other broadband infrastructure, and workshops on how to make money from all this cool stuff.

One of the main things that it’s very politely asking for in return – our data – might seem a small price to pay for accessing university lectures thanks to YouTube EDU. Not to mention the ability to translate any webpage to Afrikaans, Arabic or Swahili. Let us not forget being able to read Google’s pages in more than 38 African languages. And of course the extent that Google Maps has covered Africa (leaving aside the snafu around Morocco’s borders), including releasing street view in South Africa in time for the World Cup, and earlier than many other countries around the world.

At the G-South Africa road show in Cape Town in November 2010, we were reminded several times – always very, very nicely – that the more information we provide to Google, the better the service can be. This struck me particularly in the session on Google Maps: when listing your company, the more information you provide, the better the traffic will be that is sent to your site. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Google is certainly able to collate the most extensive business directory in the world – nothing to be sneezed at. On an individual user level, if you add together your personal details, preferences and browsing patterns you can start building a pretty comprehensive picture of the market, and then marketing to it.

Add mobile phones into the mix, thanks to the Android mobile operating system, combined with location-based services, then things really start getting interesting from a data point of view.

I’m not, however, suggesting we lock ourselves into a Luddite bunker, and ignore all the game-changing technology Google is offering us. But I am suggesting we go into the relationship with eyes wide open, and not underestimate the value of what we are giving in return.

More to the point let’s not underestimate the value we can bring to the party. After all, if we’re in the decade of the smartphone, which I believe we are, where better for Google to crowd source mobile innovation on its Android platform than Africa? Which has for years been leading the field in terms of grass roots, real-stuff-that-solves-a-real-problem mobile innovation.