Google in Africa: big goals, small steps

Google is one of the three major sponsors for TED Africa, alongside AMD and GE. They hosted lunch today for a group of attendees to feature the company’s work in Africa, both through the corporation and Google.org, the foundation formed with 3 million shares of Google stock. Larry Page talked briefly about his interest in Africa and his naive desire to see Google hire 10,000 Africans. He quickly discovered that “multinationals are allergic to Africa” in part because it’s very hard to hire in Africa due to some labor and anti-corruption laws. Google is now trying to hire one person per African nation, and to build networks around those key informants, growing a team one country at a time.

Dr. Larry Brilliant from Google.org mc’d a set of speakers. There weren’t any new announcements in the talk, but it was interesting to see the scope of Google’s focus on the continent, which include:

– A business plan competition in Ghana, which provided entrepreneurship training to 60 businesspeople and funding for four winners. Joseph Tackie, the founder of a butcher shop dedicated to selling locally farmed meat seasoned with local spices to a Ghanaian audience, spoke about the value of the training received and the prospects of his business. Ken Ofori-Atta, one of Ghana’s leading venture capitalists, has committed $2 million in equity funding for companies that are identified through this program in the future, and Google is now replicating the contest in another eight nations.

– On the corporate side, Google has been researching business opportunities on the continent, visiting Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, looking for possibilities and opportunities. Google has recently hired a Kenyan ISP entrepreneur as their Kenyan representative, helping them research opportunities and put pressure on the various projects designed to bring high bandwidth connections into east Africa. Google has also committed to providing free versions their online office and collaboration tools to government departments and schools in Rwanda and Kenya.

– Andrew McLaughlin (my friend and collaborator) took less than a minute to excoriate the African telecom environment, letting the audience know that, before someone can build a business like Google in Africa, monopoly and former monopoly telecoms need to let go of their “deathgrip” on the telecom industry. He tells the audience that Google is committed to bringing tools like Google maps, book search, Gmail and Blogger into Africa, but that this is going to require a battle with entrenched powers.

It’s interesting to see Google try to position itself in relation to the continent, but it seems like these are baby steps. Perhaps that’s the right size of steps to take while the company figures out what to do in Africa. Some of the steps, though, seem potentially steps backwards – encouraging schools and universities to put their infrastructure in the hands of Google reduces costs, but also might reduce technology training and expertise within these countries. Asking Andrew McLaughlin about this, he concedes it’s a possible problem, but mentions that these tools have APIs, which opens the possibility of developing custom software that interfaces with these tools.

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2 Responses to Google in Africa: big goals, small steps

  1. So here’s a slightly more thoughtful way to answer Ethan’s concern about local reliance on global infrastructure like Google Apps: If an African institution like a university utilizes Gmail for its faculty/student accounts, then it will indeed not need to train and employee someone to operate its own on-site mail server. The flip side of that, though, is that the university is now free to employ that person in some more useful way — perhaps by building an maintaining an intranet or internal wiki, or by working with professors to create course sites, or implement Internet-based videoconferencing. The question is whether Google Apps will supplant necessary skills, or will free people to pursue higher-value skills. My instinct is that the latter is more likely.

    Google’s open APIs are one notable way to facilitate higher-value technical skills, by allowing individual programmers to delegate platform management and focus on the creative, the novel, the yet-to-be-built.

  2. Aki Oyama says:

    From my experience at a small liberal arts college in Orange County in CA, I completely agree with Andrew’s insightful opinion “Google’s open APIs are one notable way to facilitate higher-value technical skills, by allowing individual programmers to delegate platform management and focus on the creative, the novel, the yet-to-be-built.” than managing legacy email servers.

    I was just discussing about this issue with one of my friends from Accra, walking around Stanford yesterday and was amazed with co-incidentally sharing the similar views today with Andrew and Ethan.

    At the liberal arts college, the fear of trying something new, to protect the employment of legacy workers, lack of IT skills & knowledge among the senior management were the major obstacles that prevented educational institutions to step forward in outsourcing lower valued works to the best partner in the world.

    Hope the University of Ghana have good CS faculties guiding students higher valued added projects and letting the senior management convinced about the beauty of focusing on the forefront technologies.

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