Where Africa and Technology Collide!

What Should Google Do in Africa?

This week I’ll be speaking to a delegation of around 30 Associate Product Managers (APMs) who are exploring leadership positions within Google. Along with them is Marissa Mayer, VP of Location and Local Services. Like I did when I addressed Nokia’s Africa leadership last year, this is a chance for them to hear from more than just one person with one opinion.

I will bring them your answers to the questions below:

  • What is Google doing well in Africa that they should continue?
  • What should Google be doing better, differently or new in Africa?

A Few of My Thoughts

Google has done what few other tech companies have done on this continent. Having 54 countries to scale across isn’t easy, so anyone trying it gets a lot of credit.

  • They’ve invested in people; both their own and the community in general.
  • They realized early that there was a need for tech policy change, and put time, resources and energy into that.
  • They have surfaced content, from maps to books to government data that wasn’t available before.
  • They have localized search into multiple local languages, made their services more mobile phone friendly and experimented with services for farmers, health workers and traders.
  • Their Google Global Cache has sped up the internet by upwards of 300% for some countries.

Here’s are my suggestions:

Double down on Android. Do this in two ways; first, keep driving the costs down, like what was done with the IDEOS handset. Second, help your partners (Huawei and the operators) push the spread of these beyond the few countries they’re in now (and at the same price as in Kenya).

Gmail ties everything together. Google has been the beneficiary of most other companies ignoring Africa. Facebook is the only challenger in the chat, mail and social spaces. Get started on zero-rating Gmail with the mobile operators, figure out how to make Google Voice work here, and extend Gmail SMS Chat beyond the 8 countries that it currently works in.

Figure out payments. It’s still difficult to get paid if you’re running ads or making Android apps, you’re not on an even playing field with your counterparts in other areas of the world. It is clear that Google Wallet is a strong personalized LBS play on consumers in the US. Take that same energy and figure out how to crack Africa, realize just how much money there is in a payment system that spans the continent.

Keep experimenting. Many don’t know of the apps and services you build and test out in various hyper-local areas. Some work, some fail. This curiosity and willingness to try something innovative and new is what makes the open web such a great space, and it is what helps us all overcome the walled gardens of the operators. Don’t stop.

Finally, though you have all the power and brand name needed to make things happen, remember that it’s the local devs and companies who need to own their space and especially their data. While flexing your muscle, especially with government types who own vasts amounts of data, do push for local ownership over taking it for yourself.

[Notes: hat tip on this post goes to Steve Song who started thinking through this years ago. Image credits from Memeburn.]


  1. Second that! Especially the first two. The only thing I would add is to double down as well on policy work with African governments. Google scored a coup in hiring Ory but she needs a strong team behind her. Good policy and regulation isn’t as sexy as a new phone app but the payoff is huge.
    They have their work cut out for them in the mobile payments goal. There are a lot of people racing for this prize. Maybe there is a way of tying this into gmail/gvoice in the way they have tied +1 into search.

  2. The cache servers move is good but once the capacity gets bigger Google should set up some POPs. They were to set up one in Nigeria but am not sure if they have

  3. Google certainly has the capacity more than any other company to develop the skills and talents of African developers, however we haven’t seen much effort in this regard. I think Nokia takes the prize here to date.

    I remember in 2007 I registered Gmail.co.ke and using the google mail API and open source code I built a lighter gmail on that domain and themed it for Kenya. Back then the speeds were terrible in Kenya so the site gained a lot of traction and I did $25 Google Adsense in the first week alone.

    But within 2 weeks I got a cease and desist from Google lawyers. I transferred the property to them since I didn’t want any trouble(plus I was pretty young) and a few months later they launched Gmail Lite. I believe I could have been making at least $400 a month, a huge sum then.

    I think Google could have been more accommodating to my ideas then but granted they hadn’t set up the .ke office yet.

    I hope now they will be more open to full customizations by local developers for their Android and Chrome platforms as they could be tremendously big in Africa and make them lots of money too.

    We should have something like Android Sukari running on Android phones in .ke with it full moded for Kenyan culture. Anyway see our Whive Nokia Customizations at http://apps.whive.com



  4. Amazing ideas.

    Like I said, hardware is very important. If google can infiltrate Africa with Android and grow a developer eco-system around it, they will kill.

    For my more specific thoughts on this, you can reference the piece I wrote on it a few months back:

    That said, something I found that was surprisingly missing from your amazing list here is education. Google, as the one source of the world’s information, has a unique opportunity to play a bigger role in education in Africa. Especially higher education. African higher education is miles away from the rest of the world. The other day, I was talking to a friend who just moved here to study and he told me that Universities in Nigeria don’t even give their students emails. I cannot imagine how horrible that must be! He told me at a conference, he asked a group of University students, “how many of you have emails?” and barely a third of them raised their hand? How can Africa’s six million University students connect with the world when they don’t even have email?

    Google is making huge education plays here especially with things like Chrome OS and Google Apps for Education. There are other new initiatives by Google such as Google Books, Google Code, Google Scholar and several other such projects that could really bridge the digital divide between African universities and universities elsewhere in the world.

    I feel very strongly here that there is an opportunity for Google to grow the next generation of loyal customers by partnering with Universities to at the very least provide @universityofnairobi.edu email addresses to students. That would be a first step.

    PS: I intend to write a blog post on this as soon as I can get a bit of respite from running my business.

  5. The problem of organizing the world information and making it easily accessible is not even close to being solved in Africa. For example, lets look at Google’s location Data: Google has done it very well in other places like the USA but their location data in Africa is very shallow. I understand the challenges when undertaking this kind of a mission in Africa. Organising location data in Africa should take a different approach from other developed places. First of all our devices are not as powerful although that is going to change with time. Plus in Africa, Places are not just restaurants, hospitals, bars, hotels…. the go beyond that to even small individual businesses, such as mama mboga, jua cali and all those low-level businesses that are so prominent in Africa. These are people who will hardly ever go to google.com/places to register their business or who are not even registered with the yellow pages directory and the only way of finding them is if you know them personally, they happen to operate in your neighborhood, or bump onto them accidentally. I know it’s probably a long shot to aggregate all this info in Africa, but it’s doable. The discovery and interaction with location data in Africa should be different with most other developed places.

  6. Great advise for Google, Erik. It would be awesome if Google could be part of getting young people building interesting apps in Eldoret or Goma. I hope to see communities of makers and coders sprouting in rural Africa.

  7. Thanks so much Erik. This is awesome. You are one of the flagship Africans when it comes to technology and entrepreneurship. Keep it up.

  8. couldn’t agree with e. aboyeji more about education – really should top the list. also, google has the capacity to do some pretty interesting continent wide archiving over the long term – folk lore, oral history, dances, images of the fast disappearing rural africa, etc.
    encouraging entreprenuership & growing the ecosystem like that – by empowering people communications-wise, financially, socially, and hence politically – is the key thing…

  9. Hi Erik,
    Thanks for sharing those very interesting thoughts. Just on the third point, “it’s still difficult to get paid if you’re running ads”, I wanted to point out Google’s efforts to make AdSense payment for site owners/bloggers available via Western Union. The program is already available in Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Cameroon, Mauritius and Senegal. In areas where banking penetration is around 5% and where international transactions are particularly difficult, this makes a huge difference. More info available on the Google Africa blog: http://google-africa.blogspot.com/2011/05/western-union-payments-for-google.html

  10. Great points Erik and thanks for inviting others to contribute.

    Mikel Maron has said this better than I can here, but in short: Google needs to be an exemplary “data citizen”.

    As a private company providing a public good, in a still maturing policy environment where they have a big voice, they have to show leadership on public data ownership, usage and access.

    Transparency initiatives are taking root globally and while foreign concern about corporate ownership of African public data might be easy for Google to ignore: they will beheld to account by citizens in the countries where they operate.

    Google: you’ve got a key role to play in making public information in Africa easier to access, use and understand; please realise how important this is and don’t mess it up!

  11. I second E Aboyeji & Ayo about education. It really needs to be on the top of the list. Yes, entrepreneurship is important to promote, but contrary to popular myth, not everyone in Africa is an entrepreneur. Let’s find ways to promote schools at all levels so young Africans can have a brighter future.

    Also, very important is data transparency as mentioned by Tariq Khokhar. Increased access to data can not only have strong political implications for African citizens, but also help to make development more effective and efficient.

  12. There are things I appreciate about how far Google has come. The data cache, the localisations and Ory Okolloh.

    I want to raise a few points. Maybe not points but questions. In how many African countries does Google call work? It does not work in Ghana.

    In community building, how often do Googlers show up in community events as “individuals”, persons? Does Google do stuff in partnership?

    Speaking to governments is important. Not as a sponsor in XYZ event, but as an organisation that is thinking future, thinking investment and thinking innovation.

    The Francophone thing is not very cleared. We have Tidiane in Dakar. Do we have any Google presence in Central Africa?

    Just this morning we had this tweet going around about guys dev’ing more mobile apps in Africa. Anyone thinking the same?

    I would love to see more humble, human, and down-to-earth Google reps. Seriously. There is something about Africa and its traditions that Google needs to learn more. Tech alone does not suffice.

    Erik, thanks for consulting, going by the reading and responses, you can take a heavier message to Google with the assurance that you are not just speaking of yourself, but on the “wisdom of the community”

  13. I would like to second the payments part. Not so much making payments but receiving payments. I can make payments via Paypal (Visa/Mastercard) but not receive any funds simply because I am from Namibia. It is a big pain for us since we then have to use expensive alternatives of commercial banks such as Nedbank’s Ivery and FNB’s Arcot . Other alternatives include share*it but this is VERY expensive since we have to then use SWIFT to get the money to our bank accounts.

  14. Good article 🙂 As regards education,google is playing a major role ( I felt the impact personally).I’m currently a google-zawadi scholarship receipent pursuing a major in computer science and engineering at university of cape town.we are currently 18 girls spread all over africa.Also google is implementing google ambassadors who are students across universities in Africa.They had a similar program in the USA which worked really well.There’s also the google anita borg scholarship.I feel like google has taken keen interest in Africa,though you have to face it Afica isn’t your ordinary market,its much much more complex.but I’m an example of google’s intiative! Their impact on one african (me),has truly in fact impacted many other africans currently through the work I’m carrying out.

  15. great starting ideas and good discussion in the comments. my thoughts:
    – double down on payments
    – dual focus for Android
    – massive penetration increase: get a $25 Android phone, and then get a secondary market going
    – focused software engineering effort to solve key pain points specific to Africa in the Android OS

    Additionally – maybe in conjunction with the Android push – start building software here. Get a product team going somewhere, anywhere, in Africa. (unless I’ve missed something, this hasn’t happened yet).

    This can do a bunch of important things:
    – significant contribution to upleveling local software development talent by a) importing senior product people as needed to build skills b) building raw talent into world-class engineers and c) giving existing world-class talent the ability to interact with other world-class talent in the company
    – tie-in to education: show CS students that there’s a great career option for them in Africa at a company like google
    – as a means of experimenting and solving Africa-specific problems through great engineering… right now Google’s engineers are really far away from customers/developers/partners in Africa, and while the Google presence here is a great start there is no substitute for getting engineers and product managers close to users & customers

  16. Google should push for standardization. Pushing Android, cheaper phones, more apps and thus, more users all implies a unique opportunity for Google to start setting the standards for the mobile OS and UI.

    Concurrently they should be tracking and documenting the African UI design and developments, this community has for the most part leapfrogged straight into creating interfaces and information directly for the small screens whereas the majority of the world’s designers have come to it via designing for the computer based web.

    The two initiatives taken together would make the phone experience as intuitive for any user regardless of linguistic, educational or technological starting levels.

    Plus interoperability would go up a notch.

  17. Another thing Google should do in Africa is to create a start-up incubator or get Google Ventures involved in funding promising African startups. There are some promising start-ups on the continent and the more investments Google can bring in through Google Ventures the better it is for the development of technology related start-up s

  18. Funny thing, I had this very same conversation with Charles Obbo. Search was one of the things that we assumed needs to be improved further, Gmail is definitely key, payments alternatives to the incumbent services, especially non-device agnostic ones (I learnt that phrase from you), they should consider last mile low cost access for developing communities (far fetched?), improving telephony services and a whole lot more.

  19. I want to include Google for Non-Profits. I woke up one morning and it was on my Twitter timeline. I went in.. and saw “Only for organisations based in the US”. Quick question: when can this implement for Africa?

  20. Google needs to nominate Android Evangelists coming from various disciplines and skillsets, who then become a mentoring community themselves. perhaps social can be tangible, to complement the intangible nature of the business online.

  21. Good to get an insight on what Google company should do in Africa. But in your opinion, what their biggest competitor (in my mind Facebook) should do in Africa?

  22. Play with the idea of inventing an electronic voting system that is affordable and secure for Africa.

  23. Google can use their ever creative and innovative ideas to make africa open up and compete with the developed countries thro, developing a framework to address unemployment, corruption, poor governance, policy issues, wealth creation etc.

  24. Use their clout to force African govts to change policy on tech.

  25. google sud look at people working but not getting paid in time as in when dued,for example workers are not paid for 1months,their children are going to school,they needed money day to day due to the cbn policy to commercial banks.

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