africa_googleThis is an introduction to a series of posts on what I think Google ought to be doing in Africa,  that is to say what I think they ought to be doing outside of their core business of selling advertising.  Why pick on Google?  For a few reasons:

  1. I want to see cheaper, faster, more pervasive access to telecoms in Africa.  This objective is good for Google for whom more access means more eyeballs for Google Ads.  Google understand network effects better than anyone.  If you haven’t already, read this fascinating interview with Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.  Thus Google is a technology company that can do good in Africa while serving their own ends. This is in contrast to mobile operators that are still hell-bent on propping up their ever declining Average Revenue per User (ARPU) on the continent.
  2. Over and above their corporate self-interest, Google is a company that has expressed an explicit interest doing something useful in Africa.
  3. Google is already doing some amazing, potentially transformative things…. they just aren’t doing them in Africa.

And that is mostly want I want to talk about is the fact that Google has some remarkable initiatives which could bring about real change in Africa but they are NOT in Africa and I want to publicly ask why.  I’ve already asked why privately a few times but obviously I’ve been talking to the wrong people.  I don’t particularly expect anyone from the Google to read this but I feel the need to speak out anyway.  Here we go.

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Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data

  • Google agrees with your first point. They’ve invested in a company that will bring better internet to the equator:

    I haven’t heard anything lately about this.

  • Steve Song

    Hey Ben. O3B is a pretty bold initiative. I remain a little sceptical as to whether they will have the impact they seem to think they will in Africa. Consider that by the time the network goes live in late 2010, the Seacom, TEAMs, EASSY, MainOne, and GLO-1 cables should all be lit, with the WACS and ACE cables to follow less than a year later. Consider also the amount of existing satellite capacity that is going to be freed up by operators switching over to fibre. O3B may have an impact on landlocked countries and indeed they have recently signed a multi-million dollar deal in DRC. On the other hand, countries like Rwanda have negotiated a fibre connection to TEAMs. In Rwanda’s case, given O3B CEO Greg Wyler’s history with Rwandan telecoms, it is perhaps not surprising. I hope I am needlessly sceptical and they are a huge success. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  • The only trouble with the “more eyeballs for Google Ads” is that advertisers care a lot less about the number of “eyeballs” than the percentage of clickthroughs that will lead to actual purchases.

    Online purchases are unlikely to increase merely as a result of improved internet access, for a number of reasons: Fewer people have the money to spend, credit cards are not very common in most African countries, and few African banks offer cards that could be used in online purchases. I do believe that access to these tools is improving, but slowly; and luckily, the infrastructure required to deliver goods purchased online has improved dramatically in the last 10 years (provided you live in a major city).

    Still – Consider the fact that several websites whose income is based mostly on advertising, are actually blocking African ISPs. More website visitors means higher bandwidth costs, and unless you can justify higher advertising rates by convincing potential advertisers that your new website visitors represent likely customers…all those new visitors don’t bode well for your balance sheet.

  • Steve Song

    Hi John. Evidence from around the world seems to be that Google are delivering value for money on advertising that eclipses more traditional media. Check out this remarkable article on how they create efficiencies through dynamic ad auctions. Quite incredible.

    In Africa, Google are quite appropriately betting on mobile as the future of access on the continent and targeting their strategies accordingly. Unfortunately, this plays into the hands of the mobile operators who, let’s face it, are not the most competitive bunch of companies in the world. Not that they aren’t capable of being competitive, they are just doing their best to protect the very sweet market position that most of them enjoy.

    In the U.S., Google hasn’t been afraid to take on entrenched interests in the name of improving access. Strangely they have shied away from this in Africa…. and that is what this series of posts is about.

  • Tim

    Hey Steve
    Google have an office with 7 permanent heads in Nairobi, Kenya, they also have a fair size operation in South Africa, so I think they are starting small. I think it may be difficult to justify building an expansive free mobile internet network across africa (we wish) when they know they won’t make any money from it for the next 10 years. (Give or take)
    What they could do is make some of their services available locally, imagine if google sites was hosted from locally based servers, it would make a massive impact on small scale websites… but i may be getting ahead of your future posts – looking forward to them!

  • Google is actually quite active in Africa, with offices in Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Nigeria. They recently launched an update of Google Maps in Africa which is now some of the best mapping available. They have a lot of efforts in the SMS space as they recognize mobile penetration far outstrips internet penetration in African countries. They keep a blog on their Africa efforts, check it out here:

    They also invested in O3b, which seeks to narrow the digital divide by providing broadband access via satellite to the Other Three Billion (hence the name O3b). See blog posting on it here:

    Would be interested to see what initiatives you are referring to that you’d like to see there.

  • Steve Song

    I wasn’t quite expecting so many comments to this preface but I’ll take it as an indicator that many people are interested in Google’s activities in Africa. I think their investment in mapping Africa has been great as well as their innovative search Google via SMS in SA, Kenya, and Nigeria. You can see my thoughts on O3B above. However, and it is a big however, they have been reluctant to address in any way the market imbalances in the telecoms sector in Africa. This is something they haven’t been afraid to do in the U.S. The posts to follow address some of the opportunities I think they could seize.

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