Google focusing on Africa

Google is now focusing on Africa. The Wall Street Journal reports that:

LAGOS, Nigeria—Despite some of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world, Africa has enticed Google Inc.

Lured by the continent’s growth potential, Google aims to convince entrepreneurs, students and aid workers to make use of its search, mapping and mobile-phone technologies. But Africa—with roughly one billion inhabitants, over 50 countries and many regions that have limited access to electricity—presents huge obstacles.

“The Internet is not an integral part of everyday life for people in Africa,” said Joe Mucheru of Google’s Kenya office.

Africa lags far behind other big emerging markets in Internet use. Africa has 4% of global Internet users; China has 21%.

The continent also has some of the world’s highest costs for mobile-phone and Internet service. In Nigeria, bandwidth for Internet carriers costs $3,000 to $6,000 a month per megabyte, according to Nyimbi Odero of Google’s Nigeria office.

By comparison, the cost in the U.K. is about $20 a month per megabyte.

Despite the expense of Internet service, Google executives say Africa represents one of the fastest growth rates for Internet use in the world. Nigeria already has about 24 million users and South Africa and Kenya aren’t far behind, according to the World Bank and research sites like Internet World Stats.

“The goal is to get more people online,” said Estelle Akofio-Sowah, the Google country head in Ghana.

GAFRICA

Workers at Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport take pictures with their mobile phones of one of the seven lions relocated from zoos in Austria and Romania to Lions Rock big cat sanctuary near Bethlehem in South Africa.

Google wouldn’t disclose how much it has invested in Africa-based operations, and says it doesn’t yet have a revenue target for the continent. The company—which has a physical presence in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa—says it has around 40 employees working on Africa-focused projects, with some based on the continent and others working from elsewhere.

Other technology companies have also set their sights on the continent. Microsoft Corp., International Business MachinesCisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have sales offices throughout Africa, selling laptops, printers and software to fast-growing companies and an emerging middle class. Corp.,

Though there are small-scale Internet service providers, most Internet services in Africa are provided by cellphone companies, who provide data cards that users stick into computers’ USB ports.

Mobile-phone use in Africa has grown rapidly in the last decade, and remains the most common way people communicate with each other, as opposed to email or social-networking sites.

“There is a tremendous pent-up demand for connectivity and access,” Mr. Odero said.

Among the first Google initiatives on the continent since setting up offices there three years ago was the expansion of Google Maps. Detailed online maps of even the biggest African cities were almost nonexistent five years ago, analysts say. There are now Google maps of 51 African countries.

[GAFRICA]

Tunji Lardner, a consultant in Lagos working with the state government, aims to use Google technology to prevent a common scam: selling homes in Lagos that aren’t actually for sale. Hand-painted signs reading “This House is Not For Sale” are ubiquitous on the walls of homes in Lagos and most of the rest of Nigeria, but buyers continue to get cheated.

Google staffers in Nigeria recently provided Mr. Lardner with a phone that uses Google’s Android operating system, which he will use to pinpoint houses actually for sale on Google Maps and create a database.

Other initiatives include the nonprofit VetAid, which has started using Android phones donated by Google in Tanzania and Kenya to track the health status of livestock.

In Uganda, Google provides a mobile text-based marketplace for traders.

And independent groups of developers have formed Google Technology User Groups, which meet to share knowledge about Google applications and services in eight African countries, including Cameroon and Egypt.

Not every Google initiative in Africa has been successful. Google staff in Uganda, in partnership with South African telecom giant MTN Group Ltd. and the Grameen Foundation, started three text-based programs for cellphones: Search, Tips and Trader. The free services attracted a large user base when they were first rolled out last summer—2.7 million texts sent in the first six months, according to Google. When MTN started charging for Google Trader, the marketplace text service, usage rates plummeted, according to MTN.

“The problem with offering services alone is that they’re at the mercy of the mobile service carriers,” said Jon Gossier, the American head of Appfrica, a company that mentors and incubates technology entrepreneurs in East Africa.

Google will be trying to prime interest during the coming World Cup in South Africa by launching a public relations drive through its YouTube unit, which launched a site dedicated to South Africa Monday.

The company is using the Internet video service to sponsor a street soccer tournament that will travel through several African countries and finish in South Africa.

A Google Street View team has also been traveling throughout South Africa to map as much of the country as possible before the World Cup.

Looking at the internet-penetration rates, not so good.  But already, in terms of cellphones, we’re talking 30-40% penetration everywhere in Africa save the deep interior.

So Google apparently not waiting on the former to rise and instead targets the latter media device.  Mobiles are a party of everyday life in Africa, but the Internet is not (4% average).  Unfortunately, mobile costs are relatively high in Africa, and internet costs are even worse.

Google clearly takes the path of least resistance, and its aims are noble enough:  increase Internet usage by offering mobile text-based services as the lure.

I think Africa is ripe for a wireless revolution, it will take some ingenuity to find the right model in such a wide open land where there will be vast stretches of wild areas, maybe frame relay towers with point to point transmissions are perfect for this. I also think that wireless is the only option for most areas to start the saturation much like in the frozen countries of the north like Sweden and Finland. This would be an exciting assignment to help with this, I envy the folks who are rolling this out, beautiful land with interesting mixtures of keeping the wildness with allowing the power of the internet to keep folks connected into the global market place.

Being on the internet will become very important to participating in global trade so this is essential for African businesses and if Google can help make this accessible, bravo.

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