Google is playing the long game with its Africa-centric initiatives

The relationship between Google and Africa began about fifteen years ago, about nine years after the official launch of the company. The company, now worth more than $1 trillion, has established and championed some Africa-focused initiatives while running its sub-Saharan business from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. He launched an AI lab in Accra, Ghana in 2018 where AI projects on the continent would be conceptualized and executed. Last year, it announced the construction of its first development center in Nairobi, Kenya, where, for the first time, it would hire mainland-based developers and product teams. It has also just announced that it will open its first African cloud center in South Africa.

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On October 5, Google hosted its 2022 edition of the Google4Africa event, an annual physical and virtual event where it unveils its plans for the continent for the next business year. The event is being held simultaneously in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, the three bases of its sub-Saharan operations. During the 2021 edition of the event, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company’s most ambitious commitment to Africa to date: a billion dollar investment to democratize the access by ensuring affordable and relevant products; help businesses transform digitally; investing in entrepreneurs to drive next generation technologies; and supporting non-profit organizations working to improve lives across Africa. This year’s edition was mostly filled with progress reports and commentaries.

But before last year’s announcement, for those who followed Google’s expedition to the continent, the intentionality with which the company operated made for a better story. There is certainly a model for Google’s initiatives in Africa, and Nitin GajraManaging Director Sub-Saharan Africa at Google, confirmed this to me during a chat in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Gajra, who made no secret of her fondness for the African continent throughout our conversation, emphasized access. The difference between the western world and emerging markets like Nigeria and India, where Gajra himself is from, is access, he said. “Even after the infrastructure, we have to find a way to make it accessible to everyone, and that takes some level of intentionality,” he said. Google is big on access and that can be seen in the amount of inclusion (extensive language options, browsing support for people with disabilities, etc.) that it builds into all of its products.

There are layers to Africa’s challenges, and according to Gajra, Google is ready to peel them away and address them one by one. It’s a huge undertaking, even for a large company like Google; we have seen governments fail in similar tasks. Although the reason they fail is a conversation about incompetence, the tasks are daunting nonetheless.

Google touches almost every crucial part the continent needs to transform into a tech-based economy. “We think about the billion people who are not yet connected to the Internet and what they are going to do with it when they have access to it,” Gajra told me. But before planning what they will do with the Internet, there is so much to do, including building the Internet infrastructure itself. “We have to build a rail that will take them and bring them online,” he said. Google provides an efficient internet connection through Equiano, its undersea internet cable project currently running across Africa. So far, the cable has landed in Togo, Nigeria, Namibia and South Africa.

By taking a little trip back in time, everything makes sense. The American tech giant understands that education comes before adoption, and it has (and continues to) champion education through its many educational programs. In 2017, it pledged to train 10 million Africans in digital skills; like last year, six million people benefited from the program, some of whom launched careers or entire businesses. The Google Developer Groups (GDGs) continue to be a launching pad for African engineers. There are more than 700,000 developers in Africa, and GDG, Gajra said, has influence over more than half of that number.

In 2020, the company partnered with Safaricom to enable Kenyans to get 4G-enabled smartphones now and pay later. Google continues to support early-stage African founders and startups through its equity and non-equity funding. It has made three equity investments in three companies: Ugandan SafeBoda, South African Carry1st and Kenyan Lori System. It recently announced its Black Founders Fund Africa 2022 cohort, where it is backing 60 startups with capital-free funding and product credits worth $200,000.

Despite this, Google has had its fair share of scandals on the continent. A good example is the 2012 Mocality scandal, when the company was forced to admit that its Kenyan unit was “incorrectly” using data from a local startup, Mocality, which at the time had a directory accessible by phone. cell phone of nearly 100,000 local contacts. companies. Google was poaching Mocality customers to buy its own website setup. After Google admitted to this allegation, its chief operating officer in Kenya and all engineers involved were fired. The mocality would be close operations a year later.

Going back to its investment in Africa, one would be forgiven for thinking that Google’s interest in the continent is philanthropic, but that would be to dismiss the revenue-generating potential of African markets, which Google and all other companies profit seek. Google’s investment is futuristic; Africa should welcome the next loadings of Internet users. Google is investing in its next big enterprise customers. Last year, its cohort of Black Founders numbered 50 startups; this year it has 60. That’s 110 potential companies that Google acquired with $7 million in total. What do we think will happen when 40-50 of these companies scale and are able to comfortably pay for services? Who would they choose?

Africans are at the forefront of innovations and shipping them around the world. The progress is revolutionary. For example, Pichai said mobile money was ubiquitous in Kenya before it was embraced globally, and today Africa holds the largest mobile money market. Google has found a gold mine in Africa and a billion dollars is not too much to feed the market. No matter how ready to splash the tech giant is or not, it has earned its stripes as a major architect of Africa’s digital future.

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