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Google SA head confident about company's fortunes in Africa

Google SA head confident about company's fortunes in Africa

Google South Africa's ‎Country Director has expressed confidence in the value that the web search giant can add to Africa going forward, a decade after the company set up business on the continent.

"It is actually ten years this year since Google came to Africa and our first office wasn't actually in Johannesburg - it was in Nairobi in Kenya. The reason for that was that when Google was established in Africa we really didn't have a view as to a commercial entity, it was more about going back to Google's core mission which is to make the world's information universally accessible to people. The first projects that we ran had nothing to do with commerce and little to do with search. They were actually mapping projects and people employed themselves as citizen cartographers..."

Mckend says while those initial mapping projects were successful, as evidenced by the development of maps of cities like Dakar, the challenge for Google's business in the Africa has become more complex.

"Now the problem is slightly different because I think it's a much more competitive environment, there is a lot more content. Now it is primarily a question of ensuring that everybody has access and once they have access that it is actually relevant to them whether you are watching the local Nollywood video on Youtube or whether you are trying to find your local plumber in Lagos. A huge number of the projects we are involved in are pertinent to that. On the one hand we are doing everything from laying fibre in Ghana and Uganda through to trying to work with operators to make sure that devices are as cheap as possible and that data is also cheaper."

Mckend cites Google's Project Loon for internet connectivity in rural areas as an example of recent initiatives that the company is rolling out to address low access to internet across rural parts of the continent.

He stresses that while enriching web content is important, access to the internet is still most valuable. "For someone who has access, having an internet connection that actually works is pretty sexy."

Mckend also warns against the assumption by internet companies from outside Africa that Africans will use the internet the same way as people use it in other parts of the world.

He says solving the problem of internet access will require greater cooperation in the ICT sector through shared infrastructure models with telcos, among others.

Manny Teixeira, Group Head of Digital Media and Services at MTN, one of the telecos looking for ways to increase access to the internet in partnership with Google, says localising content is a critical step.

"The consumption patterns are exactly that, it is hyperlocal content. In Nigeria we have over 4 million music subscribers and it is not about the 30 million catalogue you offer them, it is about the 4000 local Nigerian music tracks that everybody wants to listen to."

Way to unleash Africa's potential

Google's Mckend says the company has achieved over 100% growth in the use of its Youtube platform across most African countries, and there is still huge potential for internet businesses.

He says mobile queries in Africa are growing at between 70% and 100%, depending on the country.

"I am very optimistic. My experience is that if you put something in the hands of a user they figure out how to use it pretty quickly. We run the risk of underestimating the African user at our peril. What we need to do is put great technologies in from of them and let them figure out what to use the technology for."

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