TAR article on Google in Africa

The The Africa Report magazine’s cover story was “Is Google good for Africa?” [1] (the online page provides only an introduction to the longer article in the print/paid edition). Google is investing in Africa, both regarding connectivity and content: if there’s no content then there’s no need to go online, and if there’s no or a very slow connection, then there won’t be enough people online to make online presence profitable. In the words of Nelson Mattos, Google’s VP for EMEA: “Our business model works only when you have enough advertisements and lots of users online, and that’s the environment we are trying to create in Africa” (p24). Gemma Ware notes that “by investing now into Africa’s internet ecosystem, Google hopes to hardwire it with tools that will make people click through its websites”, and, as she aptly puts it: they have raised the flag first.

(Picture from WhiteAfrican's blogpost on "What should Google do in Africa?" (2))

On average, there is one web domain for every 94 people in the world, but for Africa, this is 1 in 10.000. Somewhere buried on p24 and p26 of the TAR article, two reasons are given: no credit card to buy space online and a ‘.[country]’ costs more than a ‘.com’ domain. There’s no lack of creativity (e.g., the Ushahidi platform co-founded by the new head of Google’s Africa policy Ory Okolloh, and much more).

In percentages of Google hits around the world, the USA tops with 31%, then India with 8%, China with 4.2%, UK 3%, Italy 2.3%, Germany and Brazil 2.9%, Russia 2.8%, France and Spain 2%, and at the lower end of the chart South Africa with 0.7%, Algeria and Nigeria with 0.6% and Sweden with 0.5%. The other African countries are not mentioned and have a lighter colour in the diagram than the lowest given value of 0.5%. These data should have been normalized by population size, but give a rough idea nevertheless.

40% of the Google searches in Africa are through mobile internet—including mine outside the office (unlike in Italy [well, Bolzano], here in South Africa they actually do sell functioning USB/Internet keys and SIM cards to foreigners). They estimated that there were about 14 million users in Africa in 2010 (the Facebook numbers on p26 total to about 28 million), which they expect to grow to 800 million by 2015. Now that’s what you can call a growth market.

There’s no Google data centre in Africa yet, but there are caches at several ISPs, which brings to mind the filter bubble. One can ponder about whether a cache and a bubble are better than practicing one’s patience. What you might not have considered, however, is that there are apparently (i.e.: so I was told, but did not check it) Internet access packages that charge lower rates for browsing national Web content and higher rates for international content where the data has to travel through the new fibre optic cable. So the caching isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

On content generation, Google has been holding “mapping parties” to add content to Google MapMaker, which also pleased its participants, because, as quoted in the article, they didn’t like seeing a blank spot as if there’s nothing, even though clearly there are roads, villages, communities, businesses in reality. There are funded projects to digitize Nelson Mandela’s documentary archives, crowd sourcing to generate content, Google Technology User Groups, helping businesses to create websites, and many other activities. In short, according to Google’s Senegal representative Tidjane Deme: “What Google is doing in Africa is very sexy”.

One of the ‘snapshots’ in the article mentions that Google now supports 31 African languages. I had a look at http://www.google.co.za, which has localized interfaces to 5 of the 9 official African languages in South Africa (isiZulu, Sesotho, isiXhosa, Setswana, Northern Sotho). As I have only rudimentary knowledge of isiZulu only, I had a look at that one to see how the localization has been done. Aside from the direct translations, such as izithombe for images and usesho for search, there are new concoctions. Apparently there is little IT and computing vocabulary in isiZulu, so new words have to be made up, or meanings of existing ones stretched liberally. For instance, logout has become phuma ngemvume (out/exit from authorization/permission) and when clicking on izigcawu (literally: open air meeting places) you navigate to the Google groups page, which are sort of understandable. This is different for izilungiselelo (noun class 8 or 10?) that brings you to Settings in the interface. There is no such word in the dictionary, although the stem –lungiselelo (noun class 6) translates as preparations/arrangements; my dictionary translates ‘setting’ (noun) into ukubeka (verb, in back-translation it means put/place, install; bilingual dictionaries are inconsistent, I know). It’s not just that Google is “hardwir[ing] [Africa] with tools”, they are ‘soft-wiring’ by unilaterally inventing a vocabulary, it seems, which reeks of cultural imperialism.

Admitted, I have not (yet) seen much IT for African languages, other than spell checkers for all 11 official languages in South Africa that work for OpenOffice and Mozilla, a nice online isiZulu-English dictionary and conjugation, and Laurette Pretorius’ research in computational linguistics—the former was heavily funded by outside funds and the second one a hobby project by German isiZulu enthusiast Carsten Gaebler. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if there were some coordinated, participatory, effort.

Writes the article’s author, Gemma Ware: “as Google’s influence grows, Africa’s techies are aware of the urgency to stake their own territorial claim”. This awareness has yet to be transformed into more action by more people. Overall, my impression is that ICT (and the shortage of ICT professionals) already has generated the buzz of excitement where people see plenty of possibilities, which makes it a stimulating environment down here.


[1] Gemma Ware. Is Google good for Africa?. The Africa Report, No 32, July 2011, pp20-26.

[2] Erik Hersman (WhiteAfrican). What Should Google do in Africa? June 28, 2011.

p.s.: The article does not really answer the question whether Google is good for Africa, and I didn’t either in the blog post; that’s a topic for a later date when I know more about what’s going on here.


One response to “TAR article on Google in Africa

  1. Pingback: Annotated list of books on (South) Africa I read last year « Keet blog

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