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.

ICT, Africa, peace, and gender

Just in case you thought that the terms in the title are rather eclectic, or even mutually exclusive, then you are wrong. ICT4Peace is a well-known combination, likewise for other organisations and events, such as the ICT for peace symposium in the Netherlands that I wrote about earlier. ICT & development activities, e.g., by Informatici Senza Frontiere, and ICT & Africa (or here or here, among many sites) is also well-known. There is even more material for ICT & gender. But what, then, about the combination of them?

Shastry Njeru sees links between them and many possibilities to put ICT to good use in Africa to enhance peaceful societies and post-conflict reconstruction where women play a pivotal role [1]. Not that much has been realized yet; so, if you are ever short on research or implementation topics, then Njeru’s paper undoubtedly will provide you with more topics than you can handle.

So, what, then, can ICT be used for in peacebuilding, in Africa, by women? One topic that features prominently in Njeru’s paper is communication among women to share experiences, exchange information, build communities, keep in contact, have  “discussion in virtual spaces, even when physical, real world meetings are impossible on account of geographical distance or political sensitivities” and so forth, using skype, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools such as Flickr, podcasts, etc., Internet access in their own language, and voice and video to text hardware and software to record the oral histories. A more general suggestion, i.e., not necessarily related to only women or only Africa is that “ICT for peacebuilding should form the repository for documents, press releases and other information related to the peace process”.

Some examples of what has been achieved already are: the use of mobile phone networks in Zambia to advocate women’s rights, Internet access for women entrepreneurs in textile industries in Douala in Cameroon, and ICT and mobile phone businesses are used as instruments of change by rural women in various ways in Uganda [1], including the Ugandan CD-ROM project [2].

Njeru thinks that everything can be done already with existing technologies that have to be used more creatively and such that there are policies, programmes, and funds that can overcome the social, political, and economic hurdles to realise the gendered ICT for peace in Africa. Hardware, maybe yes, but surely not software.

Regarding the hardware, mobile phone usage is growing fast (some reasons why) and Samsung, Sharp and Sanyo have jumped on board already with the solar panel-fuelled mobile phones to solve the problem of (lack of reliable) energy supply. The EeePc and the one laptop per child projects and the likes are nothing new either, nor are the palm pilots that are used for OpenMRS’s electronic health records in rural areas in, among others, Kenya. But this is not my area of expertise, so I will leave it to the hardware developers for the final [yes/no] on the question if extant hardware suffices.

Regarding software, developing a repository for the documents, press releases etc. is doable with current software as well, but a usable repository requires insight into how then the interfaces have to be designed so that it suits best for the intended users and how the data should be searched; thus, overall, it may not be simply a case of deployment of software, but also involve development of new applications. Internet access, including those Web 2.0 applications, in one’s own language requires localization of the software and a good strategy on how one can coordinate and maintain such software. This is very well doable, but it is not already lying on the shelf waiting to be deployed.

More challenging will be figuring out the best way to manage all the multimedia of photos, video reports, logged skype meetings and so forth. If one does not annotate them, then they are bound to end up in a ‘write-only’ data silo. However, those reports should not be (nor have been) made to merely save them, but one also should be able to find, retrieve, and use the information contained in them. A quick-and-dirty tagging system or somewhat more sophisticated wisdom-of-the-crowds tagging methods might work in the short term, but it will not in the long run, and thereby still letting those inadequately annotated multimedia pieces getting dust. An obvious direction for a solution is to create the annotation mechanism and develop an ontology about conflict & peacebuilding, develop a software system to put the two together, develop applications to access the properly annotated material, and train the annotators. This easily can take up the time and resources of an EU FP7 Integrated Project.

Undoubtedly, observation of current practices, their limitations, and subsequent requirements analysis will bring afore more creative opportunities of usage of ICT in a peacebuilding setting targeting women as the, mostly untapped, prime user base. A quick search on ICT jobs in Africa or peacebuilding (on the UN system and its affiliated organizations, and the NGO industry) to see if the existing structures invest in this area did not show anything other than jobs at their respective headquarters such as website development, network administration, or ICT group team leader. Maybe upper management does not realise the potential, or it is seen merely as an afterthought? Or maybe more grassroots initiatives have to be set up, be successful, and then organisations will come on board and devote resources to it? Or perhaps companies and venture capital should be more daring and give it a try—mobile phone companies already make a profit and some ‘philanthropy’ does well for a company’s image anyway—and there is always the option to take away some money from the military-industrial complex.

Whose responsibility would it be (if any) to take the lead (if necessary) in such endeavours? Either way, given that investment in green technologies can be positioned as a way out of the recession, then so can it be for ICT for peace(building) aimed at women, be they in Africa or other continents where people suffer from conflicts or are in the process of reconciliation and peacebuilding. One just has to divert the focus of ICT for destruction, fear-moderation, and the likes to one of ICT for constructive engagement, aiming at inclusive technologies and those applications that facilitate development of societies and empower people.


[1] Shastry Njeru. (2009). Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Gender, and Peacebuilding in Africa: A Case of Missed Connections. Peace & Conflict Review, 3(2), 32-40.

[2] Huyer S and Sikoska T. (2003). Overcoming the Gender Digital Divide: Understanding the ICTs and their potential for the Empowerment of Women. United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW), Instraw Research Paper Series No. 1., 36p.