Four years ago, when Google opened an office in Nairobi, Africa was largely served by satellite, the cost of connectivity was high, and very little regional content was available online.
Investing in a vast continent where few individuals had access to the Internet was a gamble for the American search company. A combination of failed states, telecom monopolies, lack of fiber connectivity, lack of e-commerce ecosystem and lack of ICT policies had all deterred global companies from venturing into Africa.
Today, Google has offices in eight countries and is working with universities, developers, entrepreneurs, innovation and incubation labs, and governments to strengthen the Internet ecosystem, bring more people online and expand Internet content through digitization projects.
Computerworld Kenya interviewed Joseph Mucheru, Google's first employee and lead in sub-Saharan Africa.
CW: What has been Google's experience in the last four years?
Mucheru: In the four years that we have been in Africa, we have been able to establish presence in seven countries. We have launched products in several countries, we have populated maps in several countries; South Sudan, which became a republic this year, is the latest project. We have signed agreements with various operators and our services are available in over 30 languages across the markets.
There has been a lot of engagement with developers and students, training them on the various products and the Android platform. At the same time, we have been able to learn from them on how to engage the markets. The efforts may look philanthropic, but this is a business.
In terms of the markets and policy engagement, they vary; from democratic to failed states, some markets are landlocked, some have fiber, some have competition others don't. It's very fragmented and we have to change tack, depending on policy requirements by different governments.
We have prepared our teams to work with different markets, looking at ways of engaging with regulators and policy makers to collaborate and work together using Internet and mobile, in partnership with policy makers and the private sector.
CW: Is Google going to set up more offices especially in Central Africa, which is still dependent on satellite and considered tough for online business?
Mucheru: Google covers 60 percent of the population [in] countries where we have local presence. ... In some countries like Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania, we have operations even though there are no local offices. Central Africa is likely to take longer because of stability, connectivity and demand.
CW: How have businesses embraced Google products?
Mucheru: Even prior to coming into the market, Google had users; we have tried to localize products, make them easier to load, given the bandwidth issues. We made them available in local languages; for instance, in Tanzania, our products are available primarily in Swahili, even though we don't have local presence.
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