Google has Africa firmly in its sights. As new fibreoptic cables bring down the cost of bandwidth, and manufacturers race to bring out affordable smartphones - the most basic of which still costs about $100 - the internet is going mobile in Africa. Already 40% of Google searches on the continent come from internet users on mobile phones. Google expects user numbers in Africa to grow from 14 million in 2010 to 800 million by 2015. Mobile information has been the midwife to the uprisings across the Arab world. Videos, photos and comments posted on Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube fanned the flames of revolt.
Seen from the Googleplex back in California, Africa remains a big, perplexing blank, an obstacle in the way of Google's brazen goal to organise the world's information. But it has seen the future - one that will hold 43 million middle-class Africans by 2030, according to the World Bank. By investing now into Africa's internet ecosystem, Google hopes to hardwire it with tools that will make people click through to its websites.
While there is an average of one web domain for every 94 people in the world, there is only one for every 10,000 Africans. An empty web with less local and relevant content means fewer reasons to go online and a dearth of revenue for Google, which principally earns money by selling targeted advertising on its search engine.
It is also embedding itself in the internet's evolving geopolitics. As authoritarians tighten their media-monitoring screws, buying military-calibre cyber surveillance software, Google will be monitoring them. Since 2010, Google has been publishing statistics on the requests it receives from governments to remove information from its websites. During Egypt's February revolution, the tracker clearly showed when the country's internet was cut. As part of its response, Google put to use a start-up called SayNow that it had acquired just a few weeks before to create a 'speak-to-tweet' service. It allowed Egyptians to leave voicemail messages that were posted on Twitter as audio files.
The company has won fans - and sceptics - for its 'don't be evil' motto. It got burnt in China and its reputation suffered after it agreed to censor search results. It will not be doing that again in a hurry. But by shining a light on censorship, Google has helped democracy activists expose politicians who meddle with the freedom of information. In late May, an Egyptian court charged the ousted President Hosni Mubarak and two of his ministers $90m for cutting telecoms services.
During the revolution, Egyptian activists were fearful of what US multinationals might do with their private information. "Anyone who holds this amount of information needs to be very careful with it," says Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian activist behind the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook group. But when Google's property is attacked, it will make noise. In June, the company pointed the finger at the Chinese government after disrupting attacks on Gmail users, including US government officials and Chinese political activists.
Google's play on the continent is seductive and transformative. It has launched dozens of projects in Africa. Its search engine is now available in 31 African languages, including Ewe, Sesotho, Wolof and Amharic. A $1.25m project will digitise Nelson Mandela's documentary archives. Another pilot in Nigeria - the Get African Business Online project - is helping small businesses to build websites. Google runs mapping projects to help chart unmapped areas (see box page 22). It is also forging relationships with Africa's more tech-savvy administrations. A web facility tailor-made for Kenya's treasury is helping constituents monitor the implementation of infrastructure, education and health projects launched under the government's Economic Stimulus Programme.
Google's assault on Africa is coming at a time when the company is facing growing hostilities elsewhere. In late March, its plan to monetise 15m digitally scanned books for the Google Book Project was barred by a New York court. Meanwhile, the European Commission is probing whether Google is abusing its dominant position in online search by prioritising its own services.
MISSION: CREATE CONTENT Google's push to create local content is not unique to Africa and it forms a central part of its expansion strategy into emerging markets with low internet penetration. So far, the coast has been relatively clear. While its biggest rival, Microsoft, has an established presence in Africa, Facebook and Twitter have not yet defined strategies for the continent. Yahoo email addresses are still commonplace across both anglophone and francophone Africa, but Google has pretty much won the battle for African search.
Back in Silicon Valley, it used to be hard to get attention for African projects. Now, it is a different story. "If you do something that's involved in Africa, it's a very feel-good thing around Google," says Steven Levy, author of a new book on Google called In the Plex. Google, which is famed for employee perks such as free gourmet food and onsite medical care, allows its engineers to use 20% of their time on other projects. "What Google is doing in Africa is very sexy," says the firm's Senegal representative, Tidjane Deme.
Off the back of a successful final quarter of 2010 - which brought in profits of $2.5bn - Google is in the midst of an Africa recruitment drive, with more than 30 posts open across the continent. Its staff in Africa has grown from 10 in 2006 to 65 today. In December, it secured a huge coup by poaching Kenyan Ory Okolloh - founder of web platform Ushahidi and a prominent blogger and activist - as its first policy manager for Africa. The usually ebullient Okolloh has remained tight-lipped since she started, and declined to give an interview to The Africa Report.
WE COULD BE HEROES African googlers have begun to get themselves noticed. At first, Google was unsure how to react to the swell of admiration for its marketing executive Wael Ghonim, held aloft as a hero of the Egyptian revolution after his detention at the hands of the security services. "They were conscious, as a global corporation, of the implications of this," says Levy. But they realised soon enough the value of his profile-raising. On 12 February, five days after his release, Google's official Twitter account said: "We're incredibly proud of you @Ghonim & of course will welcome you back when you're ready."
Others are going on to great things. Kenyan Nyimbi Odero, Google's former lead for West Africa, told The Africa Report he saved the Nigerian Electoral Commission around $100m in procurement costs with in-house voter registration software he and his team developed for 2011's elections.
Spreading its tentacles further and deeper into the world's internet is a fundamental part of Google's business plan. In the year to end December 2010, 41%, or $11.9bn, of its $29.3bn in revenue came from outside the US and the UK, up from 37% in 2008. Despite its push for global information-sharing and transparency, Google will not reveal how much it is investing in Africa, although it admits that it is not yet making a profit.
"Our business model works only when you have enough advertisements and a lot of users online, and that's the environment we are trying to create in Africa," explains Nelson Mattos, Google's vice president of product management and engineering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). "Right now the goal is not to be profitable. We are not focusing on sales except for South Africa, where you already have an environment of enough users online, enough traffic online and enough advertisers who want to take advantage of that. In the rest of Africa, it's about bringing people online and making sure that they take advantage of internet services first."
With a platform like Baraza - an online question-and-answer site that Google launched in October 2010 after success with similar pilots in China and the Middle East - users are persuaded to create content on a Google platform. "It has become extremely successful and we are starting to see a lot of the content that got created through the Q & A to surface in the Google search," says Mattos. Another beta project, Google Trader, launched in Uganda and Ghana, acts as a web and mobile marketplace for everything from rice-milling equipment to used Hondas.
Such crowd-sourcing is central to Google's global strategy. It stems from founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin's belief in an open-source internet model, where tools are made freely available to developers. It is the driving principle behind its Android smartphone platform, which now has over 150,000 apps, but - like its African investments - has yet to bring in billions in revenue.
Since mid-2009, Google has been busy moulding a new generation of bright, tech-savvy Africans who are incentivised to evangelise. Part of a growing young elite with the money to buy laptops, internet data bundles and smartphones, these geeks will rule Africa's online universe.
But while Dakar's Google Technology User Group (GTUG) - a 50-strong network of young developers that receives a stipend each month from Google to host meetings - may know how to work the tools, they have little financial support to create new applications. Ibrahima Dieng, one of GTUG's leaders, says: "People come and try things out, but they don't publish." Many are students, without the credit cards needed to buy space online.
LEARNING TO ADAPT Senegalese web engineer Hovi Kokuvi Amen Hovi says he is earning €11 a day from AdSense adverts hosted on two news-based websites he operates. He has been lucky - he can get at the money via a French bank account. Funds earned through AdSense used to be sent with a Citibank cheque in US dollars, a system not well adapted to serve developers in largely unbanked economies. In May, Google agreed to make payments via Western Union in Senegal.
Google has not yet made the biggest commitment it could to Africa - to build a data centre, the beeping heart of its web operations. However, it has set up several dozen caches with African mobile operators and internet service providers. So, when somebody wants to watch a YouTube video or access Google Maps, the request does not travel all the way to a European data centre, but is accessible via a local store.
Back in 2008, Google provided an undisclosed part of a $410m investment in O3b, a series of low-orbit satellites that would bring fibre-speed broadband to the developing world from 2013. Google also recently opened a point of presence (POP) in Nigeria to serve West Africa, effectively an entry point to its global network of data centres. There is already an active POP in South Africa, and Google plans to build one in Kenya to keep local traffic within Africa.
Just how Google plans to recoup such investments remains unclear. Some of its products could become lucrative if they reach critical mass. One is Gmail SMS, which allows Gmail users in certain countries to send 50 free text messages from their emails. When users receive an SMS to their inbox, they get another five free messages.
"They're sowing now so they can reap the advertising funds down the line," says Banky Ojutalayo, a former senior manager for value-added services at Glo Mobile Ghana. He suggests that once the service had built up a large enough user base, Google would consider selling short adverts at the end of each message - a potential goldmine.
African mobile operators' eagerness to team up with Google shows the power of its global brand. But sometimes the company falls foul of the higher standards it sets for itself. It was criticised last year for exercising loopholes to pay an overseas tax rate of just 2.4% in the US, cutting its tax bill by $3.1bn. Google insists that it "complies with tax law in every country in which it operates," including seven countries in Africa.
As the influence of companies like Google grows, the continent's techies are aware of the urgency to stake their own territorial claim.
An African-led initiative is pushing for a .africa suffix aimed at breaking down the dominance of foreign hosting sites. Around 90% of African websites are registered as .com, says DotConnectAfrica's Sophia Bekele. When it costs $19 to register a .com site versus around $50 for a .co.ke in Kenya, the choice is obvious, but it is not helping to populate the African web.
Nigerian developer Saheed Adepoju, who launched his own version of Apple's iPad tablet called Inye last year, says some of his peers are worried Google is trying to take over their market. Adepoju tells them that they should not worry. "We know the local system better than they do. It's not going to be hard to compete with them."
Whatever its profit projections, Google's African advance is a long play. It sees that the continent is getting richer and more connected. Africa's sparsely populated internet is a money-making opportunity for Google and the army of African developers it is training to help fill in the gaps. Africa's future is an online and a mobile one, and Google has raised its flag first.