The Google office in South Africa is no different from the Google office in Washington -- from the outside. Tucked into a sprawling, high-tech office park in Johannesburg, Google's hip, young Africa team has taken the company's beanbag-chairs-and-jeans culture global. But in practice, their mission is different -- and far more difficult. They're out to prove that Google can be an African verb.
Since 2007, the American search giant has entered the African market head first, establishing offices in Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg, Dakar, and Kampala, with its largest presence in Nairobi. It has placed a premium on improving access to the Internet and importing its well-known suite of applications (Maps, Gmail, Books, Chat) to African users. It has held six "G-Africa" gatherings designed to build the brand among local webheads, most recently in Kenya, with another planned for Cape Town in November. But despite all the money and attention Google is pouring into the continent, some developers and engineers here say that the company doesn't quite "get" Africa. Within the vibrant, competitive, and decentralized African tech space, Google is going to have to do more than just show up.
Just as other multinational companies have discovered in recent years, Google knows that there is a lot of money to be made in urbanizing, newly wired African markets. In June, consulting firm McKinsey concluded that rates of return on investment in Africa are higher than in any other developing region. Since then, global banks and corporations have brokered regional mergers and acquisitions worth more than $15 billion.
When it comes to Western tech companies, Google is unmistakably ahead of the curve. While Finnish Nokia and Canadian BlackBerry have offices and research centers in Africa, Silicon Valley darlings like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter don't have a single warm body on the continent.
This commitment to Africa has produced some exciting firsts. Google Earth's high-resolution satellite imagery was central to the recent excavation of new hominid fossils in South Africa. Browsers in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Senegal can search in the Amharic, Shona, and Wolof languages, respectively. "The whole goal of the Africa team is to make the Internet an integral part of African lives," says Bridgette Sexton, a Google development manager who helps organize the G-Africa program.
In many ways, Google is well suited to the challenge. An Internet company can circumvent bad roads, casual corruption, and limited purchasing power -- the traditional barriers to doing business in Africa. In a region where there are 10 times more cell phones than desktop computers, Google is piloting its recently announced "Mobile First" strategy, with strong results: The company recently took a prize from the Mobile World Congress for "best use of mobile for social and economic development" for creating Africa-specific applications like "SMS Tips," which answers questions on health or agriculture sent through text messages, and "Google Trader," which matches small businesses and buyers in real time. "Everyone in Africa is a power phone user," says Stefan Magdalinski, head of Mocality, an online directory for businesses in the region. "No matter how [simple] your phone is, you know every feature, every application, and you use every one."