Local programmers are making their own contributions. Alex Nyika, a 26-year old Ugandan programmer, developed "iChecki"-- a real-time, GPS-based tracker for Nairobi's notoriously unpredictable public transit "matatu" vans -- as an app for Google's Android phones. Although the Android operating system trails emerging-market leader Nokia in Africa, American competitors Apple and Microsoft are even further behind.
Google hopes to consolidate that advantage by training more African designers in Android protocols. "These are the guys [who] will create the companies that will be our Facebooks and Googles," says Tidjane Deme, Google head for Senegal. "We try and give them tools to bring content online." At G-Kenya, Joe Mucheru, head of the Africa practice, announced that programmers like Nyika can now join the global Android Market.
But when it comes to translating this advertised openness into a connection with local designers and consumers, the company has hit some snags. "You're not thinking of Africa if you're going to launch an Android phone for over $100," says Erik Hersman, a Nairobi-based technologist who recently hosted a group of 25 Googlers at the iHub, a shared office space for local programmers and entrepreneurs. "They launched Android Market, but there's no Google Checkout for us to receive money. It's a huge hole that almost all the tech companies have in Africa. They globalize, but they don't engage."
Likewise, Google proudly unveiled digital maps of several African cities that had never been well cataloged -- even driving a red, camera-mounted Toyota Prius around certain cities in South Africa to create "Street View" maps in time for this year's World Cup. But in practice, Google has left out wide swaths of African cities -- the Kibera slums of Nairobi, most notably. Google's "Map Maker" permits users to fill in the blanks, but has yet to account for the visual orientation ("bear left at the Tusky's roundabout") more familiar to locals than Google's gridded logic. And, despite partnership with the Grameen Foundation and South African telecom MTN, the prizewinning Google Trader has barely made a dent in challenging existing classified services. A search for a used car, for example, turns up only 17 ads over the last six months.
"I'm a huge Google fan; I have Google merchandise and a Google coffee cup," says Rob Spokes, head of Quirk Marketing, a leading South African web-services firm. "But there's very little scope for development here." Stafford Masie, head Googler in South Africa who left the team for personal reasons last year, says, "There's no imagination" on the ground. "I couldn't do what I wanted there." (It took Google six months to replace Masie's successor, Stephen Newton, who quit in May.)