Then there is the issue of whether African techies need or want Google around. In mid-2009, Google approached Teresa Clarke, then a managing director at Goldman Sachs and proprietor of Africa.com. "They made me a pretty generous offer," says Clarke. But she ultimately turned them down, preferring to develop her own news site. Clarke is still in contact with Google about future partnership, but others are spurning Google more definitively. Jessica Colaco, a self-described "technology evangelist" in Nairobi who manages the iHub says, "I want to be Jessica Colaco, not Jessica who works for Google.... I'd rather do my own thing."
Maybe this is part of the reason why Google isn't yet making a profit in the region, and the focus on social services carries a whiff of corporate social responsibility. Google rebuts that its push is part of a short-term strategy for innovation and a long-term strategy for, well, world domination. "It's a volume play," CEO Eric Schmidt told me in September -- a response to the overwhelming numbers of Africans coming online. Google's piecemeal withdrawal from a market of 340 million Chinese web surfers makes Africa's 500 million mobile web users a worthwhile consolation prize."We are not positioning ourselves as a charity or NGO," says Julie Taylor, one of Google's 50-plus employees in the region. "Africa is the last frontier for the Internet."
There is definitely space for Google in Africa. The company wouldn't share projections for profit outside South Africa (which makes money), but "the economic opportunity of the Internet both for Africans and in the longer term for Google is significant," says Taylor.
And of course, not everyone is giving Google the brushoff. Loren Bosch, a sales director for Internet Solutions, one of the oldest information-and-communications-technology solutions firm in Africa, welcomes Google's incursion. "We're excited about all those guys coming here. The more of them enter the space here, the better the environment will become and the more resources are available in the market," he says.
To succeed, Google has to live out its biggest selling point: its openness to new ideas. The company has spent millions contrasting its open-source, free-web, access-for-all vision with its more reticent American competitors. But, Deme told a gathering in Washington, "We're still doing what I don't like. We're going there and telling them what to do." Now it must make good on the promise to be innovative and adaptive, even willing to change its model -- rather than simply export it -- to Africa. If not, the company will go down with every other misguided incursion in African history, something that's not lost on the Googlers themselves. "There's a difference between California and Africa," says Sexton. "You have to be a local company if you're working here."
*This sentence was updated to correct an editorial mistake in a quote.