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Google in Africa – Expansion into the continent with the lowest online penetration

In terms of population and land mass, Africa is the second largest continent in the world, trailing only Asia. But taking a closer look, Africa remains a continent where a billion people live and yet are using only 4% of the world’s electricity. But there is also good news for African Internet users where connectivity is given and an online culture is developing so fast: you don’t need much electricity to run a phone network. This has led to a situation where mobile phones become the new computers.

According to Intelligent Life Magazine, spring 2011, reports were indicating that 69% of mobiles in Africa will have Internet access by 2014. In 2010, Opera conducted a survey that revealed that 90% of Nigerian Internet users between the ages of 18-27 said that they use the mobile phone more than desktop or laptop computers to access the Internet. At that time, Reuters was estimating that Internet access in Nigeria was set to triple by 2013.

The African people’s interest for the mobile phone has been monitored by Google since 2009, when it decided to extend its services in Africa. At that time, Google was focusing its technological efforts on SMS in this area. Considered one of the main companies that dominate the African digital space, Google seems to be a strong presence in Africa while trying to eliminate entry barriers of price and language. It is a well-known fact that Africans still pay many times more for broadband than European countries do. Last year, Google was trying to bring the price down further by establishing data caches in Africa. Over the few last years, the global search engine focused on getting more Africans online and increased the amount of local African content. To support this initiative,

Google launched programs such as Get African Business Online (GABO), a pilot to empower the Nigerian businesses to promote their services online. Google have also seen the advantages of working with Universities across Sub-Saharan Africa to provide Internet access to African student population. According to thenextweb.com, other initiatives include Baraza, a free question and answer service for the African users, search products in local African languages, free SMS health and agricultural

tips. At the end of January 2012, Google announced a new mobile version of Google Trader, a SMS-based “marketplace” application that helps buyers and sellers from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda find each other.

One of the most interesting plans from Google was one regarding language.  Last year Denis Gikunda, Program Manager for African Languages at Google, was announcing that the search engine was offering its homepage in more than 30 African languages.  The continent counts more than 100 African languages with 1m or more speakers.  According to the reports, in 2011, Google was concentrating on the Tier One languages: Swahili, Amharic, Wolof, Hausa, Afrikaans, Zulu, and possibly Setswana and Somali (in addition to English, Arabic, French and Portuguese). In order to educate the semi-literate population, Gikunda announced in an interview on February 22nd 2011, that Google wanted to experiment with voice-activated e-mail and web search applications for African language speakers.

Allafrica.com highlighted Kenya has among the highest mobile penetration rate in Africa, at 63%. In comparison with 2009, when the African Internet users were 3 million, in the last four years their number increased to 11 million. Even if the numbers are promising and the versatility of mobile phones is changing the way millions live their lives in Africa, the mobile penetration of 60% is still the lowest in the world.

What do you expect to happen? Is Google going to accomplish its goal of a future in which all information is available in anyone’s language?