How Google is building its brand in Sub-Saharan Africa

From helping thousands of Kenyan businesses to build their own websites to launching Uganda’s own local version of YouTube, internet search giant Google has ramped up its operations significantly in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past four years.

In a continent where internet penetration is still low, estimated at less than 15%, but rapidly growing, the company seems to be on a mission to get more Africans online and to offer users relevant local content. Google has opened offices in a number of Sub-Saharan African cities, including Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Dakar (Senegal) and Lagos (Nigeria).

In Kenya, Google’s Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO) initiative gives small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) the tools to build their own websites for free. Over 11,000 businesses have already created their own websites since the launch of the programme in September this year. “It’s fantastic to see such an enthusiastic response from local businesses that are eager to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet. We really believe that the power of the internet will help them to grow their businesses and give them access to the global village,” commented Olga Arara-Kimani, Google Kenya country manager.

Google Trader, a free classifieds service that allows users to buy and sell products and search for jobs, has been launched in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana. Users without internet access can also post items and search for deals by sending an SMS to a special short code. The launch of Google Trader in Ghana was announced with five flash mobs (a group of people who suddenly assemble in a public space, perform a certain act, and then disperse) across the capital Accra. See the video below:

In the area of internet search, Google has launched local domains for many African countries, including more remote territories such as Somalia, Madagascar and Central African Republic. “For many, the first things that come to mind when thinking about Somalia are corruption, failed state, pirates, and in some cases, poetry and music. Little is said about the incredible demand for telecommunication services and internet access in Somalia and throughout the diaspora,” said the company in a statement.

Other products and initiatives introduced over past few years include:

  • Google Baraza (which means “taskforce” or “council” in Swahili) allows people in countries across the continent to share knowledge with each other by asking questions and posting answers.
  • The Google Maps service now includes numerous African countries. The maps feature a substantial volume of content developed by Africans themselves using the MapMaker tool, which allows users to create or edit map data by drawing and labelling roads, or adding points of interest such as schools, buildings, local businesses, national parks, and trails and safaris.
  • YouTube is now available in Swahili (spoken in East Africa), Amharic (Ethiopia) as well as Zulu and Afrikaans (both South Africa). For Ethiopian users, Google has even launched a virtual Amharic keyboard to search for and upload videos containing Ethiopic text, eliminating a real barrier to broadcasting themselves. Local YouTube domains have also been developed for Uganda and South Africa.
  • When Nigerians went to the polling booths earlier this year, Google put together a special online election information portal.
  • Google has even produced a paper on ideas for boosting internet capacity in Liberia, a country with one of the lowest volumes of web traffic in the world.

It is interesting to note that many of these products are offered free of charge and most of them don’t carry any advertising. Google makes the vast majority of its profits through its AdWords programme, which allows companies and organisations to place advertisements next to search results as well as on independent partner websites. The sister service, AdSense, allows website owners to display these advertisements on their websites, and earn money every time ads are clicked.

In a sign that Google is looking to boost advertising revenues on the continent, the company has announced an arrangement with money transfer company Western Union, that enables website owners in a number of African countries to receive AdSense payments directly from a Western Union branch instead of waiting for a cheque.

Matthew Buckland, publisher of emerging markets technology website Memeburn, says Google is taking a long-term view on Africa, and that products such as Trader and Baraza have been developed to build the company’s brand on the continent. “Google sees Africa as a strategic continent for the future. I don’t think Google’s plans are to extract revenues in the short-term. There are much more long-term strategic objectives. The first step is to crack the market and then I think advertising will follow. The objective of Google is to build a business, build a profile [and] test the waters. Africa has got a billion people. I think there is huge potential for the African continent, which is what Google sees . . .” he explains.