US search gi­ant makes a colour­ful splash with its vi­brant new SA-themed Joburg premises. Ferial Haf­fa­jee went along for the ride

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Google’s new of­fices in Bryanston, Joburg, are well, so Google. But I don’t see that at first. The Sil­i­con Val­ley start-up that has taken over the world has a South African pres­ence in Jozi in an an­o­dyne of­fice park. I am dis­ap­pointed – un­til I get into the in­te­rior space.

The com­pany that prides it­self on mak­ing con­ge­nial of­fices in which to work does not dis­ap­point. There is a games room cov­ered in in­door lawn, a staff can­teen serv­ing a range of healthy foods, and board­rooms named af­ter South African col­lo­qui­alisms. A real bar­ber­shop stool fills out a space made to look like an old-style male hair­dresser.

A Howzit sign made of wire greets you in the re­cep­tion area and beau­ti­ful beaded art with bril­liant Joburg graf­fiti makes this space speak of Sil­i­con Val­ley meet­ing one of Africa’s most vi­brant cities. Stand­ing desks, busy geeks and a to­tally wired en­vi­ron­ment com­plete the pic­ture.

I’m here to meet Matt Brit­tin, the pres­i­dent of Google’s oper­a­tions for Africa, Europe and the Mid­dle East, and I start by ask­ing if the map’s changed.

I once at­tended another Google ex­ec­u­tive’s pre­sen­ta­tion. He started by show­ing a global live search of where in the world peo­ple were us­ing the search en­gine. At the time, Africa was a black hole.

“Peo­ple are com­ing online at a very rapid rate. We are in a world with be­tween 2.5 bil­lion and 3 bil­lion peo­ple con­nected. By 2020, there will be 5 bil­lion con­nected,” says Brit­tin.

He adds that it’s all be­ing driven by cell­phones. This week, Google launched An­droid 1, a smart­phone that should re­tail in Africa for about $85 (R1 100). The ver­sion Brit­tin shows me is beau­ti­ful – as slick as my Ap­ple 6 and as fast as his own phone. It is so much cheaper, I al­most want to cry. Google sup­ported the de­vel­op­ment of the phone as a way of get­ting its tools into the hands of peo­ple through­out Africa who are adopt­ing mo­bile at a fan­tas­tic pace. “The An­droid 1 is an ef­fort to make mo­bile more af­ford­able by of­fer­ing the high­est-pos­si­ble qual­ity at the low­est-pos­si­ble price.”

In South Africa, Google does three key things. It gets small busi­nesses on to the web by train­ing en­trepreneurs who in­creas­ingly reach their au­di­ences through their own web­sites or so­cial media.

“The dig­i­tal econ­omy and the real econ­omy are the same place. Say­ing there’s a dig­i­tal econ­omy is like say­ing there’s an elec­tric­ity econ­omy. Ev­ery busi­ness to­day is a dig­i­tal busi­ness be­cause an in­creas­ingly large pro­por­tion of con­sumers have the in­ter­net – so it’s like ev­ery busi­ness is a click away,” says Brit­tin.

“When you think about in­ter­net com­pa­nies, you may think of Face­book, Google, Twit­ter. The real in­ter­net com­pa­nies are those that are selling things on the in­ter­net.” Google’s work with lo­cal com­pa­nies saw the in­ter­net grow by 6% in 2012.

Its sec­ond pro­gramme could change the face of a still largely pale-male advertising in­dus­try. Digify is a three­month dig­i­tal boot camp to train young black peo­ple for dig­i­tal agency jobs. Each stu­dent is given a paid in­tern­ship and the suc­cess rate has been im­pres­sive.

If min­ing and the old econ­omy in South Africa are in de­cline, then the Digify grad­u­ates are the face of the new one.

Brit­tin vis­ited Soweto, where he met a group of young peo­ple to un­der­stand how they used data. His key ob­ser­va­tion: the pro­por­tion of in­come we spend on data is much higher than in other parts of the world and the con­ti­nent. The cost has to be so low that you barely no­tice it, he says; it should also be so fast that you can do ev­ery­thing on it quickly – but we’re not there yet.

“We need it to be cheaper, with bet­ter-qual­ity ser­vices. We want to see more lo­cal ser­vices,” he says.

The third thing Google does is mar­ket South Africa. It has digi­tised the mar­vel­lous archive of Nel­son Man­dela and put Robben Is­land on Street View. In the days fol­low­ing this, most vis­its were from peo­ple out­side South Africa. The com­pany works with SA Tourism to build con­tent about Mzansi that can serve as click bait for po­ten­tial visi­tors. Travel and tourism work bril­liantly online. They are vir­tual prod­ucts. There’s a huge op­por­tu­nity for ex­port-led growth.

“We’ve been work­ing in Greece through the down­turn and re­ally helped [the tourism] sec­tor grow de­spite the hor­ri­ble con­di­tions they are fac­ing,” says Brit­tin.

In Uganda, the com­pany has gone for a dif­fer­ent ap­proach and laid 700km of ca­ble while part­ner­ing with 60% of lo­cal telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion and other com­pa­nies to get it up to the speed re­quired for that coun­try’s bur­geon­ing econ­omy. This has cre­ated a mar­ket for Google’s ser­vices, but sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives are not yet on the cards for South Africa, with its com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try ham­strung by the avail­abil­ity of spec­trum.

Google is no friend of the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, be­cause the search en­gine has eaten us for break­fast.

Jour­nal­ism is among the forms of dig­i­tal con­tent that Google has built into a $368 bil­lion em­pire, ac­cord­ing to Forbes’ val­u­a­tion of the com­pany.

Europe is at log­ger­heads with Google over an­titrust is­sues, the fate of its ven­er­a­ble pub­lish­ing in­sti­tu­tions and pri­vacy and data safety. These de­bates have not yet reached Africa, where the com­pany can more easily live up to its odd motto: Don’t be evil.

“There have been shifts in how peo­ple are find­ing in­for­ma­tion,” says Brit­tin.

And it’s no longer even by search. Seven out of eight min­utes on your phone are likely to be spent in an app.

Brit­tin’s view of re­la­tion­ships with pub­lish­ers is less harsh than the ones I of­ten read about. Google views it­self as an in­dus­try part­ner to build au­di­ences, cre­ate new rev­enues through Google Ads (which are much cheaper than tra­di­tional advertising and have cre­ated a blood­bath in tra­di­tional media com­pa­nies) and of­fer greater choice. Its an­a­lyt­ics (live mea­sure­ments of what au­di­ences read and for how long they do so) are key.

In Europe, pub­lish­ers have ne­go­ti­ated bet­ter rev­enue­shar­ing mod­els so that the cost of jour­nal­ism can be shared – no doubt that is also a de­bate that will reach our con­ti­nent in time.

“We’ve part­nered with pub­lish­ers and want there to be great in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism online,” says Brit­tin.

As con­nected au­di­ences grow in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, Google will face the same sets of checks and bal­ances it is be­ing forced to un­der­take in the north­ern hemi­sphere.

“It’s no se­cret that Euro­peans have le­git­i­mate con­cerns about the changes the web is bring­ing to their worlds. ‘What in­for­ma­tion is out there about me? Is my data se­cure? How is my data be­ing used com­mer­cially? Why

Ash­ley Madi­son


Os­car Pis­to­rius

Pe­dro Ro­driguez


Source: Google am I los­ing rev­enue and read­er­ship?’ These are re­ally good ques­tions,” Brit­tin agrees.

In Europe, the “right to be for­got­ten” by search en­gines has been en­shrined in law. This is a new­gen­er­a­tion right that a mem­ber of the public can use to force search en­gines to re­move from their re­sults any in­for­ma­tion about them that they deem harm­ful.

The only de­fence to not do­ing so is the public-in­ter­est one. From the num­ber of re­quests we re­ceive at City Press from peo­ple who want to be for­got­ten, South Africa is catch­ing up quickly to the risks of the in­ter­net.


Google makes its SA pres­ence felt in its re­cep­tion area. (Inset) Matt Brit­tin

FUNKY TOWN Bold graf­fiti sets this wall apart from your typ­i­cal of­fice back­drop

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