The next billion The American tech giant is using training programmes to reel in new African internauts
Google knows the power of round numbers: as the American tech pioneer marks 10 years in Africa it also hit 1 million participants in its Digital Skills for Africa programme. The Africa Report examines why training is a key strategy for reeling in new continental internauts
Outside a community centre just south of Nairobi, groups of young Kenyans gather around speakers blasting Bongo music as they chat and check their phones. About 120 unemployed twenty-somethings, many of them university graduates, are waiting to begin a training session sponsored by Google. “We’re teaching them how to use Google products and how to build their online presence,” says Ted Odera, 25, a digital skills trainer. “Some of the students want to build a brand, others want to get a job,” he says. Odera estimates that he has trained about 8,000 students in the past year. John Mwangi, 24, an unemployed graduate from Kiserian, a town 30km from Nairobi, says he received a text message urging him to go to the training because he could earn up to $200 a day doing online jobs. “In Kenya, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector is growing,” he says. “I want to get a job.” Google’ s parent company Alphabet, which raked in $90.3bn in revenue last year, sponsored this training session as part of its strategy to expand the company’s presence on the continent. It has set an ambitious target to attract one billion new internet users by 2020, and the race is on to hook new internauts on Google’s services, which include email, messaging and web searches. Sub-saharan Africa is one of the regions most ripe for attracting new users. Google estimates
there will be 500 million internet users in Africa by 2020. The race is on to capture as many of these new users as possible. Digital training programmes, a crucial part of Google’s strategy, help to fix the continent’s “basic digital literacy problem”, according to Luke Mckend, Google’s country director for South Africa. The vast majority of African internet users are using smartphones, meaning they may not be getting as much from the internet as they could be.
BUILDING AN ECOSYSTEM
The company’s push to enter emerging markets reflects increasing competition with other tech giants, such as Facebook (see TAR85, Nov. 2016). Facebook has partnered with hardware manufacturers Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Mediatek and software company Opera to roll out its programme, Internet.org, which allows users in developing countries to access a handful of websites from their phones at no data charge, via the Free Basics app. So far the programme has attracted 40 million users. Google says it is not worried. “We believe that a stronger internet with more players is good for us. It’s good for growth in jobs in Africa, and a strong ecosystem is good for Google’s business,” says Caroline Atkinson, Google’s head of global policy. “Our strategy to make money in Africa is the same as our strategy anywhere.” Google has dominated the websearch business in many parts of the world. The company’s Gmail service has more than 1 billion active monthly users. In the US, more than 34bn Google searches are carried out across all platforms every month, according to figures from the company. But growth is starting to plateau. As Google solidifies its presence in established markets, it is looking for new opportunities elsewhere. While Google is estimated to control about 75% of the US market for web searches, it controls just 10% in China, where competitor Baidu is popular. Analysts agree that the time has come for Google to look to emerging markets. “Given how high internet penetration and availability are now in mature markets, Google’s main focus, obviously, has to be emerging markets,” says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. “For both Google and Facebook, the priority at this point is saying: ‘Well how can we get more people online and what’s the best way to do that? And ideally, what’s the best way to do it in such a way that those people end up using our services as well at the end of the day?” Google’s strategy to attract new African users is centred around training young people, building new infrastructure and tr ying to lower the cost of entry-level smartphones. With hubs in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, Google is in the process of training 1 million young people to use its products.
It will also lay thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable and form partnerships with telecoms companies to help drive down the cost of entry-level smartphones, Google executives say. Mckend underscores the importance of advertising in the company’s strategy on the continent : “Our biggest source of revenue is largely advertising,” he says. “If you run a search for car insurance in South Africa, we will try and assess your intent by looking at the actual term that you used. If you are a logged-in user we might look at the searches that you’ve conducted previously and we will use all of those signals to deliver an appropriate result, whether it’s an ad or whether it’s an organic result [a non-paid-for result that appears because of its relevance to search terms]. That’s exactly the same way that Google works everywhere else in the world.”
The company sees huge opportunities to ride the waves made by Africa’s mobile revolution. “If you look at our next billion user initiative, which is largely focused on Asia and India, I think one of the most interesting things for us to think about is how we’re going to address an entirely new swathe of users who are mobile first […] and how do we address the use case [how systems connect actor to goal] for that kind of user in emerging markets,” says Mckend. “And those emerging markets are largely Africa, Asia, India, to some extent Brazil, some South America,” he adds. An estimated 90% of Africa’s internet users are on mobile, according to Google. But just 12% of Africans have access to a smartphone, compared to 57% of Americans, according to the company. That makes driving down the cost of smartphones crucial to the company’s strategy to grow the number of users on the continent. Google’s recent battles with tax authorities in Europe will be cause for concern for many African governments. In the UK, politicians have called for the company to pay its “fair share” of corporate tax after it was sharply criticised for paying just $47m in taxes on sales of $7.7bn. A Google spokesman said: “As an international business, we pay the majority of our taxes in our home country, as well as all the taxes due in the UK.” Analysts say governments in emerging markets will be watching this saga closely. “African countries are starting to scrutinise the financial operations of major players with much greater intensity, particularly in telecom and connectivity sectors,” says research analyst Jon Tullett. “I haven’t seen any action directed against Google yet, but the company is certainly watching the movements of regulatory bodies very closely.”
TRADING PRIVACY FOR JOBS
Another sticking point for many is the issue of online privacy. Google insists that user data is anonymised and kept safe from prying eyes, but a series of recent high-profile data breaches have thrown online security and privacy into the spotlight. “Privacy is obviously a huge issue with any ad-based business, […] the idea that Google is keeping track of all your activities across its different services and building a profile on you which is then used to sell you advertising,” says Dawson, the analyst. “There’s obviously a lot of concern about that in certain quarters – at least certainly in Europe, [where] they tend to be more concerned about privacy things than here in the US.” But governments also want ICT sector jobs, and some are teaming up with Google to carry out training programmes. “We are partnering with Google in creating awareness about online jobs,” says Haron Kertich, an ICT officer at Kenya’s ministry of public service, youth and gender affairs. The government is trying to boost the number of workers in the online sector to 1 million, up from its current level of 40,000. Back outside the community centre in Kajiado, Mwangi, the student, says he appreciates the training that Google has given him. But he sees through their strategy. “For them, it’s business,” he says. “It’s all about having more users.”