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How Google plans to turn Africa into a digital hub

Oct 11 2016 11:46
Jana Jacobs
Luke Mckend is country director for Google South A

Luke Mckend is country director for Google South Africa. (Picture: Supplied)

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Google’s plan in Africa is a holistic one, whereby they want to ensure a positive impact in SA and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This is according to Google SA country director Luke Mckend. 

“And we’re committed for the long term. The scale of the investment and the way we are approaching it is really from end to end. From infrastructure, to skills, to business development,” says Mckend.

Speaking to Mckend, it quickly becomes evident that Google SA has been very busy and has spearheaded a number of projects and initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa with the view to improving internet infrastructure, and supporting business in the region when it comes to engaging with the internet and the massive opportunity this presents. 

“We want to work with small businesses in particular. There is no doubt that in Africa small businesses make up the majority of most economies, so they’re a real driver of economic growth. If you can work with them and provide them with the tools to help them engage with the internet, reach more customers, become more efficient and do all the sorts of things that businesses do in mature internet economies, then definitely we can grow,” explains Mckend.

However, before delving into the possibility of engaging with small business on the continent, Mckend says that one of the fundamental challenges still facing Africa is the issue of access to internet. 

“It’s all good and well saying ‘let’s support the businesses’ – and we will continue to do that – but I still think there’s a job to be done in terms of making sure that every consumer in Africa has the kind of internet experience that actually makes sense for them. This doesn’t necessarily mean everybody has to have 4G, or that everybody needs to have fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), but what it does mean is that there needs to be a connection and that when that connection is made, [consumers] are able to access a service or content that is actually relevant to them.”  

What makes solving this fundamental issue complex is the fact that the relevance of a business and the relevance of the internet in engaging with consumers are closely linked.

Says Mckend: “If you, for instance, can’t access a plumber in Lagos online, then perhaps the internet is irrelevant to you when you have that plumbing problem. So small business plays a very important part in making the internet relevant to consumers, and those two things go hand in hand. But once again, if a small business doesn’t have an audience to talk to, the internet is irrelevant for them.” 

Both sides of this equation have to be solved and Google SA is very focused on both, but, says Mckend, “I think solving for consumers and solving for users is as important, if not more so at this point in time, than it is for solving the commercial conundrums that we face.”

Getting Africa connected

It goes without saying that access to internet is key to attempting to solve this equation.

And Google has been involved in a couple of projects in Africa as part of the drive to improve access to internet.  

One of these, which Mckend feels is particularly important, is Project Link. 

“What we’ve done in Uganda is we’ve actually laid a fibre ring (of around 800km) around Kampala. The idea was to create a shared-infrastructure resource so that we can then lease capacity back to the operators. And that’s important because in the past all the operators would compete with each other to lay the basic fundamentals. They would lay fibre themselves and as a result you [basically] had people competing to dig trenches,” explains Mckend.

This was inefficient and expensive – with these costs being passed back to users. The shared-infrastructure model that Google is creating in certain urban areas in Africa can become a driver for reduced cost because of the fact that capacity can be leased to multiple operators and to multiple commercial users. Decreased price then creates more access opportunities. 

Project Link is live in Uganda, with the next phase of the project currently under way in Ghana, primarily in Accra. 

As for expanding this project to other African countries? 

“As you can imagine, there are many countries on the continent that could benefit from this kind of solution. We always look for two or three different things, and for a willing partner,” says Mckend, “and we look at where the need is greatest.”

Based on this, Google will be putting together a list of priority countries. 

This type of initiative that Google has undertaken is “really about bringing sophisticated internet to urban areas”, says Mckend. Of course, doing the same in less densely populated, rural areas is not always as practical or feasible. Laying fibre here is not always an option due to geographical limitations such as distance and terrain that is often inhospitable. So “you need to do things differently”, says Mckend. 

In this regard, Google has already run experiments with TV White Space in SA, he explains. The concept of TV White Space is to utilise unused television spectrum to provide broadband internet access. “In 2012 already we ran a TV White Space trial based in Cape Town. We proved that it was entirely possible in South Africa. Of course, now we wait for the regulators…”

Finding the solutions

In order for innovative technology like this to progress, there are several hurdles to overcome, says Mckend, one of which is technical. “We’ve solved the technical problem – I think we’ve proven that. That was the point of the trial – to show that it could be done.”

Another hurdle is regulatory – where Google tries to work with the regulators to provide guidance as to how solutions could be implemented, but ultimately can’t control the outcome.  

Finally, funding also proves difficult. “Is there a business model? And if there isn’t one with which you will be able to generate end-user funds from, who is going to pay?”

Mckend views this last issue as quite interesting because it can’t be solved unless there is regulation in place – so it presents as a “cart-before-the-horse problem”.

Despite these hurdles, Google continues to push for solutions.

Project Loon, for example, has also tried to provide internet access to remote areas via modified, free-floating weather balloons. These balloons fly in jet streams at about twice the height of a commercial airliner, all within line of sight of one another. 

“The idea is that when they float over a land mass, an internet signal is beamed to a particular balloon and that signal is then distributed between the balloons. The internet can be distributed within a 40km radius beneath each balloon via an LTE signal,” explains Mckend. 

This cutting-edge technology, which has the potential to connect many more people, has not come without technical difficulties that Google has had to resolve. But Project Loon has been trialled in New Zealand and they are conducting a commercial trial in the East, says Mckend. 

“The whole mission of Google is to make sure that everybody on the planet has access to information, and that that information is effectively universally accessible. And these sorts of projects are designed to make that vision much more of a reality.”

Developing the skills

Solving for access is important, but what also needs attention is making sure that people have the skills with which to utilise that access optimally.

“You can’t produce relevant information or build relevant businesses if people don’t have skills,” says Mckend.

Google has undertaken an ambitious commitment to train 1m young people in the digital space in Africa, focusing on SA, Nigeria and Kenya. These countries were chosen as Google already has a presence there, and the existing level of internet infrastructure in these countries makes this kind of training slightly more meaningful at this stage, according to Mckend.

“The intention was to conduct a proportion of the training face-to-face through mass training interventions. We have partners at the moment and are seeking out new partners to help us do that. At the same time some of that will also be delivered online.”

The programme aims to help these young people develop digital techniques and understand what the internet could mean for them, and as such how to engage with it effectively. 

“If we can ignite some interest in how the internet works on a personal level, we’re hoping this will transfer all the way through to business, and then offering more particular online training to, for example, small businesses that want to know how to advertise and create a website.”

The training commenced in March and, at present, over 200 000 people have been reached.

Google is also spending a lot of time with developers. “If you don’t have a quality cadre of developers to build websites, develop new technology, come up with fantastic technical solutions for solving problems, you are not going to win.”

For this reason, they have spent time supporting developers throughout Africa by providing skills, mentoring, and in some cases funding for developers that want to start small businesses. 

Mckend believes this to be extremely important and his advice to large business in SA is to really focus on the technical skills segment. Think about it: “WhatsApp, Google and Facebook were all started by engineers.”

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 6 October edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.  

google  |  internet  |  uganda  |  fibre  |  tech

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