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Google finally takes Africa seriously

Google South Africa's premises at Golden Oak House in the Ballyoaks Office Park in Bryanston. File photo: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

Google South Africa's premises at Golden Oak House in the Ballyoaks Office Park in Bryanston. File photo: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 24, 2022

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OPINION: The tech giant also opened a Google AI research centre in Accra, Ghana to help drive useful innovations. The new product development centre is a continuation of that commitment and others should also follow, writes Wesley Diphoko.

Big Tech companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) have always treated Africa as just a storefront for their wares. This has been evident when one looks at senior appointments across these companies in the African continent.

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Most of the executives in Big Tech African offices came from advertising agencies to mainly serve as stewards of communication within this region. If that is not enough you have to look at the types of products they design.

Most of them do not factor in the fact that some of their users will be Africans. In the case of Google we’ve seen poor search results for the African continent. Artificial Intelligence (AI) agents that struggle with African names.

Google Maps products that struggle to pronounce African names. This is now about to change as Big Tech companies realise the strategic nature of the African continent. On Tuesday this week Google announced a game changing move for the African continent.

The US-based tech company announced its first product development centre in Africa, to be located in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to a statement by the tech giant, the new product development centre will help to create transformative products and services for people in Africa and around the world. Part of this means that Google will now need technical and not just communication skills from the continent.

A Google blogspot revealed the type of skills that would be required at the Kenya-based centre.

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“Alongside great technical knowledge and a passion for solving hard problems together with others, you’ll need to understand how people across the continent use their phones every day and the challenges they face,” outlined the Google blogpost.

“How might searching for information and accessing entertainment be different in a context where internet connectivity can be challenging and devices and data plans can be expensive? Perhaps you have great ideas for how we can serve relevant and useful information to users just when they need it most? Or do you have a vision for how to reimagine the entire online experience, so it’s better, easier and more individually useful, particularly for first-time smartphone users?”

This illustrates the extent to which Google will rely on this centre for its products locally and in other parts of the world. Google could not have chosen a better country to execute on this mandate.

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Kenya is one of the few countries on the continent with relevant technology skills that can deliver on Google requirements.

Google has relied on the continent to improve some of its products in the past. Some features in Gmail were tested locally. Unique aspects of the continent makes it an ideal place to develop products that can work anywhere in the world.

Google is almost adopting the view that if it works here it can work almost anywhere in the world. This is a positive development for the African continent. It will enable local businesses to develop products that can work on the Android ecosystem as well.

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It will enable tech skills to be absorbed by one of the best tech companies in the world. This is also a positive development for inclusion and diversity on the internet.

The tech world cannot continue to build tech products for only one segment of society. For the internet to be truly useful to everyone all its users should be part of building its products.

The result of this process by Google will lead to more inclusive AI systems within Google and products that take into account the existence of the African population and other communities that are less represented in Google products. Google is a significant part of the internet. When it improves the internet improves.

This move by Google should inspire other tech companies to consider moving their production parts to the African continent.

Supporting Africa’s digital transformation will require more than just Google.

In the next eight years, by 2030, Africa will have 800 million internet users and one-third of the world’s under-35 population. Google is already leading by example in this regard. In 2021 Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, announced a plan to invest $1 billion (around R15.49 billion) over the next five years in projects that would provide fast, reliable, affordable internet across the continent; build helpful, local products; and support the entrepreneurs and small businesses that underpin Africa’s economies.

The tech giant also opened a Google AI research centre in Accra, Ghana to help drive useful innovations. The new product development centre is a continuation of that commitment and others should also follow.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company SA.

** This article first appeared in the Insider on April 24.

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