“We feel that we should be a catalyst,” Joseph Mucheru says, sitting in his office that overlooks central Nairobi. We, in this case, is, and the stout 39-year-old Kenyan heads the company’s first outpost in sub-Saharan Africa. About 5% of Africans are online, but the thinking is that as the Internet grows, so will Google.
When Mucheru opened the office last July — Google also recently arrived in South Africa and Egypt and is hiring in places such as Senegal and Nigeria — Kenya was enjoying rapid growth and political stability. The country has East Africa’s largest economy, with an industrial base and educated middle class few African countries approach. The violence following December’s presidential election caused broad distress, but it may be the least of Google’s challenges in Africa.
Google’s approach is akin to that of an NGO: It has set up a partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecom (part-owned by U.K. octopus Vodafone), that provides a free Safaricom.com email address, running on the Gmail format, complete with Google ads. (Safaricom takes a slice of the ad revenue.) Google has reached similar deals with a Kenyan university network and a Rwandan government ministry. Each aims to promote the Internet among people who aren’t regular users.
Google acknowledges that it’s in “incubation phase” in Kenya, and the results thus far are still underwhelming. By late February, only 8,600 people had registered with Safaricom.com, far less than 1% of eligible users. The postelection turmoil delayed promotional efforts. As things quiet down, though, few of Safaricom’s ubiquitous ads — on signs, billboards, stadiums, and smocks worn by teenagers who bob through traffic selling scratch-off airtime cards — mention the email opportunity.
Michael Joseph, Safaricom’s CEO, explains that the company needs to teach people to need Google. Like virtually every African country, Kenya has several times more cell phones than Internet users. People have cells because they “understand the value that a phone gives them,” Mucheru says. Despite futurists who crow about the Internet’s potential to enrich Africa, Mucheru admits that, as yet, the average person isn’t sold.
Cell phones may become Kenya’s gateway to the Internet, but the local Web currently suffers from low bandwidth and a lack of local content. Nairobi newspapers rarely offer exclusive online articles or update their Web sites during the day. Beyond hotels and plane tickets, e-commerce hardly exists. Text messages get read faster than email. In his office, Mucheru shows a YouTube clip of Kofi Annan discussing the political standoff, but almost no one else in Kenya has a connection fast enough for online video. (Mucheru also wields one of the country’s few iPhones.)
Despite all that, Google sees hope for its long-term prospects. Next year, an undersea cable is expected to link Kenya with global broadband infrastructure, probably via the United Arab Emirates. As more Africans come online, demand for targeted advertising and relevant Web sites should also expand. Mucheru cites a young population and economies that are growing after decades of stagnation. After all, a billion-person audience is one worth searching for.