Google sets up base in Sub-Saharan Africa

Google is moving outside of the continental comfort zones for most global investors, North and South Africa, and is opening its first operation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenya has been chosen as the base camp for what is likely to turn into a sub-regional business. It has chosen Joseph Mucheru, former CEO of Wananchi to be its Site Lead- Kenya and although he has barely got his feet under the desk, Russell Southwood spoke to him about what Google might be doing, infrastructure initiatives and Kenya’s media and communications bills.

Q: With more competitive markets in Kenya, it’s an exciting time for anyone in the telecoms and Internet markets there. So why did you leave Wananchi?

Strategically, Wananchi is going into building infrastructure. There’s no denying there’s a huge need for it but I’ve always had a passion for content and applications. In the past, I’ve always been dragged into infrastructure to support my web business.

Also this is the first time an international content player like Google has entered this market and it’s very exciting. And this is another reason I’ve chosen to work with them.

Q: So what does Google want to do?

Initially there will be three big things. Firstly, we want to optimise the use of Google applications in the region. We already have a lot of customers in the region but further development of the market is hindered by the absence of an international cable offering cheap bandwidth.

Google understands that this is an impediment and is willing to go to the extent of buying international bandwidth that locals don’t have to pay the current considerable premium they are.

The second thing they want to develop is their Maps product to make sure it has local information that is searchable and useful.

The third thing is using Google advertising in ways that can help monetize local content. Lots of people have done local content but most times it’s flopped. We hope to show that there’s a way of doing advertising that can support content. If we can do this, it will generate jobs and work.

But I should say clearly that I’ve only been with the company a week.

Q: So what’s your role?

I’ll be the Site Lead – Kenya and will lead a whole team. I’ll be involved in facilitating all the initiatives going on in the area.

The company is massive but works in small teams. So I’ll help determine what can be done and be pro-active about making it happen which means I’ll be acting in an entrepreneurial way.

Q: I hear that Google is also interested in policy issues?

Google has an interest in what’s happening in terms of policy and has a policy team and they want to have someone in every region. Their concern is to ensure that when policy is made that it benefits all of mankind. So it is willing to support someone who will participate in policy debates. So for example, here in Kenya, that person might look at the media and communications bills and Google would be able to lend its support and bring in its experience of these issues from elsewhere.

Q: So as a Kenyan what do you personally make of these two pieces of legislation?

I’ve looked at the Communications Bill and I think that there are certain things that would be disastrous, particularly for e-commerce. For example, it says that you will need to get a licence to get a sub-domain and this cuts right across existing global practice. The second thing is that the Bill says that certification authorities must have licences. In effect, it’s saying that for Verisign to be recognised it must get a licence from CCK.

Q: What issues are there with the media bill?

There’s an issue in terms of the registration and deregistration of journalists. I’m happy that’s what being suggested would work with the current Government but it would be a great deal less good under a bad Government.

Q: How will journalists be registered?

The Government will decide on the basis of qualifications and writing if an individual will get a licence to practice as a journalist. There must be a way of monitoring standards but something more like a Media Council needs to be set up to monitor the licensing. Something more like the Law Society of Kenya in relation to lawyers. This would have an independent board but the Government might have a single seat but would be equal to everybody else on that board.

Q: I understand that there are also some definitional difficulties with the legislation?

Yes, it defines broadcasting as anything that is broadcast speech like radio and moving pictures like television. Currently whether this applies to something like You Tube is very vague.

Also on a separate issue, the regulator is required to determine the content of the programming code. We can’t expect CCK to do that. We need to be able to review these issues so they don’t become monumental.


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Google sets up base in Sub-Saharan Africa