Google’s interest in Africa is nothing new. During the past three years, the Internet giant has opened local offices in many African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria. Last week in the Liberian capital Monrovia, a team from the firm held a workshop called “Internet Camp Liberia”. It goes without saying that this group of experts received a warm welcome, although some might ask why Google is interested in what is one of the poorest countries in Africa, with a poor Internet penetration rate and an international connectivity that for the moment relies 100% on satellite? Isabelle Gross, who attended the workshop, explains the relationship between the ICT laggard and the firm at the forefront of Internet-driven applications.
Last Thursday, a group of Internet specialists from Google gathered at Monrovia City Hall to organise a two-day workshop entitled Internet Camp Liberia. The atmosphere was very welcoming, with an audience mainly consisting of students, ICT specialists, and NGO representatives. Given that more than 90% of participants were male, it is worth asking why there were there so few women? Is it that the fairer sex have a general lack of interest in such things, or rather that more Liberian men have more day-to-day contact with ICT, and have therefore been bitten by the technology bug more quickly?
Workshop participants were also very young, with a majority of people under the age of thirty. Faced with an audience that showed interest in particular services and products, the dynamic Google team proved itself very flexible in respect of the subjects covered during the two days. It was also clear that both attendees and organisers expected to gain something from the experience, in that Google seemed anxious to better understand its audience and their needs.
According to the workshop programme, Google’s core mission is “to organise all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. In this spirit, (it) will provide training on localised and global tools to spur economic development and entrepreneur opportunities for educators, businesses, and NGOs in Liberia”. However laudable this objective may be, it is clear that Google’s broader purpose in Liberia to promote its range of applications, including its email service Gmail, and its online atlas, Google Maps. During Google’s presentation of Gmail, the audience asked many questions about how the service works – something which is hardly surprising given that the vast majority of Liberian Internet surfers are more used to the email accounts offered by Google’s competitor Yahoo!
Although the Google presenters at the workshop gave a lot of information about Google Maps and demonstrated how to use the application, at present its functionality as in terms of Liberia is rather limited. The map of the national road network, for instance, only contains some of the roads that actually exist in Liberia. My own personal experience also demonstrates that Google’s map of Monrovia only corresponds very roughly with what one finds on the ground. While attempting to find my way across the nation’s capital on foot for the first time with a printout, I had to cope with many inconsistencies and errors relating to street names, and the locations of monuments or useful buildings such as embassies or banks.
However, thanks to the Liberia Institute of Statistic and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), Google will soon put its house in order in terms of the national road network. The road system shown on this new map is a lot denser than that in the version that is currently online. Google is also encouraging Government departments such as the Health and Education ministries to make public the national networks of hospitals and schools, since this information will allow Google to make its maps more useful. The future will see Google Maps become a genuinely collaborative project, with each user able to submit information and photos that will enrich the whole experience of using the tool.
Unlike many other IT firms, which seem to simply present their products and services to their African audience and then pack their bags, Google has organised an interactive workshop dedicated to the commercial opportunities that the Internet can open up. The audience was invited to reflect on the subject and to formulate ideas for economically viable local development projects based on the Internet. Ideas put forward included domain name registration, Internet access for research and communication, and a phone directory service. The audience was divided into small workgroups and asked to calculate the potential turnover that could be generated by each of these activities. Estimates put forward by participants put the weekly turnover generated per person at anywhere between 40 and 750 US dollars, with an average of around 313 dollars per week. We will obviously have to wait a while before the Internet makes billionaires out of tech-savvy Liberian citizens!
If Google really wants to make its mark in Liberia, it will first need to build a long-term strategic presence to serve as a sound foundation for its activities in the country. The two civil wars not only destroyed Liberia’s infrastructure, including its telephone network, but also deprived a whole generation of regular access to basic education. Plainly the ability to surf the Internet is conditional on knowing how to read and write. And even literate Liberian web-surfers can be put off by hopelessly slow connection speeds. For instance, it is impossible to watch videos online if they constantly freeze because buffering is so slow. It will only be in mid-2012 that the submarine cable ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) will finally bring Liberia the fibre optic connection speeds that it so desperately needs.
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