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As the biggest brand in the world of technology, how Google operates in Africa will affect the ecosystems of the countries it is active in. The Future By Design speaks to Google’s Luke Mckend about how the mega-brand thinks about the future of Africa and its future in Africa.Google is massive — it has a market capitalisation of some US$372.1-billion and operates in 100 languages from 70 offices in some 50 territories across the globe. But while size offers advantage, in Europe scale is a challenge for the technology giant. In Europe, Reuters reports, Google is facing an antitrust case based on 19 different complainants.
Its very size means that Google will have a significant impact in the regions it operates in. For a brand this massive it becomes increasingly critical to weigh up how it operates and impacts the globe’s regional economies.
“At Google we look at the world through the lens of some of the things that Google is really good at,” says Luke Mckend, country director at Google South Africa, explaining how the global technology looks at how it impacts the environments it operates in. “A truism,” says Mckend, “is that Google and a lot of other organisations thrive in the environment where the internet is ubiquitous.”
“We look at emerging markets as places where further access to the internet can actually create opportunities for all people to have a greater degree of well-being in general,” Mckend says.
Internet access in Africa is growing. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, ranks 10th in the world on the list of the world’s top internet users. In South Africa, the internet is becoming a major contributor to the economy. A study by World Wide Worx revealed that the internet economy contributes up to R59-billion (or 2%) to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), and this could grow to R79-billion (2.5%) by 2016.
But in Africa, access is hampered by lack of infrastructure and cost. Overall, internet penetration in Africa averages 25%, compared with the rest of the world, which is 45.2%, according to Internet World Statistics and Miniwatts Marketing Group.
Challenge and opportunity
For Google, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. “Trying to make sure that more people are connected to the internet, with the right device, at the right price, at the right bandwidth, is a very important component of what we’re doing,” explains Mckend.
A study commissioned by Google found a clear correlation between economic growth and the quality and degree of access in country. “So the more connectivity in a country, the better it is for virtually everyone in one way or another,” says Mckend, adding: “There is a direct correlation between how many people are employed in the economy and connectivity available to small business; and it should really be driving more of our policy decisions, I think, from a government point of view.”
If pervasive access provides Google with the customers, it also stimulates the economy; by promoting access, Google offers its brand sustainable benefit, and the environments it operates in benefit too. It’s a classic ‘win-win’.
Connecting the continent
In Uganda, where there is little broadband available, Google has stepped in to assist, by undertaking to lay fibre optic cable in Kampala. “The idea is that by making that fibre available to operators, they can share the cost of that infrastructure amongst themselves. So in the process, passing on the cheaper parts to the consumer from a connectivity point of view,” says Mckend.
The project, called Link, will connect the city to long distance fibre lines that provide next generation bandwidth at an affordable cost. Google expects this to improve the lives of most Kampalans, opening up education and business opportunities.
More ambitious and far-reaching is ‘Project Loon’. The idea here is to create a network of high-altitude balloons that provide wireless connectivity to people on the ground, without the need to lay cables or build towers.
Project Loon, which was launched in 2013, has been in testing around the world, including various locations in Africa. The balloons are not static, but move on the stratospheric air currents, twice as high as the flight path of jetliners.
What is a brand’s best means of helping to positively affect a country’s future outcomes? Most employers point to education as a key issue: many businesses are finding it hard to recruit competent, trainable employees.
Education researcher and academic Nic Spaull has estimated that, of the 24,000 government schools in the country, 20,000 are “dysfunctional”. The statistics bear this out: only 5% of children entering one of these poorer schools in Grade 1 will make it to tertiary education. More than half will drop out before reaching Matric, and the vast majority will be functionally illiterate and innumerate at the end of their schooling.
A couple of years ago the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town compiled a paper called “The Policies for Reducing Income Inequality and Poverty in South Africa”. In it the authors drew a direct correlation between education and poverty. “Education plays an important role in predicting an individual’s position in the income distribution,” the paper reads. “Education is the key variable in determining a) whether an individual finds a job in the first place and b) the nature of the employment and the level of remuneration.”
Breaking the cycle
Civic programmes, like Partners for Possibility, have shown that a little input on the part of parents and teachers, with support from business leaders, can go a long way in improving grade levels and pass rates at schools in poorer areas. By teaming up a business leader with a school principal, basic leadership and problem-solving skills are passed on, and once dysfunctional or ‘borderline’ schools start showing vastly improved progress.
There are numerous studies showing that, in countries where fast internet is made accessible to learners and teachers, the overall quality of education improves.
Mckend says, “I think… you will appreciate that if we connect more schools and more universities directly to the internet, we know that some of the problems we are having distributing educational content, they may not disappear, but it will certainly be much more easy to get that into the hands of teachers and learners.”
This type of connectivity gives students access to Google tools that are available for free online. This includes a suite of cloud apps, known as Google Apps for Education. These are essentially the same apps used by ‘normal’ Google users, like Drive, Sheets and Docs, that enable students to collaborate and share information.
Smart tools = smart kids
In addition, Google has developed an app called Classroom, that teachers can use to communicate with students, and organise other aspects of their teaching lives. Mckend says that over 700 schools in South Africa have signed up so far. “If we can get more of these tools in the hands of the schools that are already connected I think we can really make a difference to the way that teachers are approaching what they do,” says Mckend, adding: “We can also make a massive difference in the lives of the learners.”
The future is clear for mega brands that operate in Africa. In order to open up and realise the potential of the continent, brands will need to think innovatively about their impacts in the long term. Success for giants like Google on the continent, means enabling the success of Africa.