In an interview with ITNewsAfrica, Brett StClair, Head of Mobile, Google South Africa, talks about the evolution of mobile media in Africa and the exciting times ahead for Google on the continent.
ITNewsAfrica.com: What are the most recent developments in mobile media on the African continent?
Brett StClair: The mobile Internet continues to see strong growth across Africa, with over 5 billion mobile Internet ads shown every month (MMA South Africa). AdMob in Africa saw an 81% growth in traffic in 2010, with three countries – Nigeria (21%), South Africa (21%) and Egypt (12%) – accounting for more than half of Admob’ ad requests from Africa in December 2010 (see Blog post).
We are seeing some interesting trends with low cost Android smartphones entering the market, such as the Ideos from Huawei which retails at $100 in Kenya, DRC, Uganda, and other countries. This is one of the first low cost smartphones to hit the market, so we are expecting to see an explosion as Chinese handset manufacturers and South African handset manufacturers like Mifone ramp up efforts around lower cost Android handsets.
ITNewsAfrica.com: In your opinion, how is mobile media evolving in Africa?
Brett StClair: Well, off the back of mobile Internet and low cost smartphones, we are starting to see an increase in mobile video. This is very much driven by the pricing of data in each country in Africa — the lower the pricing the more the data. As for social, the trend we are seeing includes many niche social networks like Peperonity, Jamble (Local SA), Motribe (Local SA) and of course Facebook and Mxit. These social platforms are a cost effective way of communicating with your friends and peers across Africa.
ITNewsAfrica.com: Google made available a free SMS service via Gmail in eight African countries. What other similar services are now available to Africans?
Brett StClair: Gmail SMS is a great platform for both users and mobile operators. What is great about the service is that it provides internet-like services to more ubiquitous technologies like SMS, which have a reach across 500 million African mobile subscribers. These sorts of services are an important stepping stone to diverse services on the mobile Web, helping consumers understand what’s possible, and showing why smartphones are so useful and relevant. We offer SMS services across a number of our products, for example, SMS Search (using SMS to search for services and content), and Google Trader, which is a classified platform to allow consumers in Ghana to trade goods on phones, therefore creating business via mobile.
ITNewsAfrica.com: In a recent article published in The Africa Report, “Is Google good for Africa”, one of Google’s VPs for the region speaks about the lack of information in Africa. How would you comment this statement?
Brett StClair: Our VP Carlo D’Asaro Biondo’s statement referred to the fact that Africa has only one web domain for every 10,000 people, versus a global average of 94 domains for every 10,000 people. In other words, information that is important and valuable to Africans is not yet available online. At Google we want to help create and enable more African content online. For example, we are launching Google products in many African languages, including the wide-reaching Swahili, Amharic, Zulu, Afrikaans and more. We launched MapMaker across the continent so that anyone can map their local roads, village, hospitals or schools. Great recent examples include mapping health locations in Korogocho in Nairobi and mapping new parts of South Sudan. These efforts and many more will help bring information online, and make the web more useful and relevant to Africans. And of course, before long they will be accessing this info on their mobile phones.
ITNewsAfrica.com: What are Africa’s main challenges in achieving 100% mobile access?
Brett StClair: A key challenge is that internet access, data and devices are too expensive. African users will benefit from an open and more competitive access market with lower prices. It’s important to deliver information, products and the internet affordably to the majority. Low cost Android handsets are a great way to drive this last mile of mobile data access at an affordable rate. Because Africa is a prepaid market, the winning solution is to offer mobile data bundles sold as prepaid top-ups. Safaricom in Kenya is already seeing the benefit of such pricing strategies. Once subscribers are browsing the mobile Internet, we need to ensure that local businesses are providing locally-relevant online information, and that our Google services are also available in local languages. For example, local football and music news is likely to be more important African consumers than, say, FOX news.
ITNewsAfrica.com: In March this year Google launched technology incubator Umbono in Cape Town, South Africa. What is the incubator’s mission and how is this in line with Google’s strategy beyond 2011?
Brett StClair: Umbono is an early-stage tech incubator. The purpose of this program is to encourage those with a good idea and a computer science or programming background to innovate and create a business. We anticipate several teams of entrepreneurs to be in the 6-month Umbono program at any given time. Participating tech entrepreneurs will receive seed capital, access to business skills training and mentorship (through the Google network and from South African tech and business mentors), as well as infrastructure support (office space and bandwidth) while in the program. Umbono aims to bring together all the elements necessary for tech start-ups to trial their ideas and ultimately attract additional rounds of outside investment to grow their businesses. Google’s objective is to help develop a vibrant, sustainable internet ecosystem in Africa; supporting initiatives like Umbono with not just funding, but also through our engaged involvement with South African developers and their businesses, will help do just that.
ITNewsAfrica.com: What are Google’s main focus areas for 2012 on the continent?
Brett StClair: Google is serious about Africa, and excited to be involved and investing here. We want to get more users online by developing an accessible, relevant, vibrant and self-sufficient internet environment. We are working to improve the user experience, including latency, for both Google products and Internet services in general. Google also wants to make the Internet relevant and useful to local people, for example by creating and enabling more African content online, and developing products that are in local languages. And, in all the countries where we work, we are helping to strengthen the developer community in Africa (through our G-days and GTUG groups) and collaborate with the academic/university communities.
Denisa Oosthuizen, Senior Reporter, ITNewsAfrica.com