by Chris Waldburger

REVVING UP AFRICA'S DIGITAL ECONOMY

Google and the quest to connect a continent

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Google SA Director, Luke Mckend, is on a mission to provide a service to South Africa and the rest of Africa that is not only profitable for Google but profitable for a growing sector of a continental economy requiring big data and big connections.

Google is a business phenomenon. Whispers now abound of Google searching for a repeat of its search engine revolution in other spheres, with moon-shot projects like driverless cars, solar Wi-Fi drones and giant leaps in extending human lifespans via nanobots.

In South Africa, under the auspices of its National Director, Luke Mckend, Google is looking to kick-start another type of revolution—an information revolution in how developing economies do business…

Like so many other tech leaders, Mckend’s professional journey began by simply having fun, learning code, playing games and trying to work out how to stretch one’s ability to speak the language of programming and computing.

“Everything started with the gift of a ZX Spectrum 48K home computer somewhere in the ‘80s. Spending long hours learning BASIC and copying code from computer magazines to make games was the perfect preparation for the advent of the Internet much later,” he says.

It was gaming which would kick-start his career in online recruitment.

“Having spent a few months at one of the very early online gaming start-ups in Cape Town in the late-‘90s, I moved to London, where I ended up working for TMP Worldwide in recruitment advertising (TMP is a global player in providing digital communication for online talent search).

“This was an area that was being transformed overnight by the Internet and I spent time designing websites and consulting with clients around their early online recruitment experiences. I joined a recruitment technology start-up soon after in 2002 as Commercial Director, which we grew to around 40 people, selling in 2005,” Mckend explains.

After cutting his teeth in gaming and recruitment—two early shifts provided by the Internet experience—Mckend then found himself in sales at the biggest Internet player of them all, Google.

“After working for the acquiring company, I joined Google in 2007 to run their Classifieds and Fast Food accounts in the UK. I moved back to SA in 2011 to run the SA business, which has grown from strength to strength,” he says.

Google in Africa

Google has begun to make a big play in Africa, with a strong anchor in its southern tip already.

For Mckend, this goal is just as important in a developing context as in a late-stage digital economy.

“Google’s mission is to make products that are useful, fast and free, and to make it easy for everyone to be online. In Africa, this is as relevant as in the US. We want to make information more accessible and we work with users, organisations and businesses, in partnership, to do that,” he says.

Over and above providing the Internet’s premium search engine, Google is looking to stoke a new digital approach to business and society in general, throughout the continent.

“Recently, we announced the extension of our Digital Skills for Africa programme that saw us train one million young Africans between April 2016 and March 2017, in partnership with African training organisations and governments. We’re now targeting 10 million individuals over the next five years.

“In June, we announced our partnership in a programme that aims to train African journalists on mobile skills, data visualisation, data verification and other essential digital journalism skills. The programme is being run in partnership with Code for Africa and the World Bank and will see 6 000 journalists trained by early next year,” Mckend enthuses.

But, in line with the global trend of social entrepreneurialism, as opposed to mere aid projects, all this work is not simply about development goals but equally about providing commensurate commercial opportunities.

“Commercially, the Internet offers African businesses unprecedented opportunities to grow and develop their markets and we work with them to achieve that, whether it is through free initiatives like Google My Business, which helps small businesses manage their business’ listing on Search and Maps, create a free website and engage with customers, and tools like Gmail, or through the business-oriented Google for Business and Adwords offerings,” he says.

One of Google’s most high-profile acquisitions, the video-sharing giant, YouTube, is also a big part of the strategy to help make African business more connective and responsive to markets and product development.

“Through YouTube, Google is enabling Africans to create content that resonates with them in their own languages and publish it to their communities, countries and the globe, as well as make a career out of it. We held the first sub-Saharan African YouTube Awards last year, celebrating creators from the African countries where channel monetisation is enabled. In South Africa, one of our channels just reached one million subscribers,” he says.

At the moment, Google has an executive presence in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, and will look to expand as African businesspeople ride the wave of increased online connection and online-leveraged commercial endeavours.

African development as an opportunity rather than an obstacle

In this sense, a company like Google is even more relevant to a developing country in some ways than a developed economy—the undertaking of going live online, with all the new opportunities a fresh African context and market offers, represents one of the great adventures for all the big tech companies looking to become truly global.

Mckend explains, “Google’s role and mission are just as applicable, if not more so, to developing economies because the benefits that Internet access and tools can provide are still largely unrealised.

“Of course, access has to come first and we’re also involved in initiatives to help increase Internet access in Africa so that more people can benefit from the Internet, as quickly as possible—like Project Link, which has rolled out metro fibre networks in Uganda and Ghana. More than half of the world’s 7 billion people are online but not all of them have good connections—we want to help improve their experience, as well as get the other half connected.”

As this attempt to roll out mass connectivity occurs, interim strategies to provide tailored online products for unsteady bandwidth are being pioneered—again, with Google at the forefront.

“Google is also rolling out products tailored specifically for low-bandwidth environments—like YouTube Go, which just launched in Nigeria. YouTube Go is an app purpose-designed for places like India, Nigeria and South Africa where bandwidth is slow or unstable or expensive or all of the above.

“YouTube has also become a showcase for emerging market talent, with many African creators and entertainers attracting large global followings. A few weeks ago, we launched Web Lite across Africa—with Web Lite, when you search on Google with a low RAM device via the Google App, Chrome or Android browser, web pages that you access from Google’s search results page will be optimised to load faster and use less data. This feature has been available in Indonesia, India, Brazil and Nigeria, and analyses show that these optimised pages load three times faster and use 80% less data,” Mckend says.

Small is beautiful

By now, it is a truism that South African markets, like other developing economies, cannot simply rely on massive capital-intensive projects headlined by multinationals and governments. Instead, what is required to alleviate unemployment is a surge of start-ups that can provide the impetus for a grassroots reindustrialisation and digitalisation of stagnant economies.

Mckend believes that going online can make such a dream happen. “We also know that small businesses that adopt digital technologies tend to be more profitable and employ more people than those that don’t.

Google offers many tools to businesses that can help them to grow, whether it be marketing to new audiences—potentially exporting services or products—or adopting cloud-based services that help them collaborate and be more efficient. “Using these tools can help businesses in emerging economies compete effectively with their often better-resourced counterparts in mature Internet economies,” he says.

The leadership effect

It seems as though this desire to be a catalyst is engrained in Mckend’s vision as a leader, and it is an idea he seeks to embed within his own managerial style, which comes across as collaborative and aspirational.

“I have found people I can learn from in virtually every organisation I have worked for. We’re fortunate that Google is stacked with people who have a wide variety of skills, experiences and styles that we can learn from, borrow and model on,” he says.

People come first for Mckend. Good management begins with good personnel—a truth which is surely applicable across every field of human endeavour. And Google seeks to leverage such a maxim in-house.

“Good management starts with being able to hire great people. When you can do that, it’s possible to focus on creating an environment where every individual can find opportunities to grow and develop,” he says.

From there, it is Mckend’s philosophy that the vital ingredient a leader provides to any organisation is a sense of clear vision, which, in the midst of so many present uncertainties, has become a supreme commodity.

“I recently discussed leadership with a group and an idea that resonated, especially now, was that leaders need to be able to provide hope or at least a vision of a future where tomorrow is better than today. In rapidly changing, uncertain environments, that’s something to aspire to,” he concludes.

Chris Waldburger, www.chriswaldburger.com

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