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West Africa Rising: Google sees 'ocean of possibilities' south of the Sahara

Internet statistics show that sub-Saharan Africa is on the cusp of an Internet boom, and Google plans to be there to reap the rewards.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / February 22, 2011



Dakar, Senegal

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

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The eye of the world may be fixed on the Middle East, where Internet access appears to have enabled a revolution, but Google's brainiacs are in Senegal this week, looking to facilitate an altogether more velvet revolution.

Less than 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africa enjoys Internet access, a fact that journalists have included in any story they write concerning Africa and its petite corner of the World Wide Web.

We might not have the chance to write it much longer.

South of the Sahara, the number of YouTube plays is doubling each year, according to Google Senegal's Business Development Associate Ayite Gaba, who spoke to aspiring web developers at a conference today. In his country alone, 100,000 people are joining Facebook each month, he said.

The number of search requests Google receives from African browsers is growing by 50 percent a year, he added, and 4 out of every 10 of those searches come from a mobile phone.

In a few months, Mr. Gaba said, phones, not clunky laptops, will make up the majority of Internet access points on the southern side of the world's widest desert.

And for Google, that growth offers an ocean of possibilities.

"We are here for the long term," Google's Vice President for Operations in Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Middle East, and Africa told attendees. "We are convinced by the potential of Africa and the importance it will play in the world."

"There is an extreme dynamism in Africa and an extremely young population," he added. "It is important for us to take care right now to create the best conditions possible."

High cost of Internet access hampers growth

Sub-Saharan Africa may have some of the lowest rates of web users in the world, but there's a reason for that: It also boasts the most expensive Internet access in the universe.

Home connections run an average of $45 a pop on this continent where a $5-a-day salary qualifies a family as middle class. Smart phones fetch prices as high as $600. They should cost $70, Blondo said, calling that the ideal price for the market.

"We all know that telephones should not be this much," he said.

But even justifying the cost of a $70 phone won't be easy if every search request it sends out turns up North American results.

Just 0.2 percent of the world's web pages were created by Africans. If every person on the planet had just one website to their name, Africa's share of the web would be 14.7 percent – a number that would grow, considering that as much as 40 percent of Africa's population is 15 years old or younger.

The question for America is how much longer its Internet cultural hegemony – its Rihanna videos and episodes of "24" – will be what Africa wants.

And yet at least one other American institution besides Google seems to have figured this out: Snoop Dogg. The American rapper's YouTube single with Nigeria's pop signer Dbanj is nearing half of a million hits, many of them recording Nigerian-English comments in their wake.

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