Google continues push into Africa with free Gchat texts for Senegal

Senegal is now the second country in Africa, following Ghana, where cellphone users can text an SMS to a Gchat account and receive a response for free. screengrab
At left, a Google home page as it appears in Senegal.

How do you say "I'm feeling lucky" in Senegal's main local language, Wolof?

Amna weurseuk. They're words that technocrats at Google Inc. may be memorizing now that, as of last week, the search engine has made its entry into the West African nation's mobile phone network.

The former French colony is now the second country in Africa, following Ghana, where cellphone users can text an SMS to a Gchat account and receive a response for free.

Google Senegal is currently in the official state language of French, but only 20 percent of the nation speaks it, while about 80 percent knows Wolof.

But maybe you ask: How many Gchatters can even be here in Senegal, an agrarian society where only 4 out of 10 adults are fully literate?

Actually, quite a lot, according to the World Bank. The institution recently released a report estimating that 85 percent of Senegal has "real Internet access," which makes it the highest percentage in West Africa.

Moreover, the Bank found that new legislation to demonopolize the country's high-speed cable networks could send typical Internet fares plummeting by as much as 65 percent, lowering the cost of high-speed Internet access closer to the populist price of a pre-paid phone – and potentially making telecom kingmakers out of previously established firms like Google.

Africa's telecoms are thus on guard. After all, they're today's gatekeepers for banks, businesses, ad agencies, and every other huckster trying to SMS an extra dime-per-subscriber times millions of subscribers.

Sudatel, for example, has denied Google access to its SMS network – so no Google texts for customers with the Sudanese state-funded firm (although, if you're doing business with a Sudanese state-funded firm, you might want to confront deeper, more ethical conflicts than your Google usage).

Even for a giant like Google, it will be an arduous task to gain market share amid Africa's Sudatels. With millions of customers and deep links spreading throughout national governments, Africa's telecoms are the largest corporate entities the continent has ever known – or at least the largest to come here and add a service, rather than take rocks, crops, or oil tankers away.

So look at this SMS deal as Google's second or third opening move on the continent. The company has already moved bureaus into Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa. The Google Map van has seen enough of the continent to author a travelog. The maps page boasts street plans for more than 50 African cities, from Ibadan, Nigeria, to Mombasa, Kenya – metropolises that spellchecks don't even dignify with their recognition.

Google offers its homepage, meanwhile, in 25 African languages from like Kofi Annan's Twi or Nelson Mandela's Xhosa.

That's in part a reflection of the continent's kaleidoscope of languages, but it also hints at where Google's ear is tuned.

Maybe it's now time for Google to start listening closer to Wolof, the native tongue of some 3.2 million people. The language was a lingua franca for American slaves (see "hip," "jive," "dig"), and it's where we get the noun "banana." Yum.


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