Google’s $1 billion Africa investment is anchored on the ‘spirit of Ubuntu’

Through its $1 billion five-year investment plan, Google wants to tap into the African concept of 'Ubuntu.'
The Ubuntu computer operating system is free so everyone can benefit.
The Ubuntu computer operating system is free so everyone can benefit.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Ubuntu philosophy, which was supposed to pivot pan Africanism, has struggled to become a reality—with certain African countries seeking a protectionist agenda even under the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (Afcfta.)

Proponents of Ubuntuism such as South African fallen cleric Desmond Tutu see it as a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity—in this case all Africans. In Zulu, it means “I am because we are.”

Even when it comes to technology, though some startups have tried to ride on the philosophy, a sense of commonness is lacking and technological progress on the continent is still limited to a few hubs.

But Google now wants to change all that. Through its $1 billion five-year investment plan, the company aims to use technology to unite all 55 countries. During its second edition of Google for Africa event on Oct. 5, the company highlighted that by providing multiple opportunities in the internet, offering training, and adding more African languages to its products, Ubuntiusm can be resuscitated.

“We’re donating $1 million in ad grants on a monthly basis and helping more than 40,000 people collaborate with Google Workspace for nonprofits. Going through this journey, we want to embrace the spirit of Ubuntu. I am because we are,” Nitin Gajria, Google Africa managing director said during the livestreamed event. Gajria added that there will be ongoing Google Career Certificate scholarships to 5,000 more African youth through an additional $1.5 million funding.

Making internet more affordable

Google’s Equiano subsea cable meant to reduce the cost of internet and bring more Africans online, has connected Saint Helena, Togo, Nigeria, Namibia, and South Africa to Europe and is set to expand the continent’s internet bandwidth by up to 20 times and Gajria says it will “add more than $17 billion in economic growth” to the continent.

A 2021 report by Africa Practice and Genesis Analytics estimates that by 2025, the cable will add $10.1 billion, $7 billion, and $260 million to the GDPs of Nigeria, South Africa, and Namibia respectively. The 4G cable could also create 1.8 million jobs in the three nations.

Alphabet’s Project Taara has been beaming light-speed internet across the River Congo basin, connecting over 17 million peoples who reside in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Taara’s director of engineering said Taara’s wireless optical link “served nearly 700 TB of data in 20 days with 99.9% availability.” However, this was after its other moonshot project Loon crumbled in Kenya and Uganda.

A new cloud center in South Africa was launched during the event, promising to add $2.1 billion to the country’s GDP, and help create more than 40,000 jobs by 2030. Niral Patel, director of Google Cloud Africa called it the “cleanest cloud in the industry.” “We are expanding our network through the Equiano subsea cable and building dedicated cloud interconnect sites in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi,” Patel said.

African languages are joining the internet

Google is now building speech recognition algorithms to serve Africa, starting with the launch of voice typing support for nine more African languages on Gboard, the Google keyboard. The languages are isiNdebele, isiXhosa, Kinyarwanda, Northern Sotho, Swati, Sesotho, Tswana, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga.

“At least 24 new African languages are now supported on Google Translate,” Google said. Gboard supports 200 African languages but there’s a long way to go since the continent speaks over 2,000 native languages and less than 1% is represented in the web.

Google country director for east Africa Agnes Gathaiya says a new functionality will allow African developers to use the 200 languages in app development.

“If you talk to a person in language they understand, that goes to their head. If you talk to them in their own language, that goes to their heart,” Gathaiya said. Acknowledging that African languages that use the Latin writing system have long lacked technological support for the full set of letters and accent marks that they use, she said Google has expanded its Questrial font to include a newly defined African-Latin glyphs set. “Text on devices can now be accurately spelled.”

Google has also updated its Street View feature in Kenya, South Africa, Senegal, and Nigeria with “nearly 3,000 kms of imagery” to help people virtually explore and navigate neighborhoods on Google Maps. But Street View is now only available in 11 African countries.

James Manyika, senior vice president, tech and society at Google said the company is partnering with the African Union to revive its unity in tech across all 55 member states through policy formulation for startup bills. “These partnerships are essential to the future that we can build together. One where tech supports innovation, entrepreneurship, and also the talent powering Africa’s digital transformation.” Google has opened a new talent development center in Nairobi.

Preserving Africa’s culture

The company is moving to help Africa’s top content creators in music, food, fashion, art, and sports. It is also digitizing art for preservation. “We developed Eko for Show on Google Arts and Culture, a collaboration with seven cultural institutions. Mali Magic, for example, explores the culture of Mali by shining a light on heroic stories in a digital collection of sound and story,” said Ola Fadipe, senior director of people operations at Google.

To support African entrepreneurs in growing and developing their talent, Google supports African small businesses through the Hustle Academy and Google Business Profiles, and to help job seekers learn the skills they need through Developer Scholarships and Career Certifications. Last year, 7,500 career scholarships were disbursed to help young people learn new skills and build their careers. Over 105,000 African developers have been trained on Android, web, and Google Cloud technologies.

Part of its $50 million Africa Investment Fund has been awarded to SafeBoda, an e-transport startup in Uganda and Nigeria, Carry1st, a South African mobile gaming startup and Lori Systems, an e- logistics startup in Kenya. Its Black Founders Fund has been praised for achieving gender parity.

The challenge ahead

Google’s definition of Ubuntuism centers on making tech ubiquitous in every African nation, but 44 countries in the continent are yet to experience products such as Street View, and Google Maps updates on road networks across the continent can take several years compared to other regions. Rural Africa is not well mapped by Google, and businesses that rely on Maps for their operation such as taxi ride-hailing apps and e-logistics startups have their market limited to only urban centers, yet 58% of Africa’s population lives in rural areas.

Average internet costs are high, smartphone penetration is low, and the varying levels of progress of internet infrastructure across countries is also a hindrance to Google’s delivery promise—while a few are testing 5G, many others heavily rely on 3G.

But its ‘Ubuntu’ projects make some business sense. Africa’s internet economy is estimated to grow to $180 billion by 2025—5.2% of the continent’s GDP, with 19 of the top 20 fastest growing economies being in the continent. About 60% of the continent’s population is aged under 25, and by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be Africa. Google’s investments could one day help millions of Africans do business online, watch HD videos on YouTube, search for rural directions on Maps and ‘Google’ in their local languages.