Google embarks on African investment safari

Global technology giant Google is pumping major investments into Africa, with its most noteworthy new ventures being the rollout of free public wifi hotspots and a new high-speed undersea cable to boost internet connectivity and affordability.

South Africa and Nigeria – the continent’s two biggest economies – are getting a significant share of the investment. Nigeria became the first country in Africa in February to see the rollout of Google Station – Google’s ground-breaking initiative in developing nations aimed at providing fast, free and open wifi to disadvantaged communities.

Now, Google Station has been launched in the Cape Flats area and other townships in Cape Town such as Langa, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu, with some 125 free public wifi hotspots in these locations.

The project was officially announced at the first-ever Google for South Africa event in Johannesburg on Thursday. Several other announcements and updates around Google’s innovations and investments in the education, consumer, technology start-up and internet infrastructure spaces were highlighted.

Speaking at the event Nitin Gajria, Google’s Africa director, said he was “tremendously excited” about bringing the Google Station innovation to South Africa. He said the concept had been first piloted by Google in India in 2015 and is now in operation in several other developing countries such as Brazil and Mexico.

“Google Station has been hugely successful in India and earlier this year Nigeria saw the concept’s first rollout in Africa. We’ve quietly been piloting the programme in Cape Town’s most underserved communities for a couple of months and now we officially reveal this project to South Africa,” noted Gajria.

“By gaining access to information via the internet, we hope that people in these communities will get a more equal opportunity to learn and develop and live more empowered lives. Google Station is now available in over 100 locations across Langa, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Delft, Elsies River, Philippi and more in the Cape Flats. Besides being underserved, these areas have high unemployment and crime rates,” he adds.

Questioned by Moneyweb on where the next Google Station location would be in SA and how much Google has invested in the project, Gajria was reluctant to comment.

“For us, this is an investment in the future of South Africa and the continent. We have numerous projects and partnerships across several countries in Africa and around the world,” he said.

Google Station’s rollout in SA also follows a Google announcement in June that it would be establishing the Equiano subsea cable from Lisbon in Portugal down Africa’s west coast to Cape Town. There would be a branched connection to Nigeria and future links to other countries along the way.

The planned route and branching links of Google’s Equiano subsea cable from Lisbon in Portugal to Cape Town. The first phase of the major project is scheduled for completion in 2021. Image: Supplied

While Google did not mention the investment value of this privately funded project, it is likely to be a few billion rand. The more than 14 000km West African Cable System, between the UK and Cape Town, reportedly cost around $650 million to build back in 2010.

On the Google Station initiative in Cape Town, the US-based group has partnered with local internet service provider, Think WiFi.

Janine Rebelo, CEO of Think WiFi, says the company is passionate about providing fast, free, reliable, uncapped wifi in underserved communities.

“We want to give people access to more online resources and more opportunities. Through our partnership with Google, Think WiFi will provide unlimited wifi access to communities in townships, public areas, universities, transportation hubs and shopping malls, laying the foundations for broad-based, inclusive participation in the benefits industry 4.0 brings,” he adds.

Meanwhile, also speaking at the event, Google’s head of marketing in South Africa Asha Patel highlighted some of the group’s other community initiatives. She said that last year Google awarded $6 million to 36 non-profit organisations across Africa through the Google Impact Challenge, 12 of which were from South Africa.

“Building on this, Google is today investing $1 million as part of its five-year commitment to non-profits and social enterprises, to support the economic empowerment of girls and women in South Africa,” she said.

Watch: Google Africa director Nitin Gajria speaks to Moneyweb

[embedded content]