Despite all its cutting-edge technology, Google Inc. has turned to the
humble text message to break into Nigeria's booming economy.
search engine has started a service in Nigeria, as well as in Ghana and
Kenya, which enables mobile phone users to access emails through text
That comes as Google's office in Lagos has begun
working with small business owners in this nation of more than 160
million people, bringing more than 25,000 businesses online over the
Google's choice of using text messages to reach
consumers highlights the challenges of doing business in Africa's most
populous nation. There is money to be made, but most people rarely have
access to electricity, let alone the Internet, and a $20 mobile phone is
as close as many will ever come to owning a computer.
want to just come in and start looking for how to generate profit," said
Affiong Osuchukwu, Google's Nigeria marketing manager. "We consider
(sub-Saharan Africa) to be an investment region. We know we have to
invest resources and time to develop the market in order for the market
to become valuable to us in a way that we can do business."
makes tens of billions of dollars a year from advertising, much of it
coming from simple text ads that pop up next to its search results. But
such ads are rarely relevant to Nigerians looking for goods and services
in their neighborhoods. Only a fraction of business owners have
websites, and those that do rarely offer consumers many services online.
Nigeria is trying to "develop the ecosystem" by making the Internet
part of more people's lives, Osuchukwu said. Its most recent push came
in July as the company began advertising its text message email service,
which allows users to receive their emails through Gmail for free as
text messages. Users also can reply to the emails for only the cost of
sending a text message. They also can access local classified ads hosted
Google officials declined to offer usage statistics
for the text message service. But the service, advertised across
billboards and buses in Nigeria's largest city Lagos, could provide a
way to bring the search engine into the lives of people otherwise
untouched by it. More than half of the 44 million people who use the
Internet in Nigeria access the web through smartphones, according to
International Telecommunications Union. But that represents only a
fraction of mobile phone users in Nigeria, a nation turned
mobile-reliant by the collapse of the state-run telephone company which
has left landlines almost nonexistent.
By getting the Internet to
the simplest of handsets, Google is making a bet it can reach consumers
it can ultimately make money from, as well as offer access millions
otherwise wouldn't have.
"The Internet is an enabler," said Taiwo
Kola-Ogunlade, a Google spokesman in West Africa. "I may not have as
much money as you but I can have enough social capital to drive as much
influence as you do."
Google isn't alone in trying to add low-tech
features to its interface to broaden the Internet's reach. There's an
emerging technology industry trying to increase access to basic and
sometimes life-saving information on the web.
Sproxil Inc., a
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, has partnered with
pharmaceutical companies to allow people to verify the authenticity of
drugs before purchasing them. This comes as Nigeria is awash with
Meanwhile, a Seattle, Washington-based
technology startup called SlimTrader offers consumers in Nigeria and
Senegal the ability to discover, preview and purchase goods and services
from mobile phones that aren't Internet-enabled.
Femi Akinde said: "To reach a lot more people, you've got to reach them
on the most ubiquitous device possible."