NB: This is a guest article by Nathan Midgley, a freelance writer and web editor based in Accra, Ghana.
On Friday 13 January, no less, Kenyan local listings site Mocality, ultimately owned by South African multinational Napsers, dropped a huge piece of detective work that appeared to show sales agents for Google’s Getting Kenyan Business Online programme cold-calling Mocality clients with fraudulent claims of a partnership.
Launched in September 2011, GKBO is essentially a free site builder, though domain upgrades from KBO.co.ke are available for a fee.
Pundits have claimed there’s no revenue here to justify underhand or illegal activity, but of course GKBO is a market share play for Google’s data and location services – the package has Google Analytics and a verified Places listing baked in – and there’s potential for search advertising revenue down the line from the businesses they bring to the web.
This is a long game.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s middle classes are swelling, which means more consumers, more prosperous SMEs, more internet connections, more searches.¬†And there is, as Oxford Internet Research Institute fellow Dr Mark Graham recently pointed out in the Guardian, a global north-south content¬†deficit.
The internet simply has far less information on it about the south. There’s money in filling some of those gaps – in the words of Ghanaian tech entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, “every aspect of underdevelopment requires a business”.
Mocality filled them by riding Kenya’s M-PESA mobile money service to build a business database; Google is ostensibly filling them by riding the need for a cheap, reliable web presence. The question now is whether it illegally used Mocality’s name to give that approach some momentum.
Google’s European VP for product and engineering Nelson Mattos issued an apology to Mocality on Google+ late on Friday 13, and Mocality boss Stefan Magdalinski has updated his original post to say that G’s sub-Saharan boss Joe Mucheru has been in touch.
But¬†publicly¬†the company has conceded little. Internal investigations continue, and some commenters on tech sites have argued that Mocality’s log files and call recordings could simply point to clever confidence tricksters faking Google IPs.
Even if that proves to be the case, the Western Goliath versus African David narrative will be a tough one to reverse.
GKBO appears to herald a continent-wide strategy, and that leaves Google with some serious reputation-cleansing to do – particularly with Mocality now making noises about legal action.
All this is particularly pertinent to the tourism sector in Ghana, where Google has scored a high-profile agreement with the Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA). The two have had a relationship for some time, with Google’s country office helping GTA to optimise its own website.
According to GTA director of research, statistics and information Nana Dwum Barima, 100 businesses have expressed an interest since an initial stakeholder meeting and launch event last week, with 30 committing to register for the service – 1% of the partnership’s official 3,000 target.
Barima expects the project to capture mainly downstream businesses, which could prove a boon to travellers.
West Africa’s low internet penetration, limited leisure tourism and volatile business environment mean official, MSM and UGC profiles for small hotels and restaurants are thinly spread and frequently outdated.
Where they do exist, they’re often dominated by business travel and expat tastes – hence Lonely Planet’s users collectively rating a pizza restaurant and an Irish theme pub among the five best things to do in Accra. They aren’t – I’ve checked.
In the coming weeks GTA will be holding stakeholder meetings through regional offices, and is looking at organising radio discussions across Ghana’s 10 regions.
Barim says GTA believes it can reach 5,000, but that will depend, of course, on how seriously the Mocality affair dents its technology partner’s African ambitions.
NB2: Image via Shutterstock.