Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting African Businesses Online

Yesterday I spent the day with two colleagues from Google at the West Africa Trade Hub ICT Conference. The two other Googlers, Eve and Estelle, and I gave training sessions for small business owners from Benin, Togo, and Ghana to help them develop basic web presences with Google Sites. It was fascinating to work with these small exporters, some of which did not speak English or had never used a computer or the Internet before. By the end of the day, over a dozen small enterprises were online with email addresses and easy access to their content, but the SME owners weren't the only ones who left better for the experience. As you might expect, we probably learned just as much from them as they did from us.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Strategy in Africa

First of all, full disclosure, everything I discuss in this series of posts has been approved for external dissemination by the PR folks at Google, so you're not getting any insider information from me. That said, obviously this comes with my own personal commentary, so that's something! The plan is to write four posts about Google's objectives and strategies in Africa; this first one will be a general overview and the next three will be deep dives into each of the obstacles we're seeking to overcome. Here goes...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TEDxAccra: A Day of African Luminaries

On Monday morning, many of the world's great thinkers and doers gathered in solidarity around the world to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the unveiling of the UN Millennium Development Goals. This worldwide event was termed TEDxChange, styled in the format of the TED conference, and convened by Bill and Melinda Gates on behalf of their foundation. In an open letter, Melinda declared the aim of the gathering to be "to reflect on the Millennium Development Goals ten years in, and to look forward to where we’ll be [by 2015, the MDG deadline]."

Very luckily for me, I got to be a part of this movement, this moment in time.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Would You Like Fries With That?"
Western Cuisine Meets West Africa

Chicken and avocado wrap from Smoothy's.
When I travel abroad, one of my absolute favorite activities is to sample the local cuisine. You can learn a lot about a culture by the types of foods they eat, the types of seasonings, and so on. Italian food, for instance, is robust, flavorful, passionate, whereas French food is more subtle, complex, and dry. So one of the first things that really hit me when I got to Ghana was that traditionally Western food seemed vastly more prevalent than African food around town. Sure, I had gotten used to seeing burger and pizza joints across Europe, but I expected something a little different when I came to Africa. And perhaps that's exactly what I got: a little different.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Broadband Dongles & Malaria Pills

Since I got to Ghana, two technologies have become especially important to me, one that we in the high tech industry would normally perceive as "technology" and one that we wouldn't. The two things I'm talking about are mobile broadband dongles and anti-malaria pills. Within my first few days here, these two objects became essential parts of my daily life, though obviously for drastically different reasons.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

One Week In: The Culture Shock Sets In

Almost exactly one week ago, I landed in Africa for the first time, in a different world, far away from home and anything I had ever known. And it's been quite a week since then. My first week of work here was relatively uneventful with the office being mostly empty, and Friday was actually a national holiday for the end of Ramadan, so it ended up only being a three-day work week for me. On Friday, I met up with a friend of a friend whom I had been introduced to, and she showed me around the downtown area of Accra. (Really, when I say downtown Accra, I really just mean one main road called Oxford Street, perhaps the only road in the city that just about everyone knows by name.) It was my first time really seeing any of the city, and I have to say, it was a lot to take in. Besides obviously being singled out by all the vendors on the street, the most remarkable observation from the experience was just the abject poverty of the area. My friend, Kimmie, introduced me to a local girl around our age and her mother. We saw where she lived, in a house without running water, any sort of temperature control, or electricity. We started talking with the mother, and mentioned how she knew my friend, through a UN program that provided food for her because she was HIV-positive. Like I said, a lot to take in.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

They Call Me Monday: Naming in Ghana

A few days ago, I got to speaking with a fellow Googler who's spent a lot of time in Ghana, and among the many useful pieces of advice she gave me, one interesting bit stood out. "You need a Ghanaian name!" I soon discovered that in Ghana it's traditional to name children based on the day of the week they were born. What's more, each day of the week is supposed to have certain characteristics associated with it. A child born on Sunday, for instance, should tend to be passive, sensitive, and warm, and also a good secret keeper. I also learned that being able to introduce yourself with a Ghanaian name makes a big difference when interacting with locals, so clearly I should have one!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Can Voice Messages Replace SMS in Africa?

This is the question posed by Professor Eric Brewer and his team at Berkeley. Eric is a Visiting Scientist at Google, and I had the privilege to chat with him last week while I was in New York. One of the subjects we touched upon during the conversation was a study his team had done last year, implementing a new system of asynchronous voice messages in rural Uganda to supplement voice calls and text messaging (Heimerl et al, 2009). SMS (i.e. text messaging) has become hugely popular in Africa for several reasons: low cost, asynchronicity, and the unreliable cell phone coverage. Let me unpack each of these components.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Landing in Accra, Beneath the African Sun

Yesterday morning, I landed in Accra, Ghana, where I shall remain for a time yet undetermined. The flight took the full 11 hours, starting 4:20pm EST and landing 7:20am GMT. It may have been long and mostly sleepless, and I may have come close to crying for all that I was leaving behind, but alas, I made it in one piece. After a year of planning, I'm in Africa.

Very fortunately, Google's driver, Daniel, was waiting for me at the airport, and I only got mildly swindled by the scam artists waiting there. (I suppose it was inevitable, but I still felt dumb.) Daniel took me to my hotel where I dropped off my luggage and promptly realized that I had no idea what to do with myself. So I went to the office, the empty office. You see, this week is Google's G-Kenya conference in Nairobi, and the entire Subsaharan Africa team is there. Thankfully the receptionist had been alerted that I was coming, so she showed me in, and I got to work trying to figure things out. I wish I could express how comforting it was to be there. Even if it's only two, disconnected rooms, the Google office in Ghana feels like a Google office nonetheless. For lunch, I ordered some traditional Ghanain food, basically seasoned rice and chicken, which was brought to me by someone I can only describe as the office footman. The seasoning was not what I expected since it looked so close to something I might get in the US, but once I got over the initial hurdle, I rather enjoyed it.

Around 6:00pm, I headed back to my hotel, watched a movie and the news on TV, and tried to get some work done on my laptop. That didn't work as well as I would have liked. The Internet connection in my hotel, and from what I hear, in many places across Ghana, is shoddy at best. This resulted in a nontrivial amount of frustration especially since so many of the people I need to work with are in time zones so different from mine.

Today was my first full day in Ghana, and very kindly, the Google Ghana Country Lead, Estelle, who's out of the office this week, sent her personal driver to pick me up and show me around the city. We hit some of the major tourist sites like the soccer stadium and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park as well as a decidedly less touristy market where they sold mostly traditional clothing, masks, and even swords. Being led through by a local, it was starkly clear how singled out I was as a white man. On the upside, I learned a new word from the experience, obruni, which means, you guessed it, white man. In the afternoon, I headed back to the office to get some more work sorted out, finally met one of my sometimes office mates, Ego, who's from Britain, and got lots of advice on the expat life.

From my two days here, a few basic observations have stood out to me. The first is the culture of servitude. It's been discomforting having someone wait on me; I've always just taken care of myself, more or less. Stranger still is the attitude servants seem to have have, that of utter, well, subservience. In the US, even people in service professions usually seem to have a sense of entitlement that doesn't exist here. Another significant lesson has been about the state of Internet connectivity/telephony. I knew it would be bad, but that's entirely different from actually understanding it. Between not being able to do my work online and having to ask people to repeat themselves every other sentence on phone calls, I can tell I'm already starting to make headway on one of the pieces of advice I got before leaving: Feel people's pain. The last observation I've had is a less serious one, basically about how people carry things here. I wish I had a picture to illustrate it, but I've never before seen everyday people carry so much atop their heads, and without using their hands to balance it.  Huge baskets of everything you could imagine: eggs, pineapples, hair brushes, everything, all perched feet high atop their heads. The notable exception to this rule is for carrying a baby, which is invariably done on one's back, strapped on with a large shawl. Pictures to come, I promise.

For now, that's it. This weekend will consist of lots of apartment shopping as I seek to find somewhere more permanent to live. Wish me luck!

Pictures after the jump!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New York, New York

I've noticed a theme in my life recently: as soon as I begin to feel settled into one place, I know it's just about time for the next. This last week in New York has certainly had its ups and downs. Five days to scramble around, trying to coordinate logistics across three continents certainly wasn't easy; in fact, it was probably the most stressful week I've spent at Google in any of my internships, but I suppose that was to be expected. On the other hand, there has been so much awesomeness too: tons of delicious food courtesy of the Google NY Culinary Team (I think I ate a full meal every other hour), a new smart phone, and most importantly, catching up with lots of old friends and getting to make a few new ones.

Aside from the scramble to get ready, I spent the week meeting with some key players on the Google Africa team, getting as much advice as I could amass. Here are some of the interesting tidbits.

  • Understand the user. Do as the locals do. Go outside major cities; see where people live. Try to spend a night living with a local 
  • Feel people's pain. Try the Internet connection and cell phones that the locals use. Understand their experience.
  • Beware of corruption. When money is so hard to come by, many people have to engage in unethical behavior to make a living. I heard about a project that was sabotaged by the people it was built for because it made selling services on the side too easy to track.
  • Use my novelty to my advantage. There's no arguing that I'm clearly going to stick out like a sore thumb wherever I go. Instead of taking it as an obstacle, turn it to my favor. Don't be apologetic for being different.
  • Go with the flow. The work culture in many of the countries I'm going to is just fundamentally different. People won't follow schedules in the way we do, for instance. Just accept it.

Another fun part of the week involved the six-foot talk K'Nex Ferris wheel that I (and three other interns) built two years ago. It used to sit up on the sixth floor with sales but has since been moved to a new seat of honor, at the very entrance to the office that nearly everyone passes going in and out of work. On every tour I gave this week, I would point it out and note, "I built that." The reactions ranged from laughter to respect to disbelief. My favorite was a friend proclaiming, "only at Google do the interns get paid to play with K'Nex." A true statement if I've ever heard one. In fact, we got quite a bit of publicity for it when we did.

Our K'Nex creation in its original location two years ago.

Tomorrow, to Africa! More pictures after the jump...