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.

One of the starkest observations was this: Even basic stuff can be hard. I had no idea how many roadblocks a user could potentially hit just trying to sign up for a Google account, find a website/service, etc. For example, trying to explain the nature of an account security question (e.g. "What is your mother's maiden name?") to a user who doesn't speak either of my languages, English or Internet lingo, can be extremely difficult.

Another one was that many people simply don't know what a quality website looks like. I found myself consistently asking the business owners, "What would you want to tell someone who knows nothing about your business?" With the extreme inexperience using the Internet, people often need suggestions for standard pages, content, how to structure their sites, and so on. Even with standard or comprehensive help text, people still need a lot of guidance/hand holding. Building a system that feels like a human tutorial is difficult.

The final observation was that people don't really need to be sold on the value proposition. This was the most surprising to me. Internet penetration in Ghana is only ~4%, and yet these business owners were so enthusiastic and determined to get online. Granted there's a selection bias for the people who would attend such a conference, but it was also clear that there's already a rich market of interested business owners. People are very excited to have the autonomy to get online themselves. Good news for me!


Estelle presenting while Eve offers one-on-one support to a business owner.

Helping a Ghanaian Shea butter exporter develop a website.

A gift from the lady above for a hard day's work.

3 comments:

Marjorie said...

I loved looking at the West Africa Trade Hub web site. The site is fairly sophisticated and the products are interesting.

Your experience in working with beginners is similar to mine in working with beginners: people are eager to use technology, but do not really know what the usage concepts are. One difference is that I was working with people ten to fifteen years ago and the people I was working with already had email accounts and understood how to use them. It is interesting to see the parallels.

I am also thinking of some of your experiences as a child when you set up your business on the Internet. That would have been at least eleven years ago and would fall into the same time period when I was assisting people in getting business web sites. It must be terribly exciting to help others get started in this business. It is the completion of a circle: What your dad did in assisting you as a child is what you are doing for others as an adult technology pioneer. One consistency in your life is your helping others.

Robyn said...

It's enough to really make someone one reevaluate his or her privilege. This event is layered I wouldn't even know where to begin to unpack it. Part of me applauds the effort - the first word came to mind was "productive," but is it not further imposing western capitalistic values on this society?

Also, you look very handsome in this picture.

Benjamin Cole said...

I don't really think we're imposing values here. These were all businesspeople trying to make livelihoods for themselves by selling products overseas. This was true before and after we interacted with them. We're just trying to help them do what they were already trying to do more effectively.

And thank you. :-)