When Google declares that its purpose is to organize the worldâ€™s information and make it accessible to everyone, the company means everyone. Thatâ€™s the thinking behind partnerships announced this week by Google with universities and government ministries in Rwanda and Kenya.
In case you missed the news, Google said it will make Google Appsâ€”its web-based applications for email, a calendar, the creation of documents and spreadsheets, messaging and web page authoringâ€”available to government ministries and three colleges in Rwanda and to universities in Kenya, beginning with the University of Nairobi, which has 50,000 students.
Whatâ€™s going on here? Itâ€™s not all that complicated. Rwanda and Kenya are both (obviously) poor countries. So Google is giving away, at no cost, software that should make it easier for many thousands of mostly young people in those countries to communicate, collaborate, write, do math, etc. It’s a reminder of how Google has become so much more than a search engine & advertising firm. The African customers will, of course, need computers. They will also need broadband connections in order to make full use of the Google applications. But they wonâ€™t need Microsoft Word or Excel or Outlook–the web-based programs replace all that.
This isnâ€™t philanthropy and itâ€™s not strictly business, either, at least not short-term. Google wonâ€™t realize any revenue from the Africa deals because it won’t run ads alongside its free applications, as it does when people (like me) us Gmail or Google Docs in the U.S. But this is a creative and relatively low-cost way for Google to seed what could be a big market some years from now.
â€œItâ€™s an investment,â€ explained Francoise Brougher, the global director of strategy and business operations at Google, when we spoke by phone today. â€œItâ€™s a way to get people accustomed to using Google products.â€
Like many things that happen at Google, a lot of thought went into this. Brougher and several other Googlers spent three weeks last fall in Africa, stopping in Rwanda, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria. Brougher returned for another visit last week.
Rwanda, she said, is â€œextremely progressiveâ€ when it comes to investing in technology: â€œThe country has invested in IT infrastructure, the same way goverments invest in roads.â€ The government has a plan to connect 400 schools to the Internet by the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, the country leapt at the idea of a deal with Google. The government ministries and universities get Gmail accounts with their own domain names. They also avoid the expense of developing their own email systems, maintaining servers, training staff and buying PC-based software.
Google is pushing Google Apps elsewhere, too. According to the company, more than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities, including Northwestern and Arizona State, use the service. Colleges and secondary schools in Egypt signed on last year. premier edition, which costs $50 per user per year, which provides extra storage, support and the ability to eliminate adds, was rolled out with much fanfare last month. Procter & Gamble and GE are among the companies testing the service.
By the way, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is right now on a business development mission to the U.S. He spoke earlier this week at a conference on infotech in Africa in San Francisco. Heâ€™s having dinner tonight with Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, which distributed Rwanda coffee last year, I’m told. Starbucks has also been a helpful promoter of Rwanda coffee. I have a special place in my heart for Rwanda, which I visited two years ago with Rick Warren, the evangelical minister and author. The country is best known, of course, for the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 people, but it seems to be well on its way back. Says Googleâ€™s Brougher: â€œFor us, itâ€™s very inspiring, knowing the history.â€