(Cross-posted from the Official Google Africa Blog)
Having been in Africa for the past several months, I am beginning to see firsthand how access to information by regular citizens is starting to transform the continent. A single newspaper could be read by as many as 10 people, citizens are willing to rent-a-paper, and FM radio stations are exploding in communities where people are hungry for news, entertainment, and opportunities to make their voices heard.
It’s the last point that has really struck me. With mobile phone penetration growing everyday and airtime prices falling, people are communicating more than ever before, sending text messages and calling in to radio talk shows. They are expressing their views, sharing their opinions with each other, and communicating their delight or displeasure with government, business, and civil actors in more informed ways.
In East Africa in particular, people are bracing themselves for the broadband revolution. Within 12 months, initiatives like Seacom and EasyCom are likely to be active in the region and will connect people in completely new ways. What will happen when the super-highways open their gates? Will traffic flow in one direction or two? Will East Africans become net consumers or producers of information?
Last week, Kenya held its first “content” conference arranged by the national ICT Board. Public and private people had plenty to say about “local content” and why it mattered. What started as a technical discussion about connectivity quickly turned to issues of national pride, language, and fear that a globalized world could homogenize indigenous cultures. While Kenyans clearly yearn to be part of the global community and consume information far beyond their borders, they also want to be heard, recognized, and contribute to global conversations. They want their news, their music, their issues, and their voices to find a place in the online universe.
Today, Swahili books online for example, number in the hundreds compared to the hundreds of millions of books in English available online. What message does this send to young people about the relative importance of their knowledge, language, and culture? Fortunately, Google translation tools are beginning to address this challenge and launching search in Swahili is creating the right incentives to put more content online. But what else will it take to create symmetry between the number of people who speak a given language and content available to them?
The good news is that there is no paucity of African content in the offline world. Africa is home to some of the world’s richest musical traditions, oral histories, and physical heritage. The second piece of good news is that mobile phones are likely to be gateways to the internet in much of the continent. The challenge is how to migrate this wealth of content from the offline to the online world. If Africans are going to get online en masse, they need a reason to go there and they need to see themselves, their values, and their stories when looking through the online prism. With the availability of Google MapMaker in Africa, we’re already seeing that people are creating their own content and populating base maps with layers that are meaningful and useful to them. That is exciting. Whether its stories, pictures, or data on budgets and literacy rates, I hope we can give people a stake and a reason to get online and participate in the information society.