Google’s ‘Mr Africa’? Ten things to know about Nitin Gajria

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Top 50 tech champions

By Kévin Poireault
Posted on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 11:44

Appointed chief of the multinational in Africa just before the Covid-19 pandemic, 43-year-old Gajria has not been able to travel the continent the way he would have liked. In March, he made one of his first official trips to Lomé to mark, with the Togolese government, the landing of the Equiano submarine cable.

This is part 8 of an 11-part series.

It was expected in Lagos but it arrived in Lomé. Equiano, Google’s undersea fibre-optic cable that will connect Lisbon to Cape Town, was inaugurated in Togo on 18 March. “The landing of Equiano is a concrete expression of Google’s commitment to supporting Africa’s digital transformation,” said Nitin Gajria, Google’s managing director for sub-Saharan Africa.

1. Lomé

Appointed to his position in 2019, from Johannesburg Gajria leads a trio in charge of the Mountain View firm’s strategy in Africa: Nigerian Juliet Ehimuan, Kenyan Agnes Gathaiya and South African Alistair Mokoena. Lomé is one of his first official trips outside of South Africa, as he says the pandemic has prevented him from “travelling as much as I would have liked”. He attributes this surprise landing to the alignment of interests between Google and Togo while confirming that the Equiano cable will be “operational in the last quarter of 2022”, as planned.

2. $1bn investment in Africa

Nitin Gajria is mainly dedicated to the deployment of the $1 billion investment promised by Google for Africa within five years. The announcement, made last October, has three objectives. “Bringing internet to more Africans” through the Equiano submarine cable, the Taara data transport project – which uses beams of invisible light – and a collaboration with Safaricom to fund 4G smartphones, “which we are now exporting throughout Africa.” Google also wants to “help African entrepreneurship” via the African Investment Fund, which is currently endowed with $50 million and an accelerator program, now in its seventh generation. Nitin Gajria also wants to “support NGOs” via google.org, which will release $40 million over five years to promote the inclusion of African women and youth.

3. African novice

“Before this position, I had never set foot in Africa,” Nitin Gajria readily admits. Yet, Google’s number one on the continent is convinced that it is the place to be in digital: “Africa is the first floor of the internet,” he points out. There are 700 million people who have no experience of it yet. How will it improve their lives and solve their problems? That is the major question on my mind.”

4. Trained by P&G

Even though he landed in Johannesburg in 2019 without any African experience, Nitin Gajria carried eight years of experience at Google along in his luggage. After more than thirteen years in the consumer sector, first at Procter & Gamble and then at Mead Johnson Nutrition, he was recruited in 2014 by the internet giant (where his wife works) as brand manager for India and Southeast Asia, based out of Singapore. Two years later, still working from the city-state, he became director for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

5. Nintendo

A lover of gadgets that are not always useful and a collector of mechanical watches, Gajria is fascinated by technology. It’s an interest that dates back to his childhood in India, when his grandparents, who lived in Tokyo, would visit during the holidays: “My brother and I couldn’t sleep the night before they arrived, because my grandmother always came with a red suitcase full of gifts, including Nintendo handheld consoles.” For Marcus Jilla, a former colleague at Procter & Gamble, “Nitin is not very procedural and a tech firm like Google is probably a better fit for him than a more traditional company.”

6. Entrepreneurial values

While he has spent his entire career at large companies, Gajria is familiar with entrepreneurial ventures. “In my family, I’m surrounded by entrepreneurs: my brother is in industry, my father has his own accounting firm. It’s like that from generation to generation; I’m kind of the exception.”

7. Business angel

While he is not an entrepreneur himself, Gajria has nonetheless invested in nearly 30 startups, in Asia and Africa. In July 2021, he joined XA Network, a network of former Google employees turned business angels in Southeast Asia.

8. Indian connection

As a student, he attended the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, as did Bharti Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal and Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi. He is also one of the many Indians in a position of responsibility in Big Tech, the best known of whom are Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and Parag Agrawal, CEOs of Microsoft, Alphabet (Google) and Twitter respectively.

9. Africanisation

Three years ago, when he arrived as head of Google in Africa, Gajria made it his mission to “recruit management teams that are almost 100% African and especially from local ecosystems”. There was no question of falling into the tendency of some international firms to “conduct their African activities from Abu Dhabi or elsewhere”. Why not a personality from the continent at the head of Google Africa? “That’s where we’re headed,” he says.

10. Deeply multicultural

It’s not hard to imagine Gajria moving elsewhere in the world. “He is deeply multicultural,” says his former colleague Marcus Jilla. And for good reason: born and raised in India, with paternal grandparents in Tokyo and maternal grandparents in Singapore, Nitin Gajria speaks five languages and has lived in the city-state, in Australia and now South Africa. His wife is Filipino and his two sons are Indo-Filipino, born in Singapore and now call Johannesburg home.

 

 

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