Interview: Nitin Gajria talks about Google’s new development centre and Africa strategy

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Monday, 13 June 2022 19:32, updated on Saturday, 18 June 2022 17:50

Nitin Gajria - provided by Google.

Google's managing director for sub-Saharan Africa Nitin Gajria sits in his home office in Johannesburg, surrounded by images of his heritage. A poster for the 1978 Hollywood film Don, released the year he was born, sits on the floor to his left. On a table to his right is Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, a book that looks at the history of the modern sub-Saharan Africa – a summary of the events that have shaped the continent.

Growing up in Mumbai as a child, Gajria’s first encounters with technology led to a passion for the industry. His paternal grandparents lived in Japan, and they would visit with a bright red suitcase in tow, full of gifts – opening him to a world of exciting new technologies.

“They would arrive late in the night, and we were allowed to stay up that night and get our gifts immediately. One of the things they always got for us was these small Nintendo four-bit games, small little things, way before the Game Boy. For me, I found those things really magical. It was phenomenal – my first experience with technology,” he says.

Gajria spent much of his early career in the Asia-Pacific region, working as a brand manager for Proctor & Gamble before ending up as head of brand solutions of Google’s Southeast Asia division. He worked on monetising Youtube across India and Southeast Asia before serving as the country director for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 2016 to mid-2019.

Throughout his career and life before moving to Johannesburg, Gajria and his family lived in Singapore, Sydney, Australia and numerous cities across Asia. He hopes that his two sons, three and six, will be able to benefit from their experiences on the continent just as much as he has.

Two sides, same coin

For Gajria, the diversity he sees in Asia is also present on the continent. He says, “conceptually the diversity is the same. Much of the West still think of Africa as this one big monolith, but if you drew a straight line from the northernmost part of the continent in Indonesia to the southernmost tip of the continent in South Africa, that distance is the same as drawing a straight line from say, London to roughly around Bangkok, right? The variety of cultures you’d encounter by just flying in a straight line from London to Bangkok is mind-boggling – and we see that kind of diversity on the continent as well.”

He continues: “When the opportunity to move to Africa came up and to look after the sub-Saharan African region for Google, it was an undeniably fantastic opportunity simply because when you think about the context of tech and the sheer numbers on the continent, that’s just an incredibly profound opportunity to change the course of not just Africa. Considering how large a portion of the world Africa is and will be in the future, it could really change the course of humanity to an extent, right?”

Some 800 million people on the continent have no access to the internet – a significant number considering Africa accounts for 15% of the world’s population. Once online, these 800 million new users present both an untapped market for Google and a new frontier. Gajria says: “If you look at sort of what’s happened in India, with the digital revolution of the last few years, that’s been fascinating to watch. How could we bring about that kind of momentum on the continent? We’re starting to see some green shoots of that.”

Welcome to Nairobi

In April, Google announced the launch of its very first product development centre in Nairobi, off the back of its success with its artificial intelligence research facility in Ghana. Set to employ hundreds of professionals, from product teams to software engineers and user-experience researchers, Gajria tells The Africa Report that the centre will hire local talent.

He adds: “Given that this is based in Nairobi, we will likely have a disproportionate number of Kenyan talent in this product development centre. But we really wanna make sure that this product development centre we’re building is as representative of the continent as we can possibly get in that location.”

Like Asia, the African continent is appealing to some investors due to its young population. With a median age of 20 in Africa, many people are eager to get online.

Some people have questioned Gajria regarding his experience of the continent. He made his first official trip outside of South Africa to Lomé, Togo on 18 March, despite being appointed in 2019. In response, the managing director says: “I have travelled to parts of the continent before Covid hit us. Lomé was my first trip outside of South Africa in a long time, but by no means my first trip outside of South Africa. I’ve been on the road quite a fair bit over the last several weeks in Kenya and Togo. I’m going to be in Lagos next week.”

According to Gajria, the pandemic may act as an accelerator for innovation. He says: “I’ve been reflecting plenty on how did that come to be. I’m not 100% sure. But maybe the fact that all over the world, nobody was travelling meant that everyone had as much access to each other as the next person. So it didn’t matter whether you were trying to speak to someone in San Francisco or in Singapore, the fact is everyone was working from home.”

He adds: “I think that level of stillness probably gave us the opportunity to engage a lot more deeply with different parts of Google and really accelerate our mission on the continent.”

Moonshot

In October 2021, Google announced a $1bn investment in “Africa’s digital transformation”. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the cash injection, spread over the following five years, would “continue to build for Africa’s unique needs”.

Google says it has four goals for its operations in Africa: building helpful tech for Africans; making affordable, accessible devices; working with entrepreneurs on the continent; and not-for-profit work.

Will the Google investment have a big impact? In November 2021, Google also announced the same $1bn investment for Australia alone. Analysis suggests that a total investment of $100bn is needed to properly connect the continent – less than 50% of Google’s 2021 revenue.

Gajra argues that the Australian and African markets are entirely different: “I think it’s dangerous to compare two different ecosystems in very, very different stages of their evolution. If I look at where we are headed with that billion-dollar commitment, we’re tracking well ahead of our five-year goal.”

‘Trade before aid’

Out of the initial $1bn pledge, Google has dedicated $400m to aid. But Gajria says the focus is on “trade before aid”. He says: “For too long, the narrative around Africa has really been one of aid. How do we shift that [idea], and make this more of a partnership among equals: creating more of a trade relationship, a partnership rather than an aid relationship?”

“I do think non-profits have an important role to play, and we have gotta work this through non-profits on that, that have really strong machinery on the ground that are making a real impact on the ground. But our attention will be focused on building great products and solving access problems helping entrepreneurship.”

The Google for Startups Accelerator programme is the US tech giant’s main means of providing aid. Google offers three months of support to cohorts of 10-15 startups, giving them access to Google resources.

Gajra explains: “We’ve been tracking the kind of capital they raise in subsequent rounds after going through our programme, [and] the alumni of our programme have raised substantial capital through the year. And they’ve employed many, many more people. The intention is to create something that is self-sustaining. How do we create jobs?”

So far this round, Google has pledged investment for two African-based startups – Carry1st, a gaming publisher based in South Africa, and a ride-sharing company in Uganda called SafeBoda. Both investments are for undisclosed sums.

Prior to the Google investment, in July 2020, Unwanted Witness Uganda, a civil society organisation, published a report exposing SafeBoda for sharing user data with third parties without their permission.

How to use it

An essential enabler of digital development for Google is educating the masses on tech – how to use it, how to access it, and what can be achieved with it.

One of Google’s projects, Equiano, is a subsea cable that runs from Portugal to South Africa. It aims to increase the bandwidth capacity for countries along the western coast of Africa.

The project has already created landing points in Lomé, Togo, and Lagos, Nigeria. Further landing points are scheduled for this month in Swakopmund, Namibia, and Melkbosstrand, South Africa in June 2022. Equiano is fully funded by Google and uses space-division multiplexing technology. The cable will have 20 times the network capacity as the last one built in the region.

For Google’s Gajria, that in itself is not a silver bullet. “Now, what needs to happen is we are working with partners in all of the countries that we’re landing the cable in to make sure that that capacity then goes further inland.”

“We need to build partnerships with local governments. We need to build partnerships with other private entities internet service providers (ISPs), for example. So at the moment, we are running a bunch of different pilots, together with Liquid Telecom as part of the group, to do some of these deployments in a couple of different countries,” he says.

Shooting for the stars

Google is using other means to help expand internet access, particularly to rural areas. Taara, which means star in many languages, is a Google X project that utilises beams of light to transmit information at super-high speeds.

Gajria explains: “This basically replaces the need to set up expensive cell phone towers, which are economically difficult for players in the ecosystem to do. What this also brings down is not just the setup cost but the setup time. So you could get a project that linked going in a matter of hours rather than a matter of weeks and months.”

He continues: “We are seeing a substantial reduction in data costs through this in the communities where this has been deployed. We are also seeing an interesting entrepreneurial trend where people are subleasing the capacity that we are bringing into a particular community. It creates a little bit of a micro-local economy, which is fantastic to see.”

Team Google

Both Equiano and Taara are 100% Google-owned ventures. They will remain so whilst Google works in conjunction with telecoms and other local companies, says Gajria. “We have partnerships with telcos and ISPs that are leasing the Equiano capacity. So it’s certainly open to being leased out to various places in the market.”

In addition to this, Google recently announced a $50m investment fund for African start-ups, which they have made “a couple of investments in” so far, says Gajria.

The tech giant’s work on the continent has only just begun, Gajra concludes as he hurries to his next meeting.

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