Out of Africa: Will Google solve Africa's worst tech-market failure?

Since electronic mail arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, a strange process unfolds every time one African writes to another African -- even when both are in the same continent. The mail zooms out of Africa, either by an undersea cable or a satellite link, stops briefly at a computer server in Europe (or very rarely the U.S.) and then bounces back to its destination in Africa.

Weirdly, even if two people in, say, Accra, are emailing each other, the messages go first to Europe and then back to Ghana.

To call the process a form of "digital neo-colonialism" doesn't explain why the strangeness continues. African email travels the world not because of any technological inevitability but because human beings have made it that way. At least the human beings who run the world's major email systems. Neither Hotmail nor Yahoo nor Gmail maintain any email servers in Africa. And since they don't, email within even an African city does its strange dance.

The answer is to put a server farm into Africa. Simple? The major tech companies fret about the high costs of doing business in Africa. About unreliable electrical power. About physically securing the server farm. And then there is the basic math. With only a small percentage of Africans using the Internet for email, they wonder whether the cost of maintaining a server farm in Africa is worth the benefit of doing so to African computer users.

The benefit to Africans, by the way, is not obvious to an American. The cost of having server farms thousands of miles way comes in higher-bandwidth charges. Running emails through satellites and undersea cables isn't free. The mailing is free, but not the bandwidth. So Africans essentially pay a "corporate tax" in order to carry on their free emailing through the major services.

Now I must make a full disclosure. None of my information comes from Yahoo, Microsoft or Google. These companies throw a blanket of secrecy over their server farms; so they are not only mum about the absence of an Africa hub. Still, actions speak louder than words anyway, and my sources in Africa tell me we are about to get some action.

For many months in 2007, Google studied the costs and logistics of opening an African server farm. The company sent a team of people to Rwanda last summer for the purpose of scoping out feasibility. Not coincidentally, the daughter of Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, also spent time in Rwanda last summer. Last year, Schmidt himself hosted the president of Rwanda at Google's headquarters.

I teach a class on technology journalism at Stanford Universityand last May Schmidt came to speak to my class. In an unguarded moment, I asked him about Rwanda. When conversation turned to a possible server farm, he went dark, though he did agree that the first server farm in Africa (for a global mail service) would be a boon for Africans.

That server farm may still get switched on, though not likely in Rwanda. It seems the Googlers tired of the obstacles to a large operation in this landlocked country that is still recovering from an awful 1994 genocide. Instead, Google is believed to be close to choosing Kenya, a booming East African country that has the most international links of any African country save for perhaps South Africa. The choice of Kenya seems logical, though a bitterly disputed national election at the end of December has unleashed ethnic hostilities in the country. With Nairobi suddenly burning, Google may hold off on placing a server farm in or around the city.

Since Google doesn't talk about these matters, we will have to wait our turn. But a server farm for at least some of Africa's emailers now seems inevitable. And whomever opens this facility will score many important points and not only with Africans, but with a global digital community that still tends to overlook the world's poorest region. The multinational computer and software companies need a role model -- a successful company who can say we are investing big money in Africa, not just giving handouts or selling Africans our products.

Google, as so many other things, may be that role model. Africans wait.


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