The Coming Battle for Africa's Internet

That growth potential helps explain why the World Bank's offices in Sierra Leone and Liberia, which typically focus on building roads or power plants, have allocated $57 million to support a $300 million project to build a broadband cable reaching out to sea.

Currently, most internet access in Sierra Leone and Liberia is only by satellite, which restricts it to those who are both extremely rich and extremely patient. But the World Bank-funded cable is expected to drop prices to a tenth of where they sit now -- well into what, for example, schools and shopowners could afford.

"We don't believe something like internet access or mobile technology is meant for the well-off," the bank's Sierra Leone manager Vijay Pillai said. "The impact of mobile phones clearly demonstrates that internet is something that can be transformative for the bulk of the population."

salam-seneweb_two.jpg

Back in the Senegalese office where Seneweb shuffles the news, Fall believes that the converse is true as well: Africa's population could also be transformative for the internet.

Google -- the company has six offices on the continent, including one in Dakar's colonial district, where it recently held a conference for local developers -- seems intent on developing the market in Africa, where it can deploy many of the same services that arose out of North America's chaotic and competitive first decades on the internet.

The search engine company, seeing plenty of openings in the nascent African web services market, is aiming to fill as many of them as possible. Google offers a Craigslist-style site where Africans can shop used goods -- sheep, pool tables, balafons (a xylophone-like West African instrument), or just about anything else. Last year, Google unfurled Baraza, a question-and-answer forum for Africans, which resembles Yahoo! Answers.

Fall called these "tried and failed methods for Senegalese market."

"I just feel like Google in Senegal, they really don't know what they're after, they just want to be here, waiting and seeing." he said.

Google Spokesperson Julie Taylor told me her company's presence is largely about encouraging local content, but Fall doesn't buy this explanation.

"The web has local content, but local tools -- that it doesn't have," he said, lamenting that many sites are just copies of their Western equivalents, which were designed for a very different part of the world.

"The only thing you have is tools that are built by U.S. and European companies and those tools are definitely not geared towards the African market."

Fall has a few tools in mind -- a phone-based bookkeeping service for shopkeepers, for example, which could do much in a part of the world where every salesman records his turnover in a notebook. He also wants to add a Blogger service to Seneweb and to sidestep Google Ads by soliciting African companies to buy banners on his site.

"I'm expecting them to advertise through us directly," he said. "Most private companies here don't even budget for advertising on the internet. I have to go after them, sit them down, and make a case for this internet thing."

African businesses might be skeptical about the web, but forward-looking tech companies from Seneweb to Google are already planning for how to best serve the continent's billion-plus consumers.

"You look at Africa, Brazil, China, India, and right there you have almost four billion of the world's consumers," Herlihy says. "They're only going to be happy using products designed for Americans for so long."

Photo: Salam Fall at work

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Drew Hinshaw is a reporter based in Dakar. He writes about West Africa. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg News and the Christian Science Monitor.

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