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The Whiteboard

Google wants to change lives through the internet


Farzana Khubchandani, Google Kenya Head of Marketing

It is among the world’s most powerful technology companies. Its mention immediately brings to mind the internet and search engine. That’s Google Inc. Despite being among the easily recognisable companies, Google still needs marketing. Why? “Google is more than search. We are a company that provides you with what you need,” says FarzanaKhubchandani, Google Kenya Head of Marketing.

This is quite ambiguous because the world over, Google is viewed as a search engine, a market that it dominates with 100 billion search queries a month. Google, however, views itself differently; an innovation garage that uses the power of computing to enrich the lives of users. This is something that is enshrined in the firm’s philosophy of ‘putting the user first’.

Though Google is a global behemoth with revenues in the excess of USD50 billion and over 46,000 staff, it is in Africa in general and Kenya in particular where the company is determined to enrich lives through connectivity.

Driven by the understanding that the internet is a powerful tool that offers enormous opportunities that can transform livelihoods of thousands and drive economic growth, the company has been at the forefront in deepening technological access and reducing barriers.

Internet penetration

“We want to create a vibrant ecosystem for the Internet to thrive,” explains Khubchandani, who holds an MBA from the London School of Economics. Currently, Internet penetration is depressed with only about 20 per cent of Africa’s population having access. Deepening access is critical because Africa is emerging as a frontier for anchoring global economic expansion and technology is expected to play a central role. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa is today the fastest growing region in the world at an average of six per cent annually with 10 out of 20 fastest growing countries being in the continent.  One of the key projects the company is currently involved in is Africa Connected, a pan-African initiative to celebrate success stories powered by the web. In Kenya, television viewers must have come across the ‘Just a Band’ advert, the arts and music group whose success is largely owed to the Internet.

According to Khubchandani, Google wants to bring these success stories to the limelight and inspire others to utilise the Internet in pursuit of success. The five most unique stories will be awarded a USD25,000 grant. “Our ultimate goal is to educate and inspire many more people to get connected on the web to achieve their own success,” she says.

In Kenya, Google has also been involved in many other projects. These include the Kenya Elections Hub in which the firm launched a portal prior to the March 4 general elections that enabled voters, journalists and campaigners to easily track news, trends and information related to the polls and the Kenya Business Online project that made it easy for Kenyan businesses to get online. Another innovative project was the Kenya Doodle 4 Google Competition for high school students that was aimed at celebrating Kenya @ 50 and which saw the winner take home KSh800,000 and her school receive a similar amount.

“We are involved in projects that will make us relevant locally,” explains Khubchandani, who started her marketing career as a trend analyst in New York and has worked in other cities like London, Vancouver and Tokyo. Indeed being relevant locally is important for Google in ensuring that Kenyans easily associate with the company.

This explains why the Google search engine also comes in a Swahili version. Besides, Google partners with local companies, universities, apps developers and tech firms to develop content that is germane to Kenya. “We want to make information more useful and relevant to people,” says the mother of two with Kenyan and Rwandan heritage.

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Use of mobile phones

Though Kenya has achieved exponential growth in the telecoms sector over the past decade, the fact that Internet penetration is mainly concentrated in major cities and towns has made Google peg its growth on the mobile phone. Today, slightly over three quarters of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Besides, Kenya is the leading market for smart phones in sub-Sahara Africa, according to the International Telecommunication Union. By the end of this year, it is projected there will be about 4.3 million smart phone users in Kenya, a 51 per cent sales compared to feature phones 49 per cent sales.

Being cognizant of the intensifying competition, the company knows the surest way to lock users is through innovative products delivered on the mobile phone. “The main source of access in Kenya is the mobile. That is why we have a mobile view,” notes Khubchandani, adding that Google is not perturbed by competition because it is driven by innovation and meeting the needs of its users. “The market should expect more innovations and relevant products from Google.”

For Khubchandani who joined Google six years ago, being part of the Google family and being in charge of pushing its products in the local market is a fulfilling career. Indeed, she is excited by the government’s free laptop project because it means getting children online at an early age. “This is a great initiative because it will bring more people online,” she says.

The exciting trends in the ICT sector makes Khubchandani feel proud for coming back to Kenya four years ago after many years of globetrotting. This has not only enabled her to play a role in the growth of the sector, but has given her time to enjoy her hobbies of travelling and gardening. She is also in the process of establishing a mentorship programme for women entrepreneurs. “I want to support women who want to use the internet to grow their business,” she says.

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