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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Google's Blunder Shows Africa Has Ideas Worth Stealing

The search giant is accused of accessing a startup’s database and trying to poach its customers.

  • January 17, 2012

Last week, Google was forced to admit that its Kenyan unit was “improperly” using data from a local startup (the victim, Mocality, had assembled a valuable online and mobile-phone-accessible directory of local businesses; Google was allegedly accessing Mocality’s database and soliciting its customers to buy websites set up by Google).

Mocality’s homepage.

As chance would have it, two days before this admission, I paid a visit to Google’s Nairobi office.

In a small 7th floor break room, where a tray of beef stew congealed from a luncheon hours earlier, I met with the site’s director, Joseph Mucheru, Google’s first employee in sub-Saharan Africa. A former executive at a Kenyan Internet infrastructure company, Mucheru explained that part of the mission of Google’s Africa beachhead was to educate local entrepreneurs through means including “G-Days”—short for “Google Days.” These events let local developers learn more about things like writing apps for Android and how to take advantage of Google services to start and run their businesses.

But now Google looks less like the benevolent evangelist and more like a pillager of indigenous resources.

Mocality, an offshoot of a South African company, said in a blog post that it had caught Google “systematically accessing Mocality’s database and attempting to sell their competing product to our business owners. They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices, in order to do so. As of January 11th, nearly 30% of our database has apparently been contacted.”

In a subsequent statement, Google’s Nelson Mattos, vice president for product and engineering for Europe and emerging markets, said that the company was “mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality,” and that it was investigating the episode.

Maybe Africans need the benevolent hands of a multinational Internet mega-company to know how best to grow their tech enterprises. But Google’s actions suggest there’s plenty of value in the tech business initiatives and technologies springing up organically in East Africa and other parts of the world.

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