One of Google’s goals in Africa is to make the internet more locally relevant and bring more people online. One of the challenges of the internet in Africa is that there is a lack of local content online. At Google, we find that users search for information about local businesses, entertainment, health, etc but often don’t find it because the information is not yet available online. In order to help bring more local content online, Google engineers have created Baraza to allow people in countries across Africa to ask questions and post answers to questions from others.
I find Baraza's mission to be quite noble, but Google, ever the innovator, is actually behind in designing a platform for more African content and community on the web. The African blogosphere and news sites have naturally grown on their own to answer many of the questions Google hopes to answer with its service. Afrigator for example, a network of African blogs, has been around for years and plenty other micro communities exist for their respective niche interests. Even so, perhaps what will be innovative about the service will be that it is a more centralized and organized meeting place for those seeking African content to interact and find what they are looking for, albeit without a flashy visually stimulating interface.
One other drawback I can identify is that most of the conversation, if not all of it, seems to be happening in English. Having lived in different regions of Africa with very well established written languages, I can say that a conversation in English is not only limited to a more narrow group with a solid education, it's not always an accurate representation of what people are trying to say. Just ask NGUGI WA THIONGO, the famous Kenyan writer, what he thinks about language and he will likely tell you that language is the vessel of culture (in his own words of course).
Baraza is the latest in what appears to be a string of new initiatives designed to bring more Africans online. Google teams recently spearheaded two conferences in East Africa, in Kenya and Uganda, to communicate with local developers and tech entrepreneurs for the purpose of discussing what new tech/mobile innovations are on the horizon. Facebook too has been looking to expand its market by introducing 0.facebook.com with select mobile operators that allows users to access facebook for free. This service is marketed towards new web users who are logging on with their mobile phones Hopefully some fruitful relationships will be realized as African consumers are engaged and products are tailored to their interests.
The Google Baraza service has just gone public this week following its beta testing phase and so it will be interesting to see how it grows and evolves. I certainly will be trying out the service. We'll see how well people can respond to queries about obscure locales in The Gambia and Lesotho.
Baraza's introductory video is below: