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Google Trends, African entrepreneurship and a call for Hope

If what we search for reflects our predilections and proclivities, then search trends can be used to estimate countries ahead of the curve and predict those who will show visible growth over the next decade. And if we can observe what we have searched for, can understand why we made these searches, it is possible for us to hack the process to shape future national tastes and behavior. Voilà Google Trends!

Google Trends is a feature that shows how frequently a given term is searched in Google’s engine relative to the site’s total search volume over a period. It showcases the popularity of top search queries in Google Search across various countries, regions, and languages, using graphs to compare the search volume of different queries.

Despite efforts of Yahoo, Baidu and Microsoft’s Bing to cut into its 80%-plus global market share, Google, as the ubiquitous name for search has leveraged its position to tap into datasets to reflect insights across different categories ranging from People, Artistes, Stories, Trending Questions and Movies, among others. Since 2012, the company has consistently shared a year-in-review with a video that highlights the year’s search.

 

No need for validation but…

The overwhelming sentiment is that to check a nation’s cultural pulse, look at what they are searching for online. Our Google trends reflect the zeitgeist of our time. A 2016 study conducted by Nghiem, Le T.P., et al, opines that the use of Google Trends can serve as a valuable source of analysis, providing time-series information on fluctuations in public interest in numerous topics, especially across fine temporal (weekly) and spatial scales across the globe. After a rigorous analysis in Analysis of the Capacity of Google Trends to Measure Interest in Conservation Topics and the Role of Online News, the researchers surmised that Google Trends data are a powerful tool to monitor and evaluate public interest in conservation, arguing that by conducting keyword comparisons within the discipline of conservation, it is possible to gain insight on changing public interests and use this knowledge to prioritize communication about conservation to the public.

 

Google in Africa

With about 40% internet penetration, an estimated 525m people online (more than in North America-327m and the Middle East-174m combined) and approximately 60% of its 1.3b population under age 25, Africa is the world’s youngest and agile continent. Coupled with its pool of brainpower and talent, an estimated smartphone rate of 39% and home to six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, the potential represented by Africans coming online and participating in the digital economy is significant.

Recently, mobile phone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa has increased dramatically. According to the 2019 report from GSMA, there were 747m SIM connections in sub-Saharan Africa, representing 74% of the population. Its 2025 projections anticipate a bigger pie; Africa will have 600m+ unique subscribers, with mobile’s contribution expected to reach $185m (9.1% of GDP) enabled by improvements in productivity and efficiency fostered by increased uptake of mobile services.

Understandably, tech firms are gambling on Africa as their next income frontier. As their Africa user base grows, they have become more serious about the revenue opportunity the continent represents and are now aggressively working on local presence in key markets. Within the last three years, Africa has played host to a roll call of global Big Tech CEOs from Facebook, Google, Twitter, GitHub and Alibaba.

In its resolve to bolster its position across Africa, Google has been busy with Google Station to provide free Wi-Fi; Google Impact Challenge for Africa to reward non-profits with community impact in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa; Digital Skills for Africa to upskill business owners; Google Partners for digital and marketing agencies; emPawa to support music talent and Accelerator programmes for technology startups in Africa. Google is also building a new subsea cable to connect Southern Africa to Portugal and has launched a shoal of services such as the promise of a first-in-Africa artificial intelligence lab in Ghana and the recently opened Developers space in Nigeria.

As owner of the most ubiquitous operating system on mobile, Google will seek to play an even bigger role enhancing mobile-enabled platforms to disrupt traditional value chains in different verticals across the region to eliminate inefficiencies in conventional business models, as well as extend the reach of its services.

 

Africa on Google 

Despite intermittent appearances by other countries, only four African countries continue to make the trends list: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, largely (I suspect) because they are regional leaders represent distinct archetypes of size (of economy and population), economic growth, median age and digital momentum.

Buoyed by 123.4m internet users and an internet penetration of 61.4%, Nigeria (West Africa) leads the pack; followed by Egypt (North Africa) with 49.2m internet users and an internet penetration of 48.7%; Kenya (East Africa) follows closely with 46.8m internet users and 89.8% internet penetration, trailed by South Africa with 32.6m internet users and an internet penetration of 56.2%.

While their numbers may be small, Kenya and South Africa are the real leaders, paving the way for the rest of Africa. A recent research project by the Fletcher Business School at Tufts University highlights the role that enabling institutional environments and regional tech-savviness have played in the rise of the duo. South Africa is a regional leader in the deployment of innovative technologies, such as biometric data and payment cards, while Kenya has made a name for itself as the hotspot for some of the continent’s most innovative fin-tech enterprises, such as mPesa, Ushahidi, M-KOPA, M-TIBA etc.

Nigeria and Egypt still have the most untapped opportunities for growth. Egypt leads in skilled digital jobs creation and hosts some of the fastest growing entrepreneurial hubs. Whatever Nigeria lacks in enabling infrastructure and connectivity to rural areas, it more than makes up for in its vibrant digital entrepreneurial ecosystem and mobile broadband infrastructure. Nigeria is home to some of the continent’s most reputable entrepreneurs and was Africa’s leading startup investment destination in 2018, with about $95 million in deals.

In the absence of any empirical national research undertaken to understand how society is evolving, trends such as Google’s, can offer insights into citizen and customer wants, core values, lifestyle changes. In my quest to understand the cultural pulse, interests and tastes of Africans, I have followed Google Trends results for Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa between 2015 and 2019 (Egypt is missing because of the non-English language). During this period, I tracked the stories, people, trending questions (what is, how to) searched by people from these countries. I did not include trending artistes (actors and musicians), lyrics, songs, movies et al because my focus was on less seasonal behavior.

Nigeria’s search questions reveal a unique perspective‚ not only on some of the big moments and people of the period‚ but also what people were watching on television and even planning to cook for dinner.

Top searches include global news around the US and its president, Donald Trump, the protracted Brexit referendum; local personality searches around politicians (President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar were top searches) and artistes (Mr. Eazi and Naira Marley).

Top ‘What is’ questions were around Manchester United, Ebola, xenophobia and Ruga, while ‘How to’ questions focused on writing business plans, starting blogs and making Egusi.

South Africa’s trending searches show a growing interest in global personalities, its neighbours, local celebrities and events and how South Africans are increasingly turning to the internet to find local businesses near them. Trump, the US elections and Brexit join Zimbabwe and its former President, Robert Mugabe on the list of most searched items between 2015 and 2019. South Africans also searched for the Gupta family, Winnie Mandela, Casper Nyovest and other local celebrities. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently Googled is load shedding, a rotational blackout and electric outage that has plagued South Africa. Leading search questions were, according to local newspaper, The Witness, a mix of serious and silly. ‘How to’ questions sought to apologise, lose belly fat, create websites and build strong business relationships.

Kenya’s search trends revealed a broad-based consumption, from technology, entrepreneurship to queries around pregnancy and sex. Asides a few non-local stories on; yes, Trump again; Jacob Zuma, Royal wedding, Ebola and xenophobia, Kenya homeostatically maintained its focus on local stories. The Huduma number, BBI report, the Kenyan elections and Ralia Odinga’s swearing in were some of the biggest searches in Kenya between 2015 and 2019. Others were a University lecturers’ strike; KCPE; the ill-fated Ethiopian Boeing 737 MAX flight and death of Bob Collymore. Kenyans also searched for information on how to get pregnant, lose weight, increase fertility and use a condom. Other “how to” searches revolved around careers and entrepreneurship as people tried to know how to start businesses, create websites, file KRA returns and save money.

 

Changing mindsets

A comparison between the trending questions of 2015 to 2019, across these countries expose changing mindsets, tastes, lifestyle and entrepreneurship choices by African countries. For instance, Nigeria’s current searches reveal an enlightened populace trying to understand Terrorism, Elections, Justice, Ruga and how to start businesses, several shifts away from earlier queries around stopping auto-renewal for their data lines and identifying original iPhone 5S. Kenya’s trending questions reflect an increased adoption of technology and understanding of entrepreneurship. In 2015, Kenyans searched for girlfriends, condoms and Chlamydia infections (not necessarily in that order). Today, they are more concerned about writing application letters, setting up businesses and filing tax returns.

In 2015, South Africans wanted to know how to smoke, how to apologise and what xenophobia, Ebola and ISIS mean. More recently, they have been searching how to create websites, track phone numbers, vote in parliament and understand the role of the private sector in poverty alleviation.

These may be small, seemingly unnoticeable changes in the search trends of African’s mobile population, but they indicate an improvement in values for youths that have frequently been characterized as lazy, uneducated and unemployable (coughs).

However, it is not uhuru.

Across Africa, where being an entrepreneur is often an occupation of necessity, young people want to learn how to start businesses. In the face of high unemployment (Africa’s youth unemployment rate is about 30%) and limited schooling, breadwinners make their living wherever they can, in open-air markets and online. For most African nations, entrepreneurship is critical to diversifying from traditional sources of income. So far, entrepreneurship has yielded huge returns for entrepreneurs, and there still lies great untapped potential to drive the African continent into its next phase of development. How can we drive more entrepreneurship across Africa?

 

Can we hack the process?

The most interesting conclusion that can be gleaned from the broader digital landscape of Google search results is that people want to educate themselves. From basic fact-checking to How-to do-something searches, Africans are united in the resolve to pick up new skills.

How can concerned stakeholders leverage this to collective advantage? How can we create opportunities for active searches for Africans, especially around current aspirations on entrepreneurship and technology, in light of the 4th industrial revolution?

We can start by focusing on three things: awareness, enabling policies and intra-continent collaboration.

A popular song by Heavy D goes “Now that we found love what are we gonna do, with it?” In Africa, it is ‘Now that we have the internet, what are we gonna do with it?’ While social media ‘influencers’, comedy skits and eCommerce are a good start, Africa can do much more with the internet. We can be taught to utilize connectivity for economic and social good. Some of Africa’s startups have leveraged the internet to improve access to life-saving and life-improving services in previously out of reach areas such as training (Andela, Enko); healthcare (M-Tiba, LifeBank, MyDawa); energy (SolarNow, Aspire Power, Daystar Power, Arnergy) and finance (BitPesa, Flutterwave, Piggyvest, Lulalend).

We can spotlight the players transforming applications and platforms into instruments for creating monumental changes for individuals and communities by raising the level of awareness around them and making it easier to access related information online. We can also encourage entrepreneurship by spotlighting successful start-up support projects, such as the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) Entrepreneurship Programme and its $100 million grant to 10,000 African entrepreneurs.

For many entrepreneurs, policies in Africa have been crippling. This view has been corroborated by several ICT experts across Africa who emphasize that economic growth will come only when governments get out of the way and stop impeding the development that would naturally occur. National governments should instead, support Intellectual Property Rights, include entrepreneurship education within school curricula, improve on the Ease of Doing Business indices and provide access to funding for small businesses and start-ups. To democratize access to information, they must invest in web capabilities, take services focused on entrepreneurs and businesses online and improve their online presence.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA) will create economies of scale and drive regional integration, critical requirements for Africa’s competitiveness in the global digital economy. As entrepreneurs and policymakers begin to engage, to provide clarity around trans-border movement of goods and services, and import processes, information will be required. How will this information be provided, and through what medium?

These are not rhetorical questions. They are opportunities waiting to be harvested and lucky are those who will pivot from trend spotters to change makers.

 

 

Osunrinde is a strategic marketing professional with specialization in Sales & Marketing and Growth Strategy in industries such as Telecommunications, Management Consulting and Communications. He can be contacted via temi.osunrinde@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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