Ghana’s social media users put on a good show a few weeks back when incumbent president John Atta Mills gave his first press conference of 2012. They were critical of him, critical of the topics, critical of the mainstream media’s questions.
But when Google’s Ghana country manager Estelle Akofio-Sowah addressed a technology jobs forum at the World Bank last week, the critical voices seemed less prominent. There was plenty to discuss: the Get Your Business Online scheme, a free site-building service for SMEs that first launched in Britain in 2010, and is currently embroiled in a ‘scalping’ row in Kenya, was coming to Ghana, bringing the sub-Saharan Africa tally to Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and, as of today, South Africa.
The scheme has implications for tech jobs, especially in markets where the sector remains small (Akofio-Sowah has talked about Google helping to ‘build the internet ecosystem’ in Africa). SME site builds are a crucial revenue stream for informal or growing web development, design and hosting businesses. In the most cynical possible reading, Google’s scheme mirrors an all-too-common multinational MO: outsource production, flood the market with cheap or free goods to secure share, and spit-shine the whole thing by tying it to a development problem.
There are valid counterarguments, of course. Site builds are only one part of the tech space, and the most exciting entrepreneurs will be doing far more sophisticated things. And in any case, GYBO still leaves room for some (basic) custom design work, and for tech partners in local markets to earn revenue through optional domain upgrades.
More optimistically, you could argue that the market can easily sustain this kind of growth, or that the businesses that adopt GYBO are so small that they’re flying beneath the customer base of local developers anyway – Aunti Muni’s legendary roadside Waakye stand in Accra, for example, probably wasn’t ready to pay for something bespoke.
More speculatively, GYBO could help the market mature by acting as a growth pipeline, converting digital virgins to connected businesses that will turn to home-grown developers when they’re ready to fly the Google nest.
And outright ideologically, you could argue that complaining about any of this is protectionism, and contradicts the global free market agenda of most big Western donors. Make of that what you will.
So GYBO isn’t necessarily negative. But nor is it obviously positive. That point is that nuance has so far been missing from the scheme’s public reception.