Why Google built an Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Accra

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It was 2010 at the annual GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and Eric Schmidt the former CEO and Chairman of Google was presenting his keynote where he was proudly talking of the growth of Android, Google’s new mobile operating system at that time.

He had a slide on the screen with lights showing the level of Android activations globally, but on that slide Africa was dark. Someone in the audience asked; “Why is Africa dark?”

Someone else repeated a similar question at another presentation during Google’s annual developer event in San Francisco in 2013. The presenter was talking about Google’s Cloud Platform, and once again there was a global map where Africa was blank.

The question also came up — “What happened to Africa?”

Google didn’t seem to have any activity in Africa from both maps, but the illustrations were wrong. They were already active in Africa, but they decided to take a different route.

Google opted to strengthen the educational institutions by providing infrastructure and software, then from those institutions build technology communities which have now come of age.

There are hardly any young software developers you would meet in any of the major African countries who have not been part of or somewhat influenced by Google’s university-based Developer Groups.

At the Barcelona keynote, someone also asked Eric Schmidt a question about plans for Africa and especially Nigeria?

With surprising accuracy for the CEO of a global technology company, he highlighted the issues with infrastructure and last-mile connectivity hampering growth and expansion of Internet technology into Africa.

Google was not ignoring Africa; they were trying to figure out a solution. The solution has now come in many forms; massive infrastructure projects, digital skills training for millions, investments into the African startup ecosystem and most recently the announcement of an Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Accra, Ghana.

The question everyone was asking after Jeff Dean (the Google AI and Google Brain team lead) announced that Google AI Lab was coming to Accra was “Why Ghana?”

The answer to that has been clear for a while now but has eluded most people. When Barrack Obama decided to visit Ghana as the first African country during his Presidency, it was the same question most people asked – “Why Ghana?”

Ghana has relatively stable electricity, relative security, and decent internet infrastructure. It also has some of the best tourist destinations in the developing world. All of this is present without any hype.

Google probably, however, has different reasons for choosing Ghana, and Jeff Dean tried to explain that it had to do with the robust network of academic institutions as well as infrastructure.

Google has been a significant investor in strengthening those institutions and the infrastructure around it.

An Alphabet Subsidiary named CSquared spun out of Google has quietly been laying an extensive fiber optic backbone in Accra and Kampala to help solve the last-mile internet problem that Eric Schmidt mentioned in Barcelona.

The internet speeds Accra are now comparable with California speeds.

Ghana has also become a melting pot for education in the sub-region over the years because of the relative stability of the country and the high standards of its institutions, such as the highly-regarded Ashesi University.

The foundations of Ghanaian education are about the strongest in the region. It is not uncommon to see people from non-English speaking countries traveling to Ghana to learn English and for their education.

There is also a steady education pipeline between Nigeria and Ghana, in spite of historical ups and downs between both countries. Faced with a declining education system in their country, many Nigerian parents are opting to send their children to school in Ghana.

Building African talent is one of Ghana’s strongest points, and its central location also makes it a great business hub for those who want to expand to Francophone Africa and Africa’s largest market – Nigeria.