San Francisco: Google Inc. has signed deals to supply software to students and government workers in two East African nations, in a bid to put them on the technical footing of more developed countries.
The Web search leader said on Monday it had agreed to separate partnerships with the Rwandan Ministry of Infrastructure and the Kenya Education Network (KENET), which represents students and staff at 32 universities in Kenya.
Under the deals to supply Google Apps software, students in both African countries along with Rwandan government officials will have access to free communications tools including e-mail, shared calendars, instant messaging and word processing.
Last year, Mountain View, California-based Google entered the business software market with a basic set of free programs delivered over the Web.
It then began offering last month a subscription service to companies who pay for extra features and technical support.
Because Google Apps is delivered via a Web browser and has few of the maintenance headaches of traditional software, Google sees the opportunity to reach millions of new users in emerging markets and grab an early share of this new business.
"We are really trying to get people in Africa to have the same level of service and the same level of access as we offer all over the world," Francoise Brougher, Google's global director of business operations, in charge of its market development project in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Three Rwandan universities — the National University of Rwanda, the Kigali Institute for Education and the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology — will have access to Google Apps, along with the country's government ministries.
In the first phase, about 20,000 users in Rwanda will have access to Google Apps. A broader countywide introduction will follow shortly afterward.
The University of Nairobi's 50,000 students will be the first to use Google Apps in Kenya. It will then be extended to 150,000 Kenyan students at universities across the country. The effort is being jointly coordinated by Google and KENET.
While Africa has lagged behind other regions in adopting information and communication technologies, the expansion of mobile networks is helping Google make inroads.
Still, Rwanda ranks 158 out of 177 countries on the United Nations Development Programme's human development index, based on various health and resource measures.
Kenya ranks 152, below Zimbabwe at 151 and Bangladesh at 137. The Kenya and Rwanda deals are Google's first in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Brougher said the confluence of greater mobile access and computer use is fuelling demand for Web software.
"Things are actually moving very fast right now." In December, Google announced a sweeping deal with Egypt to supply Google Apps to 3 million university students and 8 million secondary students, Google officials said.