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African language inclusion in technology good for growth

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Graphic: Wade Geduldt / African News Agency (ANA) – Tech industries must pay regard to the growing African population and ensure there is representation of all their languages on devices

By Chad Williams

By the year 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African, with that said, it is important that global brands and businesses ensure that there is African representation of languages available on all technology.

According to Harvard University’s Introduction to African Languages, with anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 languages, Africa is home to approximately one-third of the world’s languages.

The diversity of Africa’s languages is evidenced by their populations. In total, there are at least 75 languages in Africa which have more than one million speakers, the university says.

With that said, while the languages of Africa represent a host of language families, features, and cultures, there’s one thing they have in common, they’ve been all but neglected by the tech industry.

Fast forward to 2022, in a post pandemic world that is now relying heavily on technology for their daily source of news information or content, why are so few African languages represented in technology?

The fact that internet giant Google recently announced that it is expanding its Gboard in Africa, adding nine African languages to the app’s voice dictation feature, shows that the company recognises Africa’s potential and future expansion as a global economic superpower continent.

Certainly there must be more inclusion of native African languages in technology.

Interestingly, of the eight languages Google will be adding, eight of these are official South African languages, with the ninth being one of Rwanda’s four languages.

This could be because the company sees South Africa has the gateway to Africa.

This is definitely a step in the right direction, I think, but if we are to have a connected Africa, African language representation and implementation in technology must be fast tracked.

According to the latest internet access figures by Statista, as of January 2022, Morocco had an internet penetration of approximately 84.1 percent, making it the country with the highest internet penetration in Africa.

Seychelles ranked second, with 79 percent, followed by Egypt with approximately 72 percent.

Approximately 473 million Africans are online, and an additional 300 million will likely join them by 2025.

The number of African social media users has risen continuously, amounting to over 384 million as of 2022.

Picture: Sara Kurfeß/Unsplash

Internet penetration into Africa is growing.

I would even go on a limb and say that African language exclusion in technology is discrimination.

In 2021, Meta launched wav2vec Unsupervised (wav2vec-U), which was a way to build speech recognition systems that require no transcribed data at all.

Meta said they tested wav2vec-U with languages such as Swahili and Tatar.

Programmes by the African Language Technology Initiative ALT-I, which is a research and development agency with the mission to take African languages into the information age was set up in 2002 with the purpose of developing the necessary human capacities to produce ICT resources for African languages.

It’s time to Africanise technology.

Williams is a multi-media journalist at the African News Agency (ANA).

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.