Looking to the emerging markets of Africa? Software and technology are both big business. As the African continent is home more than 2,000 different languages, however, developing software for the African market can be quite a challenge.
The African market can be a hard one to tackle; not only are African cultures very different from our western ones, there is a language barrier to overcome as well. As there are so many languages spoken on the continent, this language barrier isn’t broken down easily.
Andile Ngcaba, the founder of Convergence Partners, spoke at the Fifth Global Forum on Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship in East London, South Africa about how African languages should be incorporated into software and technology in order to reach as many consumers as possible.
Ngcaba stated that “one fundamental issue that makes it very difficult for us to build and develop software today is language. The way in which we engage with the internet is going to still create inhibitors [on] how we build systems for the future.” As there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, it is important that developers keep language in mind when coding: “We have to build what is called… natural language technologies.”
The African infrastructure has improved greatly over the last 20 years, Ngcaba says. Satellites have been placed, and an undersea wireless fibre infrastructure has been placed, for example, but nowadays the focus is on mobile devices that, according to Ngcaba, can “take us to the next generation.”
“For this to happen, the bulk of the work done on these devices is English and English has been coded not only at HTML level or Java or Python level, but the underlying dictionary of English has been built long before you can develop systems [for] the application layer for technologies such as mobile devices.”
In addition, he says, “Unless we build underlying engines that address our respective languages, our penetration on the internet from a language point of view will be minimal. All the infrastructure we have built… will not be able to reach as many people as possible.” Ngcaba also stated that African people cannot be expected to use the internet when they can only access it in a language they don’t speak.