Africa is not a Country – GALA 2013

Published on Reinhard Schäler’s blog

On Tuesday, 16 March 2013, four friends got together at GALA 2013, the Globalization and Localization Association’s Conference, to present a panel on Spotlight on Africa: Business Opportunities in the World’s Fastest Growing Markets to the assembled localisation business community. I introduced Dwayne Bailey of Translate (South Africa), Tunde Adegbola of Alt-i (Nigeria), Solomon Gizaz of FOSS Africa, the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa, (Ethiopia), and the Localisation Research Centre (Ireland). We wanted to bring the message home to the western business community that Africa was not in need of a ‘mission’ to save it from falling off the cliff (a term much more familiar these days in the context of the US economy) but rather that it is ready to form partnerships with the most innovative and energetic businesses from around the world.

Africa is not only the birthplace of humanity but also the birthplace of human language. Today, it is one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth, with between two and three thousand languages spoken natively (although 75% of Africans speak one of the top twelve). Africans are truly multilingual—it is not uncommon for people to speak their mother tongue at home, a regional African language like Swahili when communicating with neighbours, and one of the colonial languages with non-natives.

Over the past year or so, Africa has featured prominently on the covers of both Time Magazine and The Economist under the headline ‘Africa Rising.’ Over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African. In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia, including Japan. With 600 million mobile phone users, Africa has overtaken America and Europe. Africa’s GDP will grow by 900 per cent, topping out at $15 trillion by 2060 – that’s a shade bigger than the current GDP of the United States.

Oprah Winfrey’s US$3 billion fortune makes her the wealthiest black person in America.  But she is no longer the richest black person in the world. This is now Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian cement king. Although people criticize him that he is too close to the political classes, his US$10 billion fortune is earned, not expropriated.

While Dublin bus drivers have to give change in the form of a paper receipt that is redeemable only at the central office (where in the world???), in Nairobi, busses have NFC (Near Field Communication) technology that wirelessly transfers funds from your mobile phone in seconds: no delay, no cash, no change, and you just pay the correct fare.

The following is an extract from the conversation we had during the panel session, in which we talk about the work that is going on in the language industry in Africa, the opportunities for collaboration with the West, and the roadblocks that sometimes make this collaboration difficult.

Reinhard: Could you briefly describe the work you are doing?

Dwayne: Translate focuses on helping companies to localise using their communities.  We draw on our experience and the technologies we built to localise open-source products into South African languages and use that to assist organisations like Mozilla to localise their products such as Firefox, to help Evernote, LibreOffice, Apache, and others.

Tunde: We develop infrastructural, human, intellectual, and other resources required for the active use of modern ICT in African languages. This we do by training researchers, producing knowledge, and developing software and hardware, as well as localising software with the objective of making modern ICT usable in our local languages.

Solomon: I am doing a PhD in the Localisation Research Center at the University of Limerick.

ReinhardWhat is the most important issue you are trying to address with your work (and what would you like to achieve with it)?

Dwayne: Helping people who speak the long tail (and not so long tail) languages to localise products. In that way, enabling them to ensure that their language remains relevant in the digital age. Because, to be honest, if languages are not present in platforms that enable the modern world, then they are languages of curiosity and not viable in the long term. We want to see languages play a vibrant part in the digital world. We’re achieving that by helping language speakers achieve that by helping our clients reduce the cost of supporting the localisation into these languages.

Tunde: Technology provides facilities to jump some of the natural communication hurdles presented by multilingualism and illiteracy, but we have to work at it to make it useful.

Solomon: I am building a technology framework to integrate personalisation into localisation.

ReinhardDo you believe that the ‘West’ understands what is going on in Africa, how people in Africa work, what they need? What can the ‘West’ learn from Africa; what can Africa bring to the people?

Dwayne: Hard one to call. I think there are people from the West who really do understand Africa. But the biggest risk is that if you don’t, it is unlikely that any African will explain that to you. You’ll be left wondering why you just can’t seem to make it happen. Africa really is a multilingual space, while sometimes the West thinks of multilingual as a collection of monolingual silos. In Africa we’re dealing with many languages at the same time. Think pain x N. We’re also dealing with high language skills and low technology skills and producing software that brings sophisticated tech in a low-tech way.

Tunde: Just as Africa misunderstands the West, the West usually gets it really wrong when engaging Africa. The key is to accept the deep cultural differences and enter partnerships on mutually beneficial terms.

Solomon: Yes and No. Yes, because they at least attempt to do something. No, because the approach needs some improvement that considers the reality in Africa.

ReinhardWhat are the biggest opportunities in Africa today?

Dwayne: 2 billion users.  With smartphones rewriting how we think of computers, and with some amazing innovations in Africa we’re faced with a growing market for localisation.

Tunde: Having missed out on many of the opportunities of the Industrial Age, Africa requires mutually beneficial partnerships that will help it take advantage of the offerings of the Information Age.

Solomon: There are many potential customers, a huge population that demands to get information in their own language; the West can use this demand to provide services the African way.

ReinhardWhat needs to happen to grasp them?

Dwayne: Find a good partner and an opportunity to build trust, skills, and relationships for the future.

Tunde: Building partnerships.

Solomon: Two things: as there are few professionals, many people will require training. And: any collaboration should happen with the community as a whole, in their language, not just with a few professionals who are comfortable to use western languages.

I’ll end my short report from our conversation at GALA here. We all felt that this was only a start, the beginning of a long-lasting dialogue and collaboration.

A final word – this time on real action: Late last year, the University of Limerick and the UN Economic Commission for Africa were joined by GALA and The Rosetta Foundation for the launch of the AGIS (Action for Global Information Sharing) Africa Initiative. The plan is to roll out UL’s MSc in Multilingual Computing and Localisation in Africa with a base at UNECA in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). GALA has enthusiastically supported the initiative and will provide students with internships and business mentors. Dwayne, Tunde, and Solomon will all be involved in the preparation and the delivery of the programme. We all very much look forward to our collaboration and will keep you posted on progress.

Remember, Africa is not a country, but a continent of fifty-five states. We don’t need to go on a mission to rescue this continent from the abyss. We need to collaborate with our African friends and colleagues. This is about partnership and exchange, we’ll be ‘on the road’ together for some time to come – learning from each other, working very hard, going far beyond of what we can imagine today, and having lots of fun!

Should you wish to find out more about the AGIS Africa initiative and join in the journey, the fun, and the hard work, go towww.localisation.ie/AGISAfrica or email info@therosettafoundation.org

Information about the economic development in Africa was sourced from The Economist, 03 December 2011, African Development Bank 10/2011, and Time Magazine 03 December 2012

Reinhard Schäler