Africa’s diverse languages a unique challenge for developers

Africa’s 2,000 languages make building and developing software on the continent a lot harder, with this an issue that needs to be tackled.

Andile Ngcaba, founder of Convergence Partners, at the Fifth Global Forum on Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship in East London, South Africa, discussed how African languages should fit in with software and technology for maximum reach

“One fundamental issue that makes it very difficult for us to build and develop software today is language,” said Ngcaba, who added that until the language issue within the African continent is dealt with, “the way in which we engage with the internet is going to still create inhibitors [on] how we build systems for the future”.

According to Ngcaba, Africa is a continent of more than 2,000 languages. He said to build systems specifically for Africa, it is important to code with language in mind.

“We have to build what is called… natural language technologies.”

Ngcaba said the infrastructure has been built very well over the past 20 years in terms of satellites, mobile devices and undersea wireless fibre infrastructure, but today it is important to focus on mobile devices and developing these devices, which are able to “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,” said Ngcaba.

“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 said it cannot be expected of African people to use the internet when they are greeted with a language they do not understand.

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