Sub-Saharan Africa: A Local Perspective on Challenges and Opportunities
Rosalind Smith, eLocalize
Rosalind Smith delves into four challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa and offers a look into the possibilities ahead.
For those venturing into Africa for the first time there are several challenges, not least of which is the great diversity of tongues drawn from several language families. Some in North East Africa have their own alphabets; in West Africa, scripts now adapted to Latin were originally written using Arabic letters (due to their being in contact through major trading routes with the Middle East in the past). Other languages have only been written down in recent times, especially in the southern parts of the continent.
A second challenge is the fact that education in most countries has lagged with only a small percentage of the more affluent sectors of society achieving university status during the 20th century, and thus creating a lack of suitably trained persons wishing to enter the translation field.
A third is the lack of infrastructure in many African countries. Internet connectivity is frequently not of good quality, making it difficult to work online, or the costs are extremely high meaning most vendors cannot afford to use it for long periods. Additionally, CAT tool licenses are often too expensive for vendors to consider buying them. Ongoing electricity outages compound the situation in too many of the countries. One bright spot is East Africa with the opening of the new undersea optical fiber cable in 2009.
The fourth challenge is the ongoing conflicts and coups that affect a goodly number of the countries in West and Central Africa, and more recently Sudan and South Sudan.
First Challenge: Languages
Estimates vary on the number of tongues spoken, whistled and even drummed in Africa from 2000 to over 3000 from the main language families:
- Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel
- Nilo-Saharan centered on Sudan and Chad
- Niger–Congo (Bantu) covering West, Central, and Southeast Africa
- Khoe concentrated in the deserts of Namibia and Botswana
- Austronesian on Madagascar
- Indo-European in the south
Languages spoken by millions of people such as Arabic, Igbo, Somali, Swahili, Hausa, Amharic and Yoruba are used for interethnic communication. Twelve of the more similar languages are spoken by 75% of the people and fifteen of these are spoken by 85% as a first or second language.
While English, French - and to a lesser degree Arabic and Portuguese - are spoken in many of the countries that were colonized in the past, there is a clear need for local languages when selling services or goods in these markets. Angola is the exception as over 60% of the people speak Portuguese and this is increasing among the youth.
Second Challenge: Education
Although literacy rates have greatly improved over the last few decades, approximately 40% of Africans over the age of 15 and 50% of women above the age of 25 remain illiterate. Thus many sub-Saharan African countries have low rates of participation in formal education. Schools lack basic facilities, and universities often suffer from overcrowding and the difficulties of retaining qualified staff attracted overseas by higher pay and better conditions. According to a report published by Friedrich Huebler in March 2008, 36.9% of school-aged children in Africa do not attend primary school.
Thus the lack of qualified and experienced vendors is a major factor facing companies even translating into many of the common languages like those prevailing in Western Africa, Eastern and South Africa. As for the latter country there are problems with some of the 11 official languages, as education in African tongues lags further behind that in English and Afrikaans. Consequently, the best African vendors are much sought after and the rest often deliver a lower quality product. Late deliveries due to this and the poor infrastructure as mentioned earlier are a mega problem.
Overseas clients basing their expectations on European and other common languages have a problem understanding that African languages cannot be turned around at speed. Rather than 3,000 words or more per vendor per day, if one can deliver 1,200, he is doing well. In addition, new technology needs new words, so much time is expended on finding the correct terms. In South Africa the government is establishing a database in all the languages setting out the acceptable words for these, but it is taking time. Additionally, in many countries, full-time vendors are few. Most hold down a day job and do translation in their spare time or on their work machines, limiting the amount of time they are available. During vacation periods they often return to their homelands where internet connectivity is a luxury.
Third Challenge: Infrastructure or rather Information and Communication Technology
Innovation in ICT is a vital component of an economy’s dynamism and competitiveness. While Africa lags behind in terms of fixed-line telephony, new technologies and business models are circumventing market inefficiencies and institutional bottlenecks. The number of applications is rising, with e-banking setting the pace and other services such as e-health, e-education, and e-government following closely.
So the outlook for ICT in Africa is immense; there are many opportunities for enterprising overseas companies to tap into vibrant sectors such as the mobile money industry, which has taken East Africa by storm. Africa could easily transform ICT development around the world because there is a lot to learn from hard to reach regions, which leapfrog past their Western counterparts due to local factors forcing them to think outside the box.
Fourth Challenge: Instability
Most African countries have enjoyed more than a decade of economic growth at rates the West can only dream about. At the same time Congo has suffered the most murderous conflict since World War II. Next door in Uganda, the capital Kampala has boomed, while less than 200 miles to the north, the Lord's Resistance Army has abducted children and committed appalling atrocities. Africa is so big and so diverse that it contains both horrendous disasters and extraordinary successes.
The growing demand for translation into major African languages is gradually driving change as people strive to become vendors to earn or supplement their monthly income, and as demand for improved courses at universities and language colleges increases. More work means experience gained in new fields, and will enable some to afford the needed CAT tools. This outside demand will also drive governments to improve internet connectivity and make it cheaper to ensure their countries benefit from the fruits of all this development.
Thus things are improving gradually, although less commonly used languages will take longer to catch up. For those, there are few vendors with little experience who lack terminology and linguistic tools, often have no education in translation, and whose languages are not supported by CAT tools. So these are the next challenges as demand for these languages will grow over time.
It is clear that there are various issues to resolve and challenges to overcome when entering the African translation market. However, the opportunities for companies operating in African countries far outweigh any negative factors, which at the end of the day are simply challenges.
Born in the UK and raised in South Africa, Rosalind moved to Egypt and began working as the Marketing and Sourcing Manager for a Sinai hotel group. Following this, she spent time as an English editor of the Cairo-based Egyptian Gazette newspaper, then working for another online media company, before joining eLocalize in 2004. At eLocalize she is involved in oversea marketing. Her experience from living in the UK, France, Egypt and South Africa, as well as extensive traveling around Europe, the US, Middle East and Africa, has given her an understanding and knowledge of the different cultures of eLocalize's main regions, the Middle East and Africa, and enables her to assist clients in obtaining the best results in these markets.