Africa’s Software Industry and Local Languages: A Gateway to the Information and Knowledge Society
The software industry offers big opportunities for African countries. It opens up access to important technologies that benefit the continent, but also constitutes an area where Africa can contribute and generate innovation-led business opportunities. Recent developments in mobile technologies on the continent have opened up new avenues for innovation and software development, especially in local languages. Both foreign and local companies are developing new applications in finance and banking, health agriculture, education, and more, aimed at tackling the challenges faced by the population on the continent.
Africa is home to about 2,000 languages, equivalent to one-third of the world’s living languages. This asset has been distorted into a threat to national unity and cited to justify the use of the past colonial language as the primary medium of instruction and governance. The development of any nation today depends on the level and quality of producing, accessing, and disseminating local knowledge and technologies. Unfortunately, in most African countries foreign sources of knowledge and information are dominant and mastered by only a minority that can access this foreign language.
Based on the above, and in reaffirming the role of African universities and research institutions in the information and knowledge society, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) created the Academia Research Network on African Language and Content Development to computerize and promote African languages in cyberspace. The network is currently developing a model for Rural Electronic Schools in African Languages (ERELA) in Cameroon, in collaboration with the National Association of Cameroonian Languages Committee (NACALCO). Over a three-year period a computer-based linguistic model was developed based on local languages in rural schools and is now being piloted. Three training manuals in local languages – for supervisors, teachers and students – have been developed, and specialized software in local languages has been installed in the schools. As a result of ERELA, rural school children in Cameroon have access to computers and can use them in their own languages. One thousand students are targeted to benefit from this initiative. As another example, ECA and the University of Limerick and other partners, including GALA, are collaborating on a master’s program in multilingual computing and localization to support business development in local language and the development of critical mass of trainers in the field (for more, see GALA’s AGIS Africa initiative).
The links between the software industry and localization are strong and the commercial potential of developing software using African languages is enormous. The key is to bring software developers, linguists, and policymakers together to turn this into a viable and thriving sector, creating jobs, enabling millions of Africans to join the information and knowledge society, and ultimately contribute towards economic growth.