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Building the African Language Industry

One Project at a Time

By Ngnaoussi Elongué Cédric Christian

I

n this article, I reflect on my experiences advocating for African languages and developing Africa’s burgeoning language industry. Through collaboration and continuous learning, I believe we can foster innovation and sustained impact on the continent. Leveraging machine translation (MT) and other technologies can accelerate this progress. Together, we can strengthen African language service providers (LSPs) and increase the visibility and accessibility of African languages, one step at a time.

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Early years of learning and convictions

Growing up in Cameroon, I was a quiet and gentle child. A bit timid, I found joy, comfort, and peace in the pages of books. I voraciously read two or three books weekly. Sometimes, I would secretly read in class when the teacher had his back turned. While I was not a football fan like my classmates, my childhood years weren’t boring, as I discovered the world through books.

As a teenager, it didn’t matter to me whether I was reading in English or French — I was more interested in the stories than in the languages they were written in. It was during my university years, when studying translation and comparative literature, that I understood the epistemological and cultural value of writing, publishing, and reading in one’s own language. 

I started advocating for multilingualism through the Bilingual Club for National Unity (BiCNU), where I organized several programs to foster intercultural communication between Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon. Later, I added teaching and research as advocacy instruments for the rehabilitation and valorization of African languages and cultures.

These formative years strengthened my convictions regarding the need to elevate African languages not only at the policy level, but also in practice, by ensuring that they are widely taught and used in both private and public spaces. I grew tired of seeing our national languages primarily spoken in families but not in public workspaces and international platforms. Not one to simply lament the status quo, I decided to take action.

Establishing professional communities

In 2022, I established Kabod Group to provide translation and interpretation services in African languages. While many LSPs focus on the business aspect of marketing and selling their services, we chose to dedicate 85% of our resources and time towards building the industry — by creating solutions to the problems we observed.

The first problem was the absence of a specialized community of practice (CoP) for language professionals in Africa. While there were national translation and interpreters’ associations, I couldn’t find a continental umbrella where language professionals could connect and collaborate. So I decided to create one, focusing on not only translators, but also teachers of African languages. This is how the LinkedIn group known as the African Language Translators and Teachers (ALATT) was established. Today, about 1,600 members are using it to exchange ideas, share events, and find opportunities.

Later on, we realized the need for a closer relationship with language professionals. We established the Marketplace of African Translators and Interpreters (MATI), where LSPs can easily access freelancers. Using WhatsApp accelerates exchanges and business deals, and dozens of freelancers are being recruited on a daily basis thanks to MATI.

While ALATT and MATI were growing, there was a need for a more institutional platform with greater legitimacy and advocacy power to really trigger significant changes in the industry. This idea was fed by Renato Beninatto, co-founder of Nimdzi Insights, who shared his experience with translation associations. He inspired me and Ady Coulibaly (operations manager of Bolingo Consult) to advance with the idea.

Fast forward to August 2023, and the Association of Language Companies in Africa (ALCA) was born, with Kabod Group (myself), Bolingo Consult (Ady Coulibaly), Can Translators (Alfred Mtawali), and Folio Online (Johan Botha) as co-founders. This was a dream come true, as I see ALCA as a powerful mobilization and advocacy instrument to promote professionalism, learning, and growth in Africa’s language industry. Working in isolation limits impact, but collaboration always unlocks unlimited possibilities.

Our official launch during the fourth Africa International Translation Conference (AITCO) in Kigali, Rwanda, increased awareness of ALCA and the many benefits it offers to members. It resulted in increased membership registration, and we are now planning the first annual Conference of LSPs in Africa in August 2024 in Accra, Ghana. It will be a unique opportunity to engage major LSPs on the continent; please reach out if interested in being a partner, sponsor, or advertiser.

Advocating for African languages

Once ALATT, MATI, and ALCA were established, it was now time for me to focus more on research and advocacy. My goals were to generate more evidence about the economic value of African languages, to articulate the state of and dynamics in the African LSP market, and to increase public awareness and engagement with policymakers and business leaders. These goals led me to join Ady Coulibaly and Avishta Seeras in organizing the African Languages Conference (AFLC).

The third edition, which took place in February 2024, had 19 sessions from language researchers, technologists, policymakers, teachers, and freelancers, whose projects highlighted recent initiatives and solutions advancing the use of African languages. Contrary to the first and second editions in which English was the principal language, most sessions (about 65%) were held in African languages (such as Twi, Wolof, Swahili, Igbo, and Yoruba). It was inspiring to discover the initiatives developed across the continent and in the diaspora.

To continue promoting initiatives between conferences, I established a biweekly podcast called African Languages Technologies and Tools (ALATTO). The podcast aims to accelerate the discovery of language technology innovators who are using machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and natural language processing (NLP) to overcome the traditional challenges faced with African languages. Along with Kabod Group’s Language Talk podcast, ALATTO has facilitated the discovery of Lelapa.ai, Masakhane, Igbo API, and Nkowu, as well as learning apps and other practical tools that ease translation to and from African languages.

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Education and development resources

Currently, my team and I are developing a magazine, awards program, and mobile app, as well as guidebooks and other educational materials.

Afrolinguals, the premier magazine on LSPs in Africa, will publish its first edition in May 2024. The publication will feature news, analysis, interviews, events, and opportunities that are shaping the industry from an African perspective.

The African Translators and Interpreters Awards (ATIA) will recognize and celebrate those who have made a significant contribution in the African language industry. We are currently securing partners for it, with the goal of launching by November 2024.

Working with Open Binnacle’s Emmanuel Gabriel, we are developing a mobile app similar to Duolingo to aid in the learning of several African languages. We are currently gathering data to make this a reality.

With Bolingo Consult, we are co-developing several localization guides on African countries. Our goal is to help businesses overcome cultural nuances, regulatory requirements, and user preferences. From experience, I believe LSPs in Africa need stronger and more specialized expertise in software, website, and multimedia localization to cater to diverse client needs. My team is making progress on this.

The African Language Education project (ALEp) is a collaborative initiative to create educational materials, textbooks, and curricula in African languages for various fields, including science and technology. ALEp requires partnerships between educational institutions, language experts, and curriculum developers to ensure that educational resources are culturally relevant and linguistically accurate. I got this idea when realizing that, even in African countries, it was difficult to find schools and training centers that taught local languages, and there aren’t enough learning and teaching resources for our languages in the public domain.

Education and development resources

Currently, my team and I are developing a magazine, awards program, and mobile app, as well as guidebooks and other educational materials.

Afrolinguals, the premier magazine on LSPs in Africa, will publish its first edition in May 2024. The publication will feature news, analysis, interviews, events, and opportunities that are shaping the industry from an African perspective.

The African Translators and Interpreters Awards (ATIA) will recognize and celebrate those who have made a significant contribution in the African language industry. We are currently securing partners for it, with the goal of launching by November 2024.

Working with Open Binnacle’s Emmanuel Gabriel, we are developing a mobile app similar to Duolingo to aid in the learning of several African languages. We are currently gathering data to make this a reality.

With Bolingo Consult, we are co-developing several localization guides on African countries. Our goal is to help businesses overcome cultural nuances, regulatory requirements, and user preferences. From experience, I believe LSPs in Africa need stronger and more specialized expertise in software, website, and multimedia localization to cater to diverse client needs. My team is making progress on this.

The African Language Education project (ALEp) is a collaborative initiative to create educational materials, textbooks, and curricula in African languages for various fields, including science and technology. ALEp requires partnerships between educational institutions, language experts, and curriculum developers to ensure that educational resources are culturally relevant and linguistically accurate. I got this idea when realizing that, even in African countries, it was difficult to find schools and training centers that taught local languages, and there aren’t enough learning and teaching resources for our languages in the public domain.

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Customized tech for African languages

In the near future, I would like to invest more time into projects related to language-specific tools and platforms to handle the complexities of African languages. These include customized computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, MT engines, and translation management systems (TMSs) specifically designed for African languages. Africa is home to a vast array of languages with complex writing systems (such as N’Ko, Ge’ez, Vai, Bamum, Adlam, Osmanya, and Tifinagh). This linguistic diversity presents unique challenges for LSPs in terms of font compatibility, character encoding, and rendering across different platforms and tools.

Even though there are a few customized MT engines for African languages, they are all still under development. The most promising ones, developed in Africa by Africans, are:

  1. Apertium: An open-source platform that offers MT for several African languages, including Swahili, Wolof, and Zulu. It can be adapted to domains like legal or medical texts.
  2. Afrilang: A pan-African MT system, developed by the African Union, that focuses on inter-African language translation.
  3. Wuolo: A Senegalese startup that offers MT specifically for Wolof. The company leverages deep learning techniques and is working on integrating the tool with other platforms.
  4. Jumla: A Kenyan startup with MT services for Swahili and English. The company offers customization options for specific industries, catering to the needs of businesses operating in East Africa.
  5. Mtranslate: A South African company offering MT for Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and Zulu. They focus on cloud-based solutions and integration with content management systems.
  6. Masakhane: An open-source research community dedicated to advancing NLP and MT for African languages. They have developed various MT models and tools for languages such as isiZulu, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, and Yoruba, using techniques like transfer learning and multilingual models.
  7. Khure Corpus and MT System: A parallel corpus for isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana, and Sesotho, and a customized neural MT system trained on this corpus. It addresses the challenges of translating between closely related languages with complex morphological structures.
  8. Nawndo MT: A Cameroonian startup that developed MT tools for several African languages, including Bambara, Wolof, Dioula, and Fulfude. They leveraged existing linguistic resources, developed language models, and incorporated domain-specific knowledge to improve translation quality.
  9. ALFRA (African Language Factored Machine Translation): A research project funded by the European Union, focused on developing factored MT systems for six African languages: Igbo, Hausa, Swahili, Xhosa, Zulu, and Yoruba. The project aims to address the challenges of morphological complexity and data scarcity by incorporating linguistic knowledge and leveraging factored representations.

Aside from these African-driven initiatives, there are also efforts from global leaders, such as the Microsoft Translator Hub for African Languages and Google‘s Multilingual Machine Translation Models.

A call for collaboration and learning

Increasingly, African LSPs are adopting cloud-based platforms and solutions for translation and project management. Platforms like Memsource, XTM Cloud, and Smartcat are gaining traction in the African market due to their scalability, accessibility, and integration capabilities. Many LSPs like Kabod Group and OBTranslate are also investing in specialized tools and workflows for app localization, such as mobile app string extraction, software localization tools, and app store optimization tools. While there are similarities with mainstream CAT tools, African LSPs face unique challenges due to the linguistic diversity of the region, cultural nuances, and the complexities of African language technologies. To stay competitive, African LSPs must adopt a combination of global and localized language technologies and platforms, tailored to the specific needs of their clients and language pairs.

Looking to the future, my aim is to gradually overcome existing challenges and to enable more language professionals to really enjoy the economic benefits associated with the mastery and practice of their language. The language industry has the potential to create millions of dignified jobs for African youth, and language technology is helping make that a reality.

In this journey, collaboration is the key to boosting innovation, scalability, and sustainable impact. To quote the Bible, Solomon once said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the one who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). This verse contains a principle of collaboration that is strongly embedded in my life philosophy and work ethic. I have abandoned several projects when noticing that they were already implemented elsewhere. When possible, I try to join those existing projects, improving them by exchanging ideas or by amplifying their impact.

Developing a spirit of partnership would significantly accelerate progress in developing tools, resources, and solutions to make African languages more accessible and generate more profits for LSPs and freelancers in Africa. I’m always open to collaborating with anyone, in Africa or beyond, who shares this Ubuntu philosophy and believes that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

Ngnaoussi Elongué Cédric Christian is co-founder of the Association of Language Companies in Africa (ALCA) and Managing Director of Kabod Group. 

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