Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tackling Language with Technology in Africa

My parents were linguists, they worked to create a written language for the Toposa of southeastern Sudan. From a young age the importance of language was impressed upon me, but it was academic… How many other 8 year olds do you know that are aware that there are 134 distinct Sudanese languages of which 8 are extinct?

Academic understanding of language barriers becomes real-life frustration for me as I try and cover the web and mobile space in Africa. For instance, I’d love to know more about, and do a write-up on the following:

Websites that I find it hard to cover on WhiteAfrican.com

  • Ivoire Blog – The new blogging platform for Cote D’Ivoire
  • Akopo – A social media and blogging platform for Cameroonians
  • Mboasu – A new West African mobile remittance product

However, it’s hard for me to track, contact and write about services like these that are popping up in Francophone or Arabic-speaking Africa, simply because I lack the language skills.

Sometimes I come across what looks to be an interesting blog – usually due to visuals since I can’t read it. I then filter that blog through a tool like Google’s Translation service and get back a nicely garbled bunching of English words that I then work towards deciphering into usable chunks.

Francophone Map of Africa
(did you know that approximately 50% of the African continent speaks French?)

PALDO – An African Language Initiative
These types of thoughts were running through my head, when I got an email about an upcoming meeting (April 2, 2008) and initiative called The Pan-African Living Dictionary Online (PALDO). They are attempting to create an interlinked multilingual dictionary for African languages. It is being built upon the foundation of the well-known Kamusi Project, which developed a useful online Swahili/English dictionary.

PALDO is particularly hoping for participation from programmers, linguists, database experts, lexicographers and past users with experience in other online dictionaries.

Creating local keyboards for African languagesIt’s encouraging to see that this is in partnership with Kasahorow, who is working to solve the problem of localized computer input methods for languages. Basically, create a keyboard that works for multiple language clusters.

A couple years ago I wrote a post about technology versus tribal languages in Africa. It’s a HUGE hurdle to overcome when creating web and mobile platforms that you would like to take to the whole African market. It’s why so many companies do great stuff in their local market, maybe even their region, but fail getting pan-African adoption.

It’s unclear how PALDO will solve some of these issues. However, I’m always interested in seeing how aggregation and visualization of data can be used to create better products, or bring insight into areas where things are so confused.

One thing is for sure though, PALDO won’t solve my personal communications issues – what I need to do is go learn French and re-learn Arabic.


  1. Atiriiri….you could just as well train your daughters on these skills and employ them as interns asap they’re ready. Or just make them follow Seesmic, and they’ll learn enough French 🙂

    Seriously, there are these two parallel worlds out there. As for me, I am just shocked to realize u were there with Helga & Martin!

  2. Oh and about Arabic: I took evening classes in Arabic three years ago, nothing much, just 20h, but it was a good start and so nice to see the similarities between Swa & Arabic. Really liked it. Sijui about this in the US, but it really makes sense for a start.

  3. I was just speaking to a couple of people last week about this said thing. The project I am working on I wanted to start of English, migrate to French, then adopt Arabic, Swahili and possibly Portuguese.

    This post is on point. Much food for thought.

  4. I am a french web consultant with caribean and african origins.

    I got a blog making reviews on the french african (and caribbean) web. I will be very pleased to translate for you some of my reviews.

    Think about it and mail me !!


  5. Hey,
    The Kamusi Project is a God-send. I began using it a while ago and it’s absolutely fantastic and helped remind me of those Swahili words that I may have forgotten or not been sure of.
    I think Julius Nyerere is an absolute genius for making Tanzania a single-language culture. In my opinion, it would be absolutely fantastic and mutually beneficial if Kiswahili were to spread throughout Africa and become our official language on the continent – it is such a complex, beautiful language…..
    Have you had exposure to Timothy Ferriss and his work with language learning? I am yet to experiment with his techniques for learning language but he seems to be a credible teacher?

  6. One of the things that we tried to tackle with Zambian languages is the creation of a site for community input of words called Zanglish. Translation is a goal, but we felt starting with a catalog of words would be a necessity. Things are at an infant stage and sometimes it seems like moving to a product such as Glossword would reap more benefits for a new dictionary site.

    Regardless, I think it’s paramount that all of us, especially those of us who have a connection with Africa, continue to put our focus toward developing and preserving the languages of our country.

  7. Thank you, Hash, for speaking about Ivoire-Blog. We want to have contacts with anglophone techies like you, but we don’t know how. I think you know many things that we can learn.

  8. thats is interesting, someone is trying to crack the language nut.

    you are right, the most common case you would never even hear of francophone web startups because in English speaking african countries they get no attention, for how can you use them.

  9. Thanks for those links. I’m interested in all projects that are tackling language with technology.

  10. Hello Hash,
    My friend Cheri who is an American Teaching French classes to high school students in California at Notre Dame suggested your link. She knew that I would be interested since I am a native French speaker originally for Gabon (sister country to Cameroun), raised in France and living in the US. I’ve traveled a lot and speaks several languages like many Africans and Europeans, and you 🙂 (French, Spanish, English, Fang, Ndumu, battling to maintain my Italian, and learning Portuguese – Next for me is Mandarin… Lol)
    I sometimes get invited by teachers to speak and share with students, and I do enjoy it. I do like what your website tells, and your parents were amazing and what a great gift to share with you!
    I feel that I could help occasionally with your translations, therefore I’d like to invite you to not hesitate to contact me when the need arise again. My website is http://www.lookelsewheretranslation.com
    Some Universities, like Stanford for example, do send their students to Africa to live and learn languages, like Fang in Gabon (I helped some of them find lodging and settle in fang populated areas so that they can learn it much easier) – my point is that it might be of interest to you to connect with them to find out who is going in areas you are interested in, and to work something out with them (It will allow you to cover more grounds and to collect relevant info too.)
    Anyway, you must already have a lot going on, and again do not hesitate to contact me.
    Great job! And very interesting to learn about your traveling through language.

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