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Embrace the Online Opportunity of African Languages

Why African markets are the future of translation and localization

The next billion customers are in Africa. It’s forecasted that the population of Nigeria alone will be greater than that of the United States in the next 30 years. As the continent’s population grows, so does the demand for online services. This opens a wealth of opportunities for companies that are looking to expand into new markets. Yet it also poses some unique challenges when it comes to translation and localization.

In our webinar Embrace the Online Opportunity of African Languages, Dr. Arle Lommel, Senior Analyst at CSA Research and Jill Goldsberry on behalf of Susan Morgan, Global Director at Lionbridge, sat down to discuss the opportunities, challenges, and the future of localization in African markets. Below is a recap of their conversation and an infographic highlighting the online opportunity of African languages.

Research was provided by CSA Research.

Africa: The Next Frontier for Localization

Interest in Africa is on the rise. Today, CSA Research regularly fields requests for information and data that they didn’t a year ago. Why? Because companies that have maximized growth in other markets see incredible opportunities on the continent, particularly among the young, internet savvy demographic.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no single “African market”. Each of the 54 countries has its own unique needs and language requirements when it comes to localization. To help determine the economic value of entering a particular market, CSA Research developed a measurement tool known as online GDP or eGDP.

Focusing on eGDP vs. E-Commerce

eGDP measures the buying power of individuals with online access. It accounts for both income inequality and allows for predictive forecasting of the value of languages. To be clear, this isn’t a measurement of e-Commerce, which is much smaller. Instead, it measures online activities that lead to purchases. For example, a car buyer may visit a manufacturer’s website, read customer reviews, and/or find a dealer online before making a purchase. The process is highly data intensive, with the model capturing up to roughly 132,000 online language combinations within 207 countries and territories.

The Challenges of Entering African Markets

Entering an African market includes several challenges like lack of reliable information, income inequality, the urban-rural divide, and lack of language support.

For digital marketers, that means tackling issues such as:

  • Lack of standard written forms for languages that are primarily oral.
  • Divergence between standard and local forms.
  • Geotargeting limitations, with capabilities only available in a few countries.
  • Political implications for language choice, including conflicts over which groups and/or languages are given priority.
  • Income distribution and language prestige. Colonial languages are more prestigious and are sometimes preferred by educated audiences, despite being their second language.

For localization teams and language service providers (LSPs), challenges include:

  • Finding quality translators, particularly in technical domains.
  • Accessing translator tools due to poor internet access/cloud storage.
  • Accessing general language processing tools such as spelling and grammar checkers and specialized tools such as machine translation (MT) and entity recognition.
  • Lack of standard terminology.

All these factors can make it difficult to carry out localization projects, even with dedicated and conscientious language professionals.

Colonial versus Local Languages

Now that you know a little about Africa and the challenges, you may be wondering: Should I target audiences through colonial or local languages? The answer turns out to be complex. To address this, let’s take a look at which African languages are supported by major enterprises.

Enterprise Support for African Languages

Upon examination of 2,800 major brand sites, CSA Research discovered that just 22 African languages out of the over 2,000 spoken receive support. Of these brands, only social media, search engine companies, and Mozilla target non-colonial languages. Arabic and colonial languages, on the other hand, dominate the web. No other language is supported by more than 1% of brands.

Below is a breakdown of how often these languages appear on brand sites compared to widely spoken African ones:

  • English – 69% of brand sites
  • Spanish – 33%
  • French – 32%
  • Portuguese – 25%
  • Italian – 22%
  • Arabic – 11%
  • Swahili – 0.7%
  • Afrikaans[1] – 0.5%
  • Amharic – 0.2%
  • Hausa – 0.2%

African languages such as Bambara, Pedi, Swati, Tsonga, Twi, and Venda also have online visibility, but don’t appear on any major brand sites.

Madagascar City view

Multilingualism Plays a Major Role in Africa

If we look at the value of languages in terms of their online access GDP (eGDP), 69% of it is accessible through colonial languages. When we include Arabic, we increase the total share available (adding about 18%), but 11% of eGDP is tied up with individuals who speak Arabic and a colonial language.

Similarly, if we add in the local, non-colonial languages, we can now reach all of African eGDP. However, some 25% of the total is from individuals who speak both a non-Arabic, non-colonial language and a colonial language.

While colonial languages can still reach nearly 70% of African eGDP, this approach means that 30% of the market is excluded. And 37% of individuals access content in a language other than their native tongue. Relying solely on colonial languages and Arabic excludes audiences who speak neither, and forces others to engage in their non-native language.

Which Languages Have the Greatest Value in Africa?

With that background, let’s turn to the languages CSA Research has determined have the greatest value, as measured by online access GDP. Tier one languages by eGDP in USD include:

  • English – $590B
  • Arabic – $425B
  • French – $302B
  • Zulu – $112B
  • Hausa – $80B
  • Afrikaans – $71B
  • Swahili – $64B
  • Portuguese – $53B

Now let’s take a look at the geographical reach of some of these languages across Africa.

  • English – 28 countries
  • French – 27 countries
  • Arabic – 17 countries
  • Hausa – 8 countries
  • Portuguese – 5 countries
  • Somali – 5 countries
  • Swahili – 4 countries
  • Tswana – 3 countries
  • Wolof – 3 countries

Remember, most people are non-native speakers of colonial languages, and their level of fluency can vary significantly. Arabic and local languages pose another challenge—local dialects may be unintelligible to speakers outside of a particular country. This means you should always look beyond geographic reach before deciding on a localization strategy.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the strength of some of these languages in terms of their total online population. Once again, colonial languages and Arabic play an outsized role both for the number of speakers and geographical reach.

Below is a breakdown of the top languages by total online population in Africa:

  • English –151M
  • Arabic – 104M
  • French – 84M
  • Swahili – 29M
  • Hausa – 23M
  • Zulu – 13M
  • Portuguese – 11M
  • Yoruba – 10M
  • Twi – 8M
  • Afrikaans – 8M

As you can see, English, Arabic, and French are also the most valuable online. However, the number of speakers isn’t always the most important metric. For example, Afrikaans offers 50% more accessible eGDP than Portuguese, but Portuguese has 40% more speakers.

Africa’s Economic Buying Power

Given how complex localization for African markets can be, you may be wondering about the potential return on investment (ROI).

According to International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Google research, Africa spent more than $100B in 2020, and that number is expected to grow 6 times over by 2050. Africa is also the youngest continent, and its people are expected to embrace online markets in increasing numbers. That means the potential for major growth exists across the continent.

When it comes to buying power, the top sub-Saharan African countries include:

  • Nigeria
  • South Africa
  • Kenya

These countries and their languages are a great place to start when building a language strategy.

South Africa city view

How Do Africans Use the Internet and What Do They Want?

In addition to buying power, understanding a country’s infrastructure and preferences are key.

Internet Usage and Device Saturation

Smartphones are the preferred device across sub-Saharan Africa. In the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Senegal, tablets are either the preferred device or a close second. This means you need to develop content with mobile functionality in mind.

Yet bandwidth and internet access are a challenge in many regions, so producing content that doesn’t use a large amount of data is crucial. Most smartphones limit the amount of data per day, which is why African internet users are more selective about the types of content they access.

About 75% of internet users are Millennials, and their online activities reflect this. The most common user activities include:

  • Instant messaging/chatting – 87%
  • Accessing social media – 87%
  • Watching video clips on social media – 71%

Note that although video is extremely popular, the content must be “worth” using their data. Keep this top of mind if you decide to localize videos.

Online retail and using the internet to research products only amount to 23% and 10% of internet usage respectively. Your return on investment will be greater on social media platforms, where you can post organic content and leverage their advertising capabilities.

What Else Do Africans Want?

We’ve walked though how users in Africa are consuming digital content, but where is the whitespace? What are users looking for and what do they need?

Users in sub-Saharan Africa are similar to users all over the world. They want to see more of their native languages available in social media, video, and e-commerce sites. At the same time, they want:

What is unique is the average age in Africa is 19.2 years. They’re the youngest population on the planet, and they are eager to embrace technology.

Strategies for Localization and Digital Marketing

While there’s no shortage of opportunities, there is a finite amount to spend on localization. Here are a few other considerations for your strategy:

  • Localize for impact.
  • Take technical and cultural diversity into account. Consider partnering with local entrepreneurs to build solutions.
  • Use light-weight formats to make content more accessible for people without Wi-Fi access. Explore how messaging can streamline interactions though WhatsApp and/or build a Messenger bot.

The Role of Machine Learning

Given the advantage of machine translation (MT), you may be wondering how it could fit in with your localization strategy. At the moment, there are only a handful of languages that could be supported in a MT with post-editing workflow. Below are the primary reasons why:

  • There isn’t enough content in sub-Saharan African languages to train the machine.
  • There are few Natural Language Processing (NLP) researchers in these languages, which stems from low access to university education in Africa.
  • Colonial suppression has led to content coming from African countries that is limited to the colonial languages.

Fortunately, a grass-roots, non-profit organization called Masakhane is working to bridge this gap. NLP researchers oversee the program, and they invite anyone and everyone who can read and write in the African languages to participate in training the machine.

As you’re considering your language strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, MT can be a great tool. But you’ll definitely want to have a quality layer of review to ensure fluency and readability.

Final Thoughts

African markets, along with India, will drive global growth and the demand for language services in the next 25 years. With a median age around 20 years and 40% of the population under 15, Africa has a huge population that wants to access the internet in their native language. Given these conditions, the value of African languages that seems low today will quickly grow. Companies that capitalize on this will have a tremendous engine for growth.

Check out the on-demand webinar from this session here.

Ready to create a localization strategy for African markets? Contact Lionbridge to get started.

[1] CSA Research included Afrikaans as a colonial language, even though it’s now the native tongue for substantial numbers of non-white Africans.

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