Tax net can be widened without introducing new taxes: While Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan’s, 2013/2014 budget speech presentation held no real surprises from a tax perspective,
A+ A A-

The real Africa is not English, nor French, nor Portuguese

Rate this item
(0 votes)
A few of the languages spoken in Africa A few of the languages spoken in Africa

As more and more companies line up to enter Africa, the world’s second most populous continent with a rising middle class of more than 300 million, companies with language localisation strategies will enjoy early-mover advantage.

Why local language is important

According to research from Common Sense Advisory,72.4% of consumers are more likely to buy a product with information in their own language.

But English is spoken as a first language by less than 5% of the world’s population, and by only 470 million to 1 billion as a second language.

Many African countries have a distinct lack of local language service – in commerce as well as public services. In Southern Africa, the picture is sobering:

  • In South Africa, English is the official language that predominates, and yet it is spoken as a first language by only 9.6% of people – far fewer than isiZulu (22.7%), isiXhosa (16%) and Afrikaans (13.5%).
  • In Namibia, English is the only official language, but only 1% of Namibians speak it natively.
  • In Zimbabwe, which has 70% Shonaa speakers, education from Grade 4 upwards is almost exclusively in English.

Further north, Africans have for decades had to be satisfied with being served in English, French and Portugese. Colonial languages are seen as destructive of local languages, and even as tools of local elites to keep control over the masses. 


Market opportunity beyond elites

The economic picture taking shape on the continent is one of growing affluence. In fact, the International Monetary Fund says that between 2011 and 2015, African countries will account for 7 of the top 10 fastest-growing economies.
Companies that want to share in this stupendous market opportunity must translate to penetrate the market beyond the elites.
Already, leading South African companies are immersing themselves in the real Africa – including Business Connection, Vodacom, MTN, Checkers and Nandos. These front-runners are learning hard-won language lessons, some of which can be summed up as follows.

Gear up for greater human effort

Translators in Europe and the Far East have it relatively easy. Terms like ‘IP address’ or ‘software’ have been thrashed out, codified and are available with the minimum of Internet-based research.
Not so in Africa. A huge amount of grind is needed to unearth local language translations for many modern concepts. Many African languages have not even been committed to books.
Some companies treat Africa as another emerging Eastern Europe country, but Africa doesn’t have the same maturity.Translators in more mature markets are more adept at working with translation technology. In Africa, the level of required training and support is much higher. Africa also has some unique cultural issues with translators having far more family responsibilities than their average European counterpart, which occasionally require a leave of absence for a week or two at a time. When companies are not aware of this nuance and ready to make alternative arrangements, projects can be delayed.

The way to get around this is to partner with a language services provider that understands local conditions and has built up and trained an extensive network of translators, skilled in using modern translation technology.


Take care of quality

Community translation initiatives and projects such as those under the auspices of the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc) do fantastic work at heeding commercial and language preservation goals.

For example, in East Africa there is no dictionary to translate between two neighbouring languages, Luganda from Uganda and Gusii from Kenya, although each of them has millions of speakers. Led by Martin Benjamin, the Kamusi Project ( is currently working on bridging this gap. In Ghana, ANLoc members are currently looking at publishing material in the local language in electronic form with Amazon arranging for the printed versions of the books.
But ANLoc has also shown that quality control is very important with such ventures. To this end, the organisation is currently working with industry players to use commercially proven quality assurance processes for its own community translation initiatives.
Make sure your localisation partner has the skills to test and ensure the quality of translations to avoid missing the mark or, even worse, causing offence.

Develop for – and by – Africans

Localisation isn’t only about adapting to the language and cultural sensitivity of a specific country, but also about the value of a local footprint to tap into unique local thinking.
Companies like Adobe have set up development centres in India – originally to cut back on production costs, but the rejuvenating influence of emerging market cannot be discounted.
Pay-as-you-go originated in a country with a very different world view from developed markets – South Africa. And M-PESA was developed by Kenyans, for Kenyans living and working abroad, as well as for other African diaspora.

Start small, but plan to scale

It’s good to start small, but look to the future. 20 years ago, Toshiba started its multinational ambitions with translations in three languages. Today, with competitive pressure from HP and Dell, the company translates into 24.
Toshiba’s language localisation solution is clever and simple – it uses a computer-aided translation solution that speeds up the translation-to-publishing process by cutting repetitive formatting out of the translation refinement process.
Typesetting (in XML/DITA) is done once in English, and used to automatically typeset all the translated languages. This cuts days out of each new translation effort, reducing costs significantly. In addition, the existing language databases assist in future updates of texts, greatly expediting future outcomes.

Localisation: It’s not just manuals

A few rudimentary checks before you get started:  

  • When entering a new market, consider more than your literature – how will you deal with local-language support calls?
  • Consider your customer segment – do you serve businesses or consumers? For the former, English may suffice.   
  • Plan long-term – for now, the bilingual person in your office may be enough, but for your next software release, translation automation by way of a database of phrases is the way to overcome this.
  • Get clean – experience has taught us that fragmentation is bad when multiple translations are under way. Quality assurance of the master document will flow through to every subsequent translation in the same format. Start by cleaning up the English document before embarking on translations.
  • Ensure compliance with local regulations that have an impact on the text – such as business approval, foreign exchange, electric Type Approval etc.     
Last modified on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 12:19
Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson, Chaiman and Chief Technical Officer, is the founder of Rubric and oversees the process of creating a better localisation experience for Rubric’s clients. Ian combines a deep knowledge of globalisation issues with an equally deep understanding of technology and distributed team management. Ian’s opinion is often reported throughout the localization industry and has appeared in Multilingual Computing & Technology and Software Business. Prior to joining Rubric, Ian worked in a variety of management and engineering positions at Siemens (Germany), Expert Software and Phoenix Software (New Zealand) and Berlitz (England).


More in this category: « Understanding Digital PR
Login to post comments



Copyright © 2013 gdmc (Geoffrey Dean Marketing Corporation cc). All rights reserved. Material may not be published or reproduced in any form without prior written permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy. External links are provided for reference purposes. is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

Login or Register