The continent of Africa – and the business of localization Public  

The continent of Africa is enormous. It measures just under 12 million square miles (19.2 million km²). To put this into perspective, Africa is larger than the landmass of Canada, the United States, and China combined. Yes, it is that massive.

The African landscape

There are more than 1.2 billion people living in Africa, making it the second-largest populated continent in the world next to Asia. Need another visual? Africa’s population is more than double that of the United States, Canada, and Russia altogether. So, one would think that in a landmass this large, and with a continent this populous, there would also be impressive linguistic, cultural, and economic diversity – and there is.  

According to the World Atlas, there are approximately 2,000 native languages spoken throughout the African continent. These languages, as we’ve written about before, are organized into four main groups, namely:

  •       Afro-Asiatic
  •       Khosian
  •       Niger-Saharan, and
  •       Nilo-Saharan

Localizing into African languages

For industries wishing to conduct business in Africa, the idea of localizing their products and services into some 2,000 languages might not only seem a daunting affair, but might seem downright unrealistic and counterproductive. Luckily for them, there is a much smaller number of indigenous languages that are the most predominantly used:

In fact, the total number of both native and non-native speakers of the above languages equates to roughly 40 percent of the entire African population. Some argue however, that it makes more economic sense to localize products and services intended for the African market, into the English, French, and Portuguese languages. After all, Africa is home to well over 100 million English speakers, well over 100 million French speakers, and approximately 30 million speakers of Portuguese. And since these languages are already widely used on the international market, why localize into indigenous African languages? If you are of this opinion, you may want to consider the other side of the proverbial coin.

Mobile use and the Internet

As of 2017, there were 960 million mobile subscriptions in Africa, accounting for 80 percent of the entire African population. This represents a 50 percent increase from a 2015 Global System for Mobile Communication (GSMA) report which found that only 50 percent of Africans were mobile subscribers.

Although the percentage of African online subscriptions via mobile remains low in comparison to total mobile subscriptions, there has been a steady increase over the past decade. In 2010, only 26 percent of mobile users were also accessing the Internet via their mobile devices. In 2015, this figure rose to 50 percent a more than 92 percent increase. By 2020, the percentage of mobile users who access the Internet via their mobile device is expected to increase to 75 percent. So, although the percentage is increasing, why has there been a lag in Internet access for the roughly 80 percent of Africans who are currently using mobile devices? The GSMA provides some reasons for this discrepancy. In its recent study entitled, Consumer Barriers to Mobile Internet Adoption in Africa, the GSMA Intelligence conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,000 residents in each of the following countries:

  •       Algeria
  •       Cameroon
  •       Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
  •       Ivory Coast
  •       Egypt
  •       Ethiopia
  •       Kenya
  •       Morocco
  •       Mozambique
  •       Nigeria
  •       Sierra Leone
  •       South Africa, and
  •       Tanzania

Outside of affordability and a lack of digital skills, one of the major reasons to surface was a lack of awareness and locally relevant content. In fact, this was the single largest barrier in North Africa and the second largest barrier in Sub-Saharan Africa. To gain a clearer understanding of what this means:

The majority of respondents in North Africa (58 percent), and nearly 40 percent of respondents in Sub-Saharan Africa reported that the Internet’s lack of culturally and linguistically-relevant content was one of the most significant reasons why these mobile users chose not to access the Internet. In Egypt alone, 70 percent of those surveyed identified this to be a problem.

To study this further, we took a look at the most popular websites in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Not only are these three countries within the top 10 wealthiest African countries according to their GDP, but Swahili (the most predominantly-spoken indigenous language) is an official language in each country. We looked at the websites most visited in each of these countries according to the daily time on site. In Kenya and in Tanzania, 60 percent of the top 10 websites are local, providing locally-relevant content, with some sites offering Swahili as an alternative to English. In Uganda, the same is true for 50 percent of the top 10 websites. The one global site that also ranks in the top 10 in each of these countries is Facebook, and we don’t believe this to be a coincidence. Facebook supports 6 out of the 10 most predominantly-used languages in Africa, namely:

  • Arabic
  • Hausa
  • Shona
  • Swahili
  • Xhosa, and
  • Zulu

At the recent 1st Africa International Translation Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, a number of presentations focused on a growing wave spreading throughout Africa. There is a strong desire to preserve and revive indigenous languages through educational, government, and business initiatives. So, how can international businesses become an active part of this wave? If you are considering global expansion opportunities in Africa, you might want to consider localizing into the most predominantly-spoken indigenous languages. Study after study has shown that when people engage online in a language of their choice, it has a profound effect on their experience. They will likely come back for more, they will likely come back frequently, and they will likely play an increasingly more active role – and that spells opportunity.

Some major global online players have already stepped up their African localization game in recent years. YouTube now supports Arabic, Zulu, and Swahili, and Google supports all of the predominantly-spoken African languages, with the exception of Amharic and Oromo. The open-source browser, Mozilla Firefox also localizes into three of the most predominantly-spoken languages from our list Swahili, Xhosa, and Zulu. With a gradual yet steady increase in mobile and Internet subscriptions, there is plenty of investment opportunities for content developers, marketers, and global industries:

  • Mobile and Internet subscriptions are becoming more affordable as competition increases
  • An increased demand for mobile phones is expected to provide phone manufacturers with an ongoing supply of customers – existing customers will likely upgrade their current models, and the steadily growing young African population will add a continuous stream of new subscriptions.

By 2021, 72.9 percent of all Ecommerce sales worldwide will be made using mobile devices, totalling USD 3.56 trillion.

Significant growth opportunity

This increase in Internet accessibility will likely lead to a great many benefits for mobile operators and global businesses. Increased Internet subscriptions also has the potential to offer a great many socio-economic advantages for Africa as a whole. According to McKinsey & Company, the Internet could potentially account for nearly USD 300 billion of Africa’s annual GDP. This is largely due to the powerful impact the Internet can have on various industries, including education, healthcare, retail, agriculture, and more.

The future seems fairly clear the number of Internet users in Africa will likely continue to increase in the coming years. By creating culturally-relevant and accessible content in languages that people understand is an opportunity staring you right in the face, and probably one you don’t want to ignore.

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