This week, Microsoft launched the 4Africa Initiative to foster the use of information technology to foster economic opportunity in Africa.
The big news is a new joint venture with Chinese cell phone manufacturer Huawei and Microsoft to sell a $150 smart phone. Microsoft’s top executive for the Middle East and Africa, Ali Faramawy, called it a “full-functionality Windows Phone 8 preloaded with select applications designed for Africa, by Africans.”
But hardware is only part of the IT equation. But Africa-friendly software is also in short supply. The initiative provides funding for two “App Factories” where paid student interns to develop Africa-specific applications.
This has also been the focus of South African software developer Dwayne Bailey. High linguistic diversity in Africa (2100 + spoken languages, 100 “inter-ethnic” languages) makes for a big localization challenge. Even though many of those inter-ethnic languages are spoken by tens of millions of people, since these languages are not commercial languages in the global sense, so that localization of software into these languages just didn’t pay for developers. This localization lock-out cripples the potential of these for commercial use, completing the vicious circle. The result: For speakers of most African languages, no software in available in their native language, leaving English, French or other non-native language as their only online option.
So, a decade ago, Bailey started the nonprofit translate.org.za to promote free and open source software to help people help themselves in their native language. Bailey backed into translation from his interest in open source software. “It turned into an advocacy thing. I saw a link between the need for African languages on computers and wondered why someone would have to learn English to use a computer.”
In 2004, his team finished localizing OpenOffice into North Soso, Zulu and Afrikaans, making it the first major piece of software to be translated into those languages. By curious coincidence, three weeks later, Microsoft promised to translate MS Office in the same languages. Bailey happily takes full credit for the Microsoft move.
In 2008, Bailey started working with Anloc, the African Network for Localization, to empower African participation in the digital age by removing the limitations of language. Much work remains.
Microsoft’s commercial interest promises renewed attention in the work of Bailey and other African linguists and developers working to get a continent online.