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PanAfriL10n - PanAfrLoc - PANPaper

Report on Local Language Computing Policy Initiatives:

Overview of Africa (and Some Comparisons with Asia)

Don Osborn, Ph.D., PanAfrican Localisation Project, Jan. 2007

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.


This is a brief report on the local language computing situation in Africa for the PAN Localisation Project "Regional Consultation on Local Language Computing Policy in Developing Asia" (Thimphu, Bhutan, 22-24 January 2007).

In general, localization in Africa is not on the same level as that which Asian countries experience. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Arabic language (which is of global importance in several respects), and the situation found in South Africa. However the general rule reflects several difficult technical, sociolinguistic, educational, and economic realities.

It is almost a commonplace to say it, but technical and educational factors have tended to disfavour ICT? in Africa. In addition, the linguistic situation is complex, much as in Asia, but with lower average numbers of speakers, shorter written traditions, and less support in language policy and planning. Basic infrastructural factors such as low fixed telephone line density and poor electrification1 also are disadvantages of Africa.

Nevertheless, there is a need for and an interest in localisation. The PanAfrican Localisation (PAL) project was funded by IDRC to survey the needs, potential, and initiatives, and to develop an online resource for localisation. Drawing from that information (see Osborn 2007) and other sources, this paper is a very cursory look at the situation across Africa, a continent second in size only to Asia.

Summary data for Africa

It is always risky but still useful to make some generalizations with respect to any phenomenon on a continentwide scale. In the following some general information, along with some specific data, will be given in a format similar to that suggested for the country reports for the PAN consultation.

Official and Other Languages

Africa, like Asia, has a large number of languages. Ethnologue? (Gordon, ed. 2005) counts over 2000 for Africa, which has a total population less than that of India, but five times the number of languages. More conservative counts of languages in Africa are still high (Ethnologue tends to "split" into languages what others might consider dialects). Table 1 summarises the difference between the continents.

Table 1: Numbers of languages and average numbers of speakers in Africa and Asia

Living languagesNumber of speakers
 Count% in worldCount% in worldMeanMedian
India428 1,065,070,607 2,448,483 
WORLD6,912100.0%5,723,861,210100 %828,1057,000

Figures from Ethnologue (Gordon, ed. 2005)

The colonial legacy in Africa includes country borders that split most language groups, and the overlay of several European languages that today serve as official or co-official languages in almost all states. The latter facilitate communication across the continent, and also add a new set of linguistic divisions. The sum effect is a complex multilingual situation in which Africans master several languages for use in different contexts.

Language policy and planning?, however, have not generally been well developed. Speaking in particular of the countries south of the Sahara, Nigerian linguist Ayo Bamgbose (1991:111) finds that language policies "are characterised by one or more of the following problems: avoidance, vagueness, arbitrariness, fluctuations and declaration without implementation." Similarly, there is little official attention to localisation, with a few exceptions.

Writing Systems in Africa

African cultures are often characterised as having "oral" rather than written traditions. While it is true that some languages have not been formally written, some have long written traditions, and many have been put into writing over the last century and a half.

Several scripts used in Africa. One general rule is that alphabets brought in from other areas to write African languages have frequently had to be adapted to accommodate different sound systems of African languages (mainly Latin and Arabic, although historically Greek and Phoenician alphabets were adopted for languages of North Africa). Where that has involved modifications to the scripts, it has created issues for production with those languages on computers, problems that are today resolved largely by Unicode (but only to the extent that orthographies are fixed).

A brief summary of the scripts and issues follows:

  • Latin script, which is used most widely. For a number of languages (especially in west and central Africa with extended characters and/or diacritics. Orthographies are in many cases still subject to modifications or not at all standardised. Part of this was the legacy of how the Latin script was introduced for many African languages - often by missionary groups according to systems that made sense to them at the time. Over time there have been efforts to standardize orthographies for major languages and within many countries, and to harmonize rules of transcription among countries (beginning in the colonial period and aided by among other things a series of UNESCO sponsored conferences in the 1960s and 1970s). The latter efforts have been a positive legacy for current efforts, but there are continued standardization needs.
  • Arabic script, which aside from being the writing system for the Arabic language has also been used for a number of languages since some centuries ago. Apart from Arabic language, the systems of transcription for other languages have no formal standards and only some locally varying customary orthographic rules. Latin transcriptions have tended to replace these (for example in Swahili and Hausa), but they remain in use in some areas and there is interest in researching these systems with one possible outcome being more effective possible use in ICT?.
  • Ethiopic/Ge'ez syllabary? (technically an abugida? of over 200 characters), which is used for several languages in Ethiopia and Eritrea, notably Amharic and Tigrinya
  • Tifinagh, which is the ancient and traditional writing system of Berber languages (Tamazight, Tamasheq, etc.). There is a revival of use of this script involving a modernized form, especially in Morocco where it is now taught in schools. It was added to Unicode in 2004.
  • N'Ko script, which was invented 50 years ago as a way of writing (and developing a standardized form of) Manding languages of West Africa. It was added to Unicode last year after the proposal was approved in 2005. (N’Ko is not officially supported by any government of the region.)
  • Some others of historic interest and/or limited contemporary use (not localisation priorities but still on the agenda to add to Unicode):

Statistics on Literacy and ICT

In general, literacy levels in Africa are not high and computer availability and internet use are very low. Connectivity on the country levels has received attention from international donors which has helped the situation generally, but costs for connection are still high. On the other hand, mobile phone subscribership has increased dramatically

Table 2 illustrates the situation with specific indicators by country: Rank in UNDP's "Human Development Index" (HDI); ITU's "Digital Opportunity Index" (DOI); percent literate (pluriliteracy figures not available); internet penetration; mobile phones per 100 people; and current population estimates.

Table 2: Some basic literacy and ICT indicators on African countries, HDI rankings, and populations

CountryHDI rank (of 177) aDOI (0-1) bLiteracy % aInternet usage % cMobiles /100 pop. dPopulation (2007 est.) c
Burkina Faso1740.1321.80.51.912,318,213
Cape Verde1060.33765.112.1494,034
Central African Rep.1720.1148.60.30.33,307,622
Congo (DRC)1670.1667.20.21.960,226,717
Côte d'Ivoire1640.1948.70.87.420,169,352
Equatorial Guinea1200.2687.00.47.61,120,061
Guinea Bissau1730.04401.70.11,492,189
São Tomé e Príncipe?1270.1483.111.53.2173,942
Sierra Leone1760.0935.10.42.05,159,619
South Africa1210.3882.410.336.449,660,502
AFRICA f-0.20-3.56.1933,448,292

a. Source: UNDP 2006 (see original for notes on year and original sources). This is without reference to first or second languages. Ethnologue, gives first and second language literacy figures for some African languages.
b. Source: ITU 2006
c. Source: Internet World Stats 2007
d. Source: ITU 2004 as cited in Vodafone 2005
e. Not listed in the source given
f. Totals include island territories of France and Britain that are not listed in this table

Internet usage Africa and Asia are compared in Table 3.

Table 3: Internet penetration in Africa and Asia

 Population (2007 est.)Pop. % in WorldInternet Users, Latest DataPenetration (% Pop.)% Users in WorldUse Growth (2000-07)

Figures from Internet World Stats 2007.

ICT Policy

ICT policies in African countries are focused on infrastructure, such as in the National Information and Communications Infrastructure (NICI) policy process promoted by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) beginning in the 1990s. As far as we have seen, ICT policy in Africa gives little if any attention to localisation. There are exceptions such as in Nigeria and Morocco, where official bodies have proposed keyboard standards.

In this context, the policies of donors and NGOs take on greater significance. In general, however, their priorities have not included much attention to, let alone action concerning, issues relating to African languages in ICT projects (IDRC is one notable exception).

Localisation Situation

General Trends

Localisation in Africa is largely focused on content, with some discussion of keyboards, and a little software localization. One key concern in the case of non-Latin and extended-Latin orthographies is what can be termed the "last mile of i18n," meaning that provision of fonts and keyboard layouts, thinking in terms of Unicode, and awareness of multilingual computing possibilities are fundamental and "foundational" needs. Localisation is generally more advanced in North Africa where Arabic is well advanced in many areas, and notable in South Africa and in the case of Swahili in the East.

Localisation is fostered largely by development concerns (IDRC, OKN, OLPC) with modest local interest (which needs to be understood in the contexts of who has access to the technology and where) and a few targeted commercial projects. There is a notable contribution by expatriate Africans as well as some foreign volunteers (there being 3 major groups in the African localisation equation at this stage: Africans in Africa, Africans abroad, and non-Africans).

The commercial interest in localisation is primarily Microsoft, which has signed some agreements to develop "Localisation Interface Packages" (LIP) for several languages. Some mobile phone companies have been developing localized commands and SMS capacities for their product (notably Nokia).

Translation of FOSS has led the way in the case of computer software except for Arabic, which has been an obvious focus of industry for many years.

Some Highlights by Region

North Africa

  • Benefits from advances in Arabic computing in and for the rest of the Middle East (Egypt is a leader in this area, however international software companies have also been involved)
  • FOSS groups active in Egypt (Arabeyes.org) and Morocco
  • Tifinagh script encoded in Unicode
    • Morocco's decision to use it in schools was a key impetus to completing this project
    • Government standards agency SNIMA proposed Tifinagh keyboard standard
  • First PAL workshop was held in Casablanca, 13-15 June 2005

West Africa

Central Africa

Southern Africa

East Africa

Outstanding issues

Localisation in Africa – whether of software or content – relies on volunteer work, which may not be a productive model in this context. Meanwhile, governments and most donors have not yet paid the issue significant attention. This must change, since localization is a key to enhancing the relevance of content and the accessibility of the technology. At some point soon, development of localisation policies that link to both to revitalized language policies and visionary ICT policies must begin. This will not be an easy process given the complex social, linguistic, infrastructural, and economic situations, so it would certainly benefit from active roles by inter-African bodies as well as donors and the academic community.

Piecemeal efforts in various areas cannot proceed too far without relevant agencies taking charge of standardisation issues For instance:

  • Orthographies – in many cases there is a need to standardise orthographies that are subject to change, and harmonise orthographies across borders and among languages that co-exist in the same regions. This is properly a question of applied linguistics, but given the central importance of text to computing and the internet these days, it is intricately related to localisation.
  • Keyboard layouts – there are an increasing number of layouts being produced with programs such as Tavultesoft Keyman and Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator, with serves local needs but makes for long term duplication of efforts and without benefit for the broader community of potential users
  • Cross-border languages – language is the central concern of localisation, but African languages cross country borders. There is a need for coordination of localisation policies and efforts across borders. This may extend both to applied linguistics and to actively engaging the processes of setting language codes for languages (ISO-639 and agencies involved in related standards).

At the present time one might say that localisation in Africa is at a stage roughly before where the PAN project was when it began. However the need in Africa is for a "localised" process or paradigm for localisation as much as it is for resources and official attention to foster its growth and flowering.

Another issue is working languages – while one notes in Asia an unquestioned reliance on English as the lingua franca, Africa has at least three working languages: English, French and Portuguese (Arabic-speakers often work in either French or English). This provides an additional challenge to collaboration and network-building on localisation in Africa.

Future Plans

At the present time there are various initiatives and projects, mostly on a small scale, that deal with African language computing on one level or another (such as OpenOffice.org, keyboards, content development, research in specialised areas), and each has its own hopes and plans.

On the level of support, the role of IDRC is particularly important as it has the potential not only to help link various efforts but also to provide resources to permit a transition from the volunteer model to one that, while naturally appreciating the ongoing importance of volunteer input, also commands attention of policymakers and brings researchers more actively into the picture.

In this context, projects like PAL that seek to understand the larger picture in Africa and facilitate contact among diverse groups have an important role. Also, an upcoming workshop organised by Tactical Tech and IDRC (with input from PAL) in Marrakech will focus on building a research network that in its design calls to mind the PAN Localisation network.

In the longer term, communication and collaboration among regions should also be facilitated. One possible venue to advance that process might be the GKP III? conference in Malaysia in December 2007.


Bamgbose, Ayo. 1991. Language and the Nation: The Language Question in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. Dallas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/

ITU (International Telecommunications Union). 2006. World Information Society Report 2006. Geneva: ITU. http://www.itu.int/osg/spu/publications/worldinformationsociety/2006/wisr-web.pdf ITU. 2004. African Telecommunication Indicators 2004. Geneva: ITU.

Internet World Stats: Africa. 2007. http://internetworldstats.com/africa.htm

Osborn, Don. 2007. "A Survey of Localisation in African Languages, and its Prospects A Background Document." [draft] http://www.panafril10n.org/wikidoc/pmwiki.php/PanAfrLoc/Document

UNDP. 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. Human Development Report 2006. New York: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). [Human development index Adult literacy rate (% ages 15 and older) (HDI) http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/statistics/indicators/3.html ]

Vodafone. 2005. "Africa: The Impact of Mobile Phones." The Vodafone Policy Paper Series, Number 3, March 2005. http://www.vodafone.com/assets/files/en/GPP%20SIM%20paper.pdf