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Demystifying the African Localization Industry – Challenges and Opportunities

Women Wearing Traditional African Dresses Walking Together

In my quest to better understand the opportunities and challenges of the African translation industry, I recently traveled from West to East Africa. Because the global demand for African language translations continues to increase, I felt it was important to assess and demystify this market. It’s clear that the localization industry is alive and vibrant in Africa. Linguists are mainly involved in diplomatic, governmental, religious, tourism and humanitarian work. Some commercial work is also done for a variety of industries such as global consulting, mining, financial and technology, among others.

The most common translation requests in Africa are for English, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Swahili, and Amharic among others. Additionally, many professionals are translating from one African language to another to support cross border trade. Surprisingly, China is investing in infrastructure, such as bridges, railways and roads, in Africa so that has increased their demand for translations and interpretations from Chinese to African languages.

Africa has a total population of 1.21 billion people who speak in 2,139 living languages. Around 85 percent of the population is concentrated in 15 countries and the rest of the population is dispersed throughout the continent in smaller countries or territories. The most populated countries in Africa are Nigeria with 181 million people followed by Ethiopia and Egypt with 99 million people each. The smallest countries are Saint Helena with only 4,000 people and Seychelles with a total population of 97,000.

Africa 2U.S.-based companies interested in targeting the African continent will be pleased to know that English is one of the official languages in 24 out of 56 countries in Africa. Out of these 24 countries, English is the only official language in 10 countries. In fact, advertising and marketing materials in Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Namibia, Gambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are done in English. The most utilized official languages in Africa are Arabic and Swahili (the official language for 181 million people), followed by French, Portuguese, Amharic and Zulu.

As the CEO of a U.S.-based multilingual business services company, I feel it’s my moral obligation to help develop linguists around the world, especially in emerging countries. In partnership with the East Africa Interpreters and Translators Association, which is led by Alfred Mtawali and Salome Nduku, Akorbi sponsored a full-day workshop in Nairobi in January. The goal was to create awareness of what it takes to compete as the global demand for African languages continues to increase. We were excited to have 65 attendees at the event from a range of professional backgrounds, including translators, interpreters, interns, university professors and even Swahili sign language interpreters.

The translators and interpreters were well educated, very knowledgeable and eager for global exposure. This full day workshop included the macro-economics and opportunities of the African continent, while emphasizing the importance of the mobile economy. Additionally, it addressed the TAUS Translation Technology Landscape Report from September 2016 and how these trends impact the translation profession. We also discussed the importance of investing and becoming proficient in CAT, Q/A quality control tools and the TAUS post-editing courses. Additional topics included machine translation technologies, the future of translators, responsible sourcing practices, teaming arrangements, Internet security and overall business management.

We made the event interactive so we could all learn from each other’s experiences. Through these discussions it became clear that African translators and interpreters are faced with many challenges including the lack of language technology infrastructure and best practices, funding to support large projects, strategic alliances and mental health support for traumatic interpretation sessions such as homicides, domestic violence and dying patients. They also struggle with a lack of scalability and non-payment from dishonest customers. Another hurdle is the lack of trust in African vendors due to the amount of fraudulent activity in the region. On top of all of that, they have to learn how to manage pressure from violent groups to translate content that violates ethics and security standards.

Clearly, there are many challenges and opportunities for the African localization industry. However, because of the growing demand for African language translations, this is a region we can’t ignore. In fact, several years ago we noticed the trend, so we opened an office in Cape Verde (in the central part of Africa) in 2015. Our talented African team provides translation and interpretation services in African languages, such as Zulu, Wolof and Portuguese Creole, to our global customers. Since then, the demand has continued to increase, leading us to expand recently to a much larger office. Without a doubt, this is a sign of the opportunities that lie ahead in this region. What are you doing to capitalize on these opportunities?

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