Voice-enabled smartphones target Africa’s illiterates

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Voice-enabled smartphones are targeting a large but largely overlooked market in sub-Saharan Africa – the tens of millions of people who face enormous challenges in life because they cannot read or write.

In Ivory Coast, a so-called “Superphone” using a voice assistant that responds to commands in a local language is introduced to the large part of the population – up to 40% – who are illiterate.

Developed and assembled locally, the phone is designed to make everyday tasks more accessible, from understanding a document and checking a bank balance to communicating with government agencies.

“I just bought this phone for my parents who stayed in the village, who can neither read nor write,” says Florida Jogbe, a young woman impressed by advertisements on social networks.

She thought the 60,000 CFA ($92) she paid was money well spent.

The smartphone uses an operating system called “Kone” which is unique to the Cerco company and covers 17 languages ​​spoken in Côte d’Ivoire, including Baoulé, Bété and Dioula, as well as 50 other African languages.

Cerco hopes to expand this to 1,000 languages, reaching half the continent’s population, with the help of a network of 3,000 volunteers.

The aim is to respond to the “frustration” illiterates feel with technology that forces them to know how to read, write or spell effectively, said Cerco president Alain Capo-Chichi, a Beninese national.

“Various institutions have made it a priority to make people literate before making technology available to them,” he told AFP.

“Our path ignores reading and writing and goes directly to the integration of people into economic and social life.”

Of the 750 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write, 27% live south of the Sahara, according to UN figures for 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

The continent is also home to nearly 2,000 languages, some of which are spoken by tens of millions of people and are used for inter-ethnic communication, while others are dialects that are not widely distributed geographically.

Lack of numbers or economic clout often means these languages ​​are overlooked by developers who have already designed voice assistants for larger market languages.

People look at the Cerco “Superphone” showroom in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, August 25, 2022.

Twi and Kiswahili

Other companies investing in voice operations in Africa include Mobobi, which has created a Twi-language voice assistant in Ghana called Abena AI, while Mozilla is working on an assistant in Kiswahili, which has around 100 million speakers. in East Africa.

Telecommunications expert Jean-Marie Akepo wondered if voice operation required the platform of a dedicated mobile phone.

The existing technology “manages to satisfy people”, he said.

“With the voicemail services offered by WhatsApp, for example, much of the problem has already been solved.”

Instead of a new phone, he recommended “software with local languages ​​that can be installed on any smartphone.”

The Ivorian telephone is produced at the ICT and Biotechnology Village in Grand-Bassam, a free zone located near the Ivorian capital.

It was born out of close collaboration with the government. The company does not pay taxes or customs duties and the assembly plant has benefited from a subsidy of more than two billion CFA francs.

In exchange, Cerco must pay 3.5% of its income to the state and train around 1,200 young people each year.

The company says it has received 200,000 orders since its July 21 launch.

Through a partnership with French telecommunications giant Orange, the phone will be distributed in 200 stores across Côte d’Ivoire.

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