Language Barriers Hurt African Investments. Can Tech Innovation Help Solve The Problem?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Language is a barrier to investment in Africa, and economists say African innovators should think beyond English when developing innovations aimed at solving local problems.

Innovators should not limit their innovations to the English language, said Guichard Tsango, head of telecommunications at the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

There are more than 3,000 languages spoken in Africa by some counts. Here are 17 of the ones most commonly spoken.

Language barriers — especially an inability to communicate in English — have hampered trade in Mozambique, where Portuguese is spoken by more than half the population, and Rwanda, where Kinyarwanda is spoken by most Rwandans, but English is an official language.

Tsango spoke Nov. 2-4 in South Africa at a three-day Senior Experts Dialogue on Science, Technology and Innovation. The meeting included the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Planning and Coordinating Agency. Representatives attended from 21 African countries.

Many innovative ideas and technologies originate locally but gaps remain between innovative concepts and selling those ideas in home languages, Tsango said during a panel discussion entitled “Regional Integration and Cities as Hubs of Innovation.”

“There are thousands of languages spoken in Africa and confining our innovation to one language — English — would delay Africa’s agenda to address societal needs through technologies and innovations,” Tsangou said.

For some economic experts, the absence of English in the dialogue of African business hurts their economies, according to a CAJ News report in African Independent.

Language is a major barrier in attracting foreign investment to Mozambique, leaving vast opportunities unexploited and hindering economic growth despite the country’s relative peace and stability.

Portuguese, inherited from colonization, is the official language spoken by more than half the population, according to the National Institute of Statistics of Mozambique. It’s not as widespread on the continent as English.

Other common local languages in Mozambique include Shangaan, Swahili, Makhuwa, Sena and Ndau.

Mozambique’s economy has products and services the world needs desperately such as oil, gas, and farming products, said Agito Campos, speaking to CAJ News in Shangaan because he could not communicate in English.

“Language is the main barrier here… Imagine if most of our people were eloquent and versatile in English, our tourism would have been far ahead of Mozambique’s regional peers.”

In addition to lagging tourism, trade suffers due to the language barrier, Campos said.

Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, considered economic competitors in Mozambique, attract more investments because they are not as prone to the language barrier, Campos said.

Rwandan contractors are losing lucrative contracts in East Africa because they can’t understand bid documents written in English, Ventures Africa reported.

A local Rwandan supplier of construction materials, Enock Kamugisha, told New Times Kigali that he lost tenders on four occasions because he could not understand all the requirements in the bid documents.

“Bids are drafted in English; and there are many technical terms that we fail to understand,” he said.

Learning the language will boost Rwanda’s private sector, said Donatien Mungwararera, director of the Private Sector Federation Rwanda.

The East African country changed its official language from French to English about 10 years ago, but several local business owners still don’t understand English or Swahili. Rwanda joined the East African Community (EAC) in 2009. Three of its member countries – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – speak English.