The tool can be used standalone or integrated with existing AI tools such as ChatGPT and online conversational chatbots. The hope is that Vulavula, which means “speak” in Xitsonga, will make accessible those tools that do not currently support African languages.
The lack of AI tools that work for African languages and recognize African names and places excludes Africans from economic opportunities, says Moiloa, CEO and co-founder of Lelapa AI. For them, working to develop Africa-centric AI solutions is a way to help others in Africa realize the huge potential benefits of AI technologies. “We’re trying to solve real problems and put power back in the hands of our people,” she says.
“We can’t wait for them”
There are thousands of languages in the world, 1,000 to 2,000 of them in Africa alone: it is estimated that the continent accounts for a third of all the world’s languages. But even though only 5% of the world’s population speaks English as a native language, the language dominates the web – and now also AI tools.
There are already some efforts to correct this imbalance. OpenAI’s GPT-4 includes minor languages such as Icelandic. In February 2020, Google Translate began supporting five new languages spoken by approximately 75 million people. But the translations are superficial, the tool often misunderstands African languages and it is still a long way from an accurate digital representation of African languages, say African AI researchers.
Earlier this year, for example, at a leading African AI conference in Kigali, Rwanda, Ethiopian computer scientist Asmelash Teka Hadgu conducted the same experiments Abbott did with ChatGPT. When he asked the chatbot questions in his native language, Tigrinya, all he received was gibberish. “Words emerged that didn’t make any sense,” says Hadgu, co-founder of Lesan, a Berlin-based AI startup that develops translation tools for Ethiopian languages.
Lelapa AI and Lesan are just two of the startups developing speech recognition tools for African languages. In February, Lelapa AI raised $2.5 million in seed funding, and the company is planning its next round of funding in 2025. However, African entrepreneurs say they face major hurdles, including lack of funding, limited access to investors and difficulties in training AI to learn various African languages. “AI receives the least amount of funding among African tech startups,” says Abake Adenle, the founder of AJALA, a London-based startup that provides voice automation for African languages.