With an estimated 100 million speakers, Swahili is the second-most-widely-used language on the African continent, after Arabic. Yet services such as automatic speech recognition (ASR) aren’t commercially available in this language, denying many users with disabilities and those who aren’t literate the information they desperately need in their daily lives. This could change very soon though, as academic research and technology startups are converging to provide localized technologies to Swahili speakers.
Internet search on a simple mobile phone
One of these very promising innovations is about to be rolled out in Kenya. Uliza (meaning “ask” in Swahili) is a voice interface that allows users to access information from the Internet using a basic mobile phone.
All users need to do is call in and ask a question in Swahili. Within 15 to 90 minutes, an “answer agent” (an actual person working behind the scenes) responds with a voice answer. At the moment, a “crowd” of around 50 agents treat the queries by transcribing the voice recordings, searching for answers online in multiple languages, translating the information and sending it back to the caller in Swahili.