These Techies Want Your Phone to Speak to You in Swahili

7 April 2017

Digital Content

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.

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.

During the pilot carried out in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and in Western Kenya, some 600 beta users sent questions about their local representatives, asked for help with Swahili homework, and requested medical information that would be too delicate to bring up in person.

During Uliza's pilot project, these were the words included in the most frequent questions asked by users (translated from Swahili into English).

Uliza will solve another problem for its future users: the lack of access to information hosted on the Internet. There are many overlapping reasons for this situation: unaffordable mobile data bundles, distance to the nearest cybercafe, illiteracy in languages of wider communication, compounded by a dearth of available content in local languages. Read the full article on Global Voices here: