Voice-activated smartphones target illiterate people in Africa

Voice-activated smartphones are aimed at a broad but largely ignored market in sub-Saharan Africa – tens of millions of people who face huge challenges in life because they cannot read or write.

In Ivory Coast, a so-called “superphone” that uses a voice assistant that responds to commands in a local language is directed at a large segment of the population – up to 40 percent – who are illiterate.

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

“I just bought this phone for my parents at home in the village, who don’t know how to read or write,” said Florid Jogby, a young woman who liked the ads on social media.

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

The smartphone uses an operating system called “Kone” that is unique to Cerco, and covers 17 languages ​​spoken in Ivory Coast, including Baoule, Bete and Dioula, as well as 50 other African languages.

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

Alain Capou Chichi, president of Cerco, from Benin, said the goal is to address the “frustration” that illiterate people feel with technology that requires them to be able to effectively read, write or spell.

“Different institutions have prioritized making people literate before providing them with technology,” he told AFP.

“Our method goes beyond reading and writing and goes directly to integrating people into economic and social life.”

Of the 750 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write, 27 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to 2016 United Nations figures, the latest year for which data is available.

The continent also hosts nearly 2,000 languages, some of which are spoken by tens of millions of people and used for inter-ethnic communication, while others are dialects of small geographic spread.

A lack of numbers or economic leverage often means that these languages ​​are overlooked by developers who have already created voice assistants for languages ​​in mass markets.

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

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

Twi and Swahili

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 100 million speakers in East Africa.

Communications expert Jean-Marie Akibo wondered if the voice process needed a dedicated mobile platform.

Existing technology, he said, “succeeds in pleasing people”.

“With the voice messaging services offered by WhatsApp, for example, much of the problem has already been resolved.”

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

The Ivorian phone is produced in the ICT and Biotechnology Village of Grand Bassam, a free trade zone located near the Ivorian capital.

This came through close cooperation with the government. The company does not pay any taxes or customs duties and the assembly plant has benefited from subsidies of more than 2 billion CFA francs.

In return, Cerco will pay 3.5 percent of its income to the state and train about 1,200 young people each year.

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

Thanks to the partnership with French telecom giant Orange, the phone will be distributed in 200 stores across Ivory Coast.

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