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South Africa

Open-source software and speech technology could help this multicultural country pull itself into the information technology big leagues.

South Africa has a language problem. Its 46 million people speak 11 official tongues. Enter the Human Language Technology (HLT) unit at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria—one of the largest R&D, technology, and innovation institutions in Africa.

HLT researchers are developing innovative ways to give more people, from diverse backgrounds, access to knowledge. “In dealing with South African needs, we have to take into account the level of literacy of users, their technical sophistication, and cultural factors,” says Marelie Davel, the computer scientist who coheads the HLT research group.

One of the HLT unit’s biggest success stories is a highly efficient system for the creation of pronunciation dictionaries. Davel explains that the system has been tested on a number of South African languages, including isiZulu, Setswana, Afrikaans, and Sepedi. Researchers have also developed a speech synthesis system for isiZulu, which is the first language of more South Africans—24 percent—than any other. The system, which is now being tested, enables people with only a reading knowledge of isiZulu to communicate orally with native speakers.

South Africa’s other major area of innovation involves communication of another sort: the collaborative process that is the heart of the open-source-software movement. More than 80 percent of the country’s six-billion-rand (about $1 billion) annual spending on software and licensing goes to foreign companies, according to the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Go Open Source campaign. This reliance on proprietary hardware and software hinders the development of South Africans’ information technology skills and closes off opportunities for economic growth.

Open-source software brings with it the tools that are essential to South Africa’s capacity to produce original software and create new local markets and opportunities. It also expands access to com­puting among a previously disadvantaged populace, since open-source operating systems often run smoothly on older machines that would crawl under the strain of the latest version of Windows. Without open-source products, many African children would have little opportunity to use computers, because proprietary systems are simply beyond the means of most schools.

One organization leading South Africa’s open-source renaissance is Go Open Source, funded by billionaire South African businessman and space tourist Mark Shuttleworth. Go Open Source has distributed free CDs containing open-source software and a local Linux distribu­tion called Ubuntu (a Bantu word meaning “humanity to others”). The South African company Canonical offers support for Ubuntu Linux as well as a translation utility aimed at addressing the problem of accessibility. (Try persuading a big proprietary developer that it’s worth its while to develop software for speakers of Sotho or Xhosa.)

South Africa’s first entirely homegrown Linux distribution has come out of the Impi Linux project. Named after the warriors of the Zulu tribe, Impi Linux 2 was built from scratch by a team of Linux user groups with the backing of local software firm Cubit and guidance from Ross Addis, chair of the Gauteng Linux Users Group. “Developers from other countries either don’t know or don’t care about South African needs,” Addis says. He cites the rapid adaptation (about two weeks) of Impi Linux 2 so that it included support for local firm Sentech’s broadband “My Wireless” service.

The Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa estimates Africa’s IT industry to be worth $25 billion. There is a growing sense that ceding such wealth to Western companies squanders an opportunity to tap the country’s indigenous software-development talent. Open source offers Africa the opportunity to become a continent of developers rather than consumers of Western IT products. It could offer ordinary South Africans unrestricted access to an array of applications that will enable them to build up their own businesses, educate their children, and develop the IT skills that will let South Africa run on the technology road with the rest of the world.

Janet Paterson is editor of the South African business strategy magazine Intelligence. Pamela Weaver is editor of the technology magazine NetPlus.

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