SEATTLE — Omolabake Adenle is a nominee for the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa. She is developing a voice recognition and speech synthesis software that would allow Africans to communicate in their own languages on mobile devices. The software would be especially beneficial for users who are unable to read or write and is a promising enhanced communication through digital innovations.
For better or for worse, the Industrial Revolution supported a growing population. It powered parts of the globe into the twenty-first century. Not all the progress necessarily benefited all. The industrial factories were often filled with laborers who were being paid low wages, working in less than humane conditions with long hours, and struggling to support large families and counter life-threatening diseases.
Fast forward several hundred years. The tech ‘revolution’ is quieter, more widespread and — most importantly — more available. As access to the internet and mobile devices becomes more ubiquitous, people in developing countries can have access to the technology that can increase their quality of life. These digital innovations can also enhance their ability to communicate within communities and with the rest of the world.
The 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa is an initiative sponsored by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) that occurs annually. A grand prize of $185,000 is given to a nominee whose project promotes innovation in communications and solutions. The theme for the 2017 prize is “African Innovation: Investing in Prosperity.” And the innovation benefits most people with lower literacy levels.
Adenle’s digital innovation takes the tech revolution straight to the people. It is a software that can understand and digitize spoken African languages, many of which have not been integrated into previous voice recognition or speech synthesis programs.
“Digitizing African languages in this way allows Africans to interact with hardware devices such as mobile phones, and digital services such as call-center applications by speaking their local language,” the New African Woman reported.
The innovation is decidedly local, utilizing modern technology to enhance the life of Africans. Such a program fulfills what the AIF calls “needs-based innovation.”
Digital innovations of this kind are not common. Speech recognition software Nuance recognizes various languages, but only supports two African ones: Afrikaans and English, both South African.
What sets tech innovations apart from the innovations of former times is their accessibility for the poor. No one solution will end poverty, but making the small, incremental steps towards democratizing digital innovations like Adenle’s is one step in the right direction.
Adenle’s software product highlights the need for tech products to be relevant in the lives of its users. Susan Davis wrote about this imperative in the Harvard Business Review:
“The trick is making sure that everyone shares in the coming abundance – or at least has a fair shot at doing so. To do that, it’s vital that technology is suitable and relevant to the lives of its users. That’s easier said than done in a world where most product innovations are geared toward the rich,” Davis wrote.
– Hannah Pickering