The tool can be used on its own or integrated into existing AI tools like ChatGPT and online conversational chatbots. The hope is that Vulavula, which means “speak” in Xitsonga, will make accessible those tools that don’t currently support African languages.

The lack of AI tools that work for African languages and recognize African names and places excludes African people from economic opportunities, says Moiloa, CEO and cofounder of Lelapa AI. For her, working to build Africa-centric AI solutions is a way to help others in Africa harness the immense potential benefits of AI technologies. “We are trying to solve real problems and put power back into the hands of our people,” she says.  

“We cannot wait for them”   

There are thousands of languages in the world, 1,000 to 2,000 of them in Africa alone: it’s estimated that the continent accounts for one-third of the world’s languages. But though native speakers of English make up just 5% of the global population, the language dominates the web—and has now come to dominate AI tools, too.  

Some efforts to correct this imbalance already exist. OpenAI’s GPT-4 has included minor languages like Icelandic. In February 2020, Google Translate started supporting five new languages spoken by about 75 million people. But the translations are shallow, the tool often gets African languages wrong, and it’s still a long way from an accurate digital representation of African languages, African AI researchers say.

Earlier this year, for example, the Ethiopian computer scientist Asmelash Teka Hadgu ran the same experiments that Abbott ran with ChatGPT at a premier African AI conference in Kigali, Rwanda. When he asked the chatbot questions in his mother tongue of Tigrinya, the answers he got were gibberish. “It generated words that don’t make any sense,” says Hadgu, who cofounded Lesan, a Berlin-based AI startup that is developing translation tools for Ethiopian languages. 

Lelapa AI and Lesan are just two of the startups developing speech recognition tools for African languages. In February, Lelapa AI raised $2.5 million in seed funding, and the company plans for the next funding round in 2025. But African entrepreneurs say they face major hurdles, including lack of funding, limited access to investors, and difficulties in training AI to learn diverse African languages. “AI receives the least funding among African tech startups,” says Abake Adenle, the founder of AJALA, a  London-based startup that provides voice automation for African languages.