With the continuous increase in technology drive, language barriers pose a big challenge to communication, access to information, and economic opportunities.
Research shows that over 65% of companies are faced with inefficiency, ineffective collaboration and low productivity, among other issues resulting from language barriers. This further leads to poor communication, poor customer satisfaction and loss of business.
For businesses in Africa, where over 2,000 languages are spoken, these barriers are of high disadvantage, even for individuals.
CDIAL.AI, a Nigerian AI startup, is addressing this challenge head-on with the development of AI-powered solutions that break down language barriers and promote multilingualism.
In this Q&A, we speak with Yinka Iyinolakan, the CEO of CDIAL.AI, about the company’s mission, its innovative solutions, and its impact on businesses and individuals across Africa.
TE: Can you tell us about CDIAL.AI?
Yinka: In 2021, we started the company way before ChatGPT became popular, with a focus on addressing language barriers. My background in communications led us to recognize the importance of bridging the language gap. I was doing research and realized that beyond access to devices, many people face challenges with English, affecting education, internet access, and more.
Leveraging advancements in AI, we embarked on creating systems that support African languages because, with that, we would be able to improve customer service, people’s learning, access to economic opportunities and others. So we started CDIAL.AI, and what it does is that over the past two years, we’ve developed language models and built apps facilitating internet use in various African languages. Our solutions include an app on the Play Store, enterprise solutions for translation and speech recognition, and hardware systems supporting African languages.
TE: Why African languages?
Yinka: Being Nigerian, I’m aware of the rich linguistic diversity in Africa, with over 400 languages in Nigeria alone. If you look at it, the highest-grossing movie in Nigeria is a multilingual movie where they spoke Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. Even Afro beats and African music doing well across the world, one of the reasons it does so well is that they create a community because most of the songs are spoken in pidgin or an African language. Africans can do so much more if technology is available in their language.
We believe technology should cater to these languages to enhance customer service, learning, and economic opportunities, especially for those who don’t speak English. Based on the results and acceptance that we’ve got, it validates that people do need technology in their mother tongue and the language of their community.
TE: In what ways do you envision CDIAL.AI contributing to bridging the digital divide in Africa, especially in terms of ensuring access to the internet in native languages?
Yinka: There are various types of intonations across Nigerian languages, for instance, Yoruba has “e,” some with dots, and an “a” with additional marks. These unique characters, and even in the Ghanaian language tree, showcase linguistic diversity that many may not have encountered before. Unlike English with 26 alphabets, African languages, such as Igbo, have around 32 to 34 characters. To address this diversity, we developed a keyboard that supports 880 characters, including English and French. So we are not trying to discourage the use of English or French but to emphasize the importance of using one’s language, be it ESA or Duma. Whether it’s for church, personal use, or any other purpose, individuals should have the ability to write and express themselves in their native language.
However, we acknowledge that not everyone is proficient in writing their language. To bridge this gap, we have created technologies such as the indigenous keyboard. This keyboard supports typing in various African languages and also assists in preserving and promoting these languages.
Moving forward, our focus extends beyond typing. We aim to enable people to speak to their computers or mobile phones using automatic speech recognition, similar to how Siri operates. This includes developing APIs for fintechs and promoting financial inclusion by allowing users to inquire about their balance or conduct transactions in their preferred language.
Currently, our efforts are concentrated on 10 languages, including Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Pidgin Swahili, Tosan, Zulu, Shona, Chokwe, and several other African languages. As we make strides in typing (180 languages) and speech recognition (10 languages), our goal is to expand further, recognizing the linguistic richness of the continent, encompassing at least 30 million speakers for the languages we prioritize. While we cannot cover all 2000 languages, our commitment is to cater to the spoken languages and gradually extend our support to more, contributing to linguistic inclusivity and accessibility.
TE: Other companies like Google are notable for similar solutions; how do you think you are going to compete?
Yinka: Before now, there was Google Translate. Why was it not able to fully help some people use it contextually? It wasn’t a fully efficient solution. Why? Because some things are lost in context. There’s a word in Yoruba “Ogun”. It means almost 10 different things, drugs, property, etc. You know, Google Translate will make mistakes with that. Why? Because our language is gonna show an audience that if you google translate all the languages they were able to work on were no more than 20 African languages.
The key point is that foreigners won’t develop technology that precisely fits our needs because it may not make economic sense to them, and they may lack the passion and firsthand experiences of our people. This underscores the importance of Nigerian and African startups taking the lead. While platforms like Google Translate may appear supportive, they often lack contextual accuracy.
In our journey, we’ve fine-tuned our technology over the past few years through collaboration with linguists and collective intelligence. This involves gathering people who truly speak the language to ensure contextual correctness. While Google and similar systems may provide 100% translations, captions, and speech recognition, our focus is on contextual accuracy, currently at 85%, with ongoing efforts to enhance it further. Our commitment extends to supporting generative AI, empowering individuals to create content in their local language.
TE: How does CDIAL.AI tailor its AI systems to accommodate linguistic diversity across different regions and communities in Africa?
Yinka: There’s a lot of technology that we’re working on but can’t be put out immediately. As a social enterprise, we are mindful of ethical considerations and what we put in our applications available on Google Playstore. What this accomplishes immediately, and quite seamlessly, similar to utilizing GPT, users can now, with a simple click of a button, translate Yoruba text into English or other languages, including Pidgin.
Our app, CDIAL, also empowers users to generate content. You can request it to write a book, compile a list of questions for an interview like this, or even draft a heartfelt letter for a birthday celebration. However, this is just the starting point of our journey. We aim to expand our reach to accommodate users on various platforms they commonly engage with, such as WhatsApp. Whether you’re conversing in a family group chat or your father playfully teases you about not speaking a particular language, our app allows you to type in English, click a button, and seamlessly translate or input it in the desired language.
In the next quarter, we plan to introduce five additional languages across Africa, continuously incorporating new languages each quarter. This means that whether you are a fluent speaker or just starting to learn a language, our app encourages multilingualism. You can effortlessly switch between languages, including French or English, and translate to any language you can type. This multilingual capability fosters diverse conversations, even when two individuals speak different languages, as they can type in their preferred language and seamlessly translate it into three other languages. Our goal is to facilitate multi-level conversations across the African continent.
TE: Could you elaborate on the impact you hope CDIAL.AI will have on businesses and information accessibility for individuals who speak various African languages?
Yinka: Partnerships with companies are important to us, garnering significant support from the Lagos State government. Collaborating with various government entities aligns with our focus on essential policies, including the current local language policy.
Recognizing challenges in schools where English isn’t prioritized, CDIAL.AI aimS to support multilingual education through our enterprise API. Our focus extends beyond corporate collaboration; we actively engage with schools, notably in Kaduna, Bauchi, and Lagos State Agile Institute. Installing our solutions in these institutions empowers teachers and students to utilize AI for translation and understanding complex subjects in simpler terms, fostering a bridge to education.
We have secured the top position in the Future Perspectives competition hosted by former VP Osinbajo and UNICEF, as well as collaborated with global organizations like Echoing Green and GIZ. Notable businesses, including Nigeria Economic Summit Group, and Stanbic IBTC, have embraced our APIs, showcasing the potential for local language customer service. We aspire to onboard more businesses, ensuring widespread access to information and education in local languages.
TE: What specific challenges have you encountered in promoting digital literacy across Africa languages and how CDIAL.AI addresses these challenges?
Yinka: That’s a good question, and we’ve encountered multiple challenges, primarily a technical one. Creating this kind of technology, specifically within the past two years of embracing GPT and transformers, demanded top-tier global talent. While some talent exists in Nigeria, acquiring them is a considerable struggle. So we had not only paid a lot of money but did a lot of work in the United States, with ongoing projects aimed at fostering local talent and generating employment opportunities in Nigeria.
Scaling through the tech ecosystem proved challenging, despite claims of openness to innovation. Acceptance for ventures like ours has been an ongoing struggle until we achieved significant milestones. So, I believe that if we were creating a fintech, we would have been better accepted, because people understand, the money model of the house and fintechs will make money. So I’m thankful for the journey because it has been great and there’s been a lot of validation processes. It has helped us become a genuine company.
Finally, is that over the years, we’ve not done a great job with our local languages, there are barely any dictionaries, and there are barely any policies that support them. We’ve met so many people, both in Nigeria and in places like Houston, who are ashamed that the next generation of their family cannot speak a sentence of their local language. But Chinese people do it, Indians do it no matter where they live. So why not carry on? You know, that language, that culture, and many people are hoping that our technology and other technologies can support the next generation to not only learn the language but create content in it and do good stuff.
TE: Are you for investment? Have CDIAL.AI secured some funding already? – What are your sustainability plans?
Yinka: We’ve gotten investments from different sources. We are a social enterprise and our business model is in multiple sectors, we’ve got investments, grants and support from some of our partners.
Sustainability for us is in two ways — sustainability is being able to create a self-sustaining company and one that can create jobs which is why we don’t run after every time of investment so we can create a sustainable company.
Most importantly, is that some of the languages that we have to digitize are not big enough to be financially sustainable because they are spoken by less than 500,000 or 1 million people. That’s why Google and others have not done it. For us on our side, that’s why we are a social enterprise, to be able to make money off the languages that are sustainable and are large enough for our customers to buy our products, but also to use some proceeds of our profits to support other languages that are spoken by less people across the continent. So it’s not just about making money, and for our investors and shareholders but also being able to support underserved communities. Finally, we are preparing for the next level of our raise in 2024.
TE: Do you think enough is being done to make digital literacy inclusive for all African languages?
Yinka: So little is being done. Less than 10% is being done and it’s two ways — it’s because of colonialism. Some people argue as to why we all need to learn these local languages; how about we just learn English and French and just cut out this problem, with things just simple? But if you look at the conflict that often arises in our community and also the successes, it happens in our local languages. So our diversity is a strength and not a weakness. The only reason we are angry about it is because of a certain inferiority complex or self-hate that makes you feel like you’d rather be a more proficient English speaker than be proficient in your language. But also, because of technologies that have not supported it. Once we can bridge the gap, and we don’t expect that we will do it alone, other competitors will come and once we can the gap of technology accessible in local languages will be able to do more and create more.
Ultimately, our vision is to enable a billion people on this continent, through this AI system, and our focus is on three things — education, healthcare and trade. Suppose people can learn, live well and access economic opportunities. In that case, we have done our jobs and we believe that we are on our way there, already making some impacts and in the next one year, we will be able to help more than two million people.
Earlier this year, CDIAL.AI received investment from Pharrell Williams, whose investment company is called Black Ambition. He listened to us and gave us a grant. Interestingly, people from halfway around the world who do not speak the language can support this initiative, much more than the people who speak the language, make money and have become billionaires in those areas, I believe they can do more and give back to their communities.