A look at the first-ever African keyboard developed by a Zimbabwean startup

Seeing as Africa and different aspects about it are largely underrepresented in the digital world, the work has now been left to African innovators to push the continent with their innovations to bring a level of inclusion that is lacking. Bhala, a Zimbabwean startup launched a virtual African keyboard designed for African languages that supports word auto-complete, spellcheck, and word prediction in a number of African languages.

Credit: disrupt-africa

Bhala is the first app to offer Ndebele ,Shona, Swati, Swahili, Xhosa ,Zulu spell-checkers online with more Bantu languages coming soon. 

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The mobile virtual keyboard uses machine learning and state of the art deep learning models to improve the experience of writing in African languages. Popular keyboards like Google’s Gboard and SwiftKey do not cater for African languages which is evident with the auto correct that shows the keyboard does not recognise what one is typing.

Bhala has had remarkable progress with African keyboard

Bhala is now the first African language keyboard and stickers app designed for Africans and their languages. It was launched in January and enables tens of thousands of users each day to write quicker, faster and more accurately in languages that they can best express themselves in.

Director of operations Njabulo Sandawana claims Bhala has more accurate autocorrect and predictions than any comparable app on the market, including those Google’s G board and Microsoft’s SwiftKey.

“Too often Africans have to tolerate technology not designed for them or their needs. Bhala is different. It’s built by Africans, for Africans, and for African needs, while respecting privacy and ethical considerations through research-based methods,” he said.

“We are committed to providing technology that enables users to communicate effectively, efficiently, and improves their user mobile device experience.”

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In addition, Bhala also works like a spell-checker and offers predictive text by auto-complete and word prediction. The use of advanced NLP(Natural Language Processing) makes Bhala far superior to existing local spell checkers.

African languages are largely underrepresented in the digital world. Bhala’s technology covers 200,000,000+speakers of Bantu languages.

Bhala provides a fast and simple layout for its users. Additionally, Bhala uses the latest artificial intelligence to improve the users writing experience. The startup never collects sensitive and personally identifiable information thus assuring clients of their data privacy.

The startup is committed to providing technology that enables users to communicate effectively, efficiently as well as improving their user mobile device experience.

Innovations centred around the African culture

Innovations like these not only allow for better African representation in digital spaces, they also show that there is a way to embrace technology while still maintaining ties to our culture and heritage. Innovations of this kind have been developed in their various forms allowing Africans to tell their stories and share their culture with the rest of the world.

The Afro Emoji app which is quite similar to Bhala’s work is an emoji app that was launched in 2016, reflecting Africans dressed in traditional attire using popular local expressions and gestures. The app offers 50 characters in 300 different stickers and translates the expressions for Africans to better express themselves on social and digital platforms.

BookBeak is a local app that hopes to give African writers global exposure by connecting them with literature fanatics in SA, the US and the UK. The storytelling app BookBeak says it is the first African app-based platform to aggregate African short stories from published, unpublished and self-published writers and serve them to a global audience.

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