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Bhala app lets locals create online content in their own lingo

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Sabelo Mhlambi,  founder of the Bhala smart keyboard.
Sabelo Mhlambi, founder of the Bhala smart keyboard.

“This app is groundbreaking. To be able to think and write in your own language is phenomenal,” says a review of the new Bhala keyboard app for African languages.

The drive to enable people to create more content in their own languages led Massachusetts-based computer scientist and researcher Sabelo Mhlambi to build Bhala. His first idea was to create a language-learning app, but he realised a keyboard app might be a more powerful tool.

Bhala also works as a spell-checker and offers predictive text by auto-complete and word prediction. While it isn't the first online spell-checker for indigenous languages, Mhlambi says its use of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) makes it "far superior" than some existing local spell-checkers.

The idea is for Bhala to eventually cater for all major African languages. “Charity begins at home,” he says, and as an isiZulu-northern isiNdebele speaker, those are the first languages he on-boarded for quality assurance. The keyboard also caters to isiXhosa, chiShona, isiZulu, siSwati and KiSwahili, with Sesotho and Sepedi recently added. The keyboard, still in beta and for Android only, will soon be able to offer synonyms and make grammatical suggestions.

As another review in the Play Store says: “My mother is 80-years-old and LOVES this app. She's fascinated by how ‘pure’ Bhala's Zulu is.”

Mhlambi, born to South African-Zimbabwean parents has lived in the United States for the past 20 years. He is also founder of Bantucracy, a tech policy organisation; a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; and a technology and human rights fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. 

He aims to advance the Global South’s perspective on artificial intelligence policy, saying: “I’m interested in the tools and policies that can improve the intelligence of machines while benefiting marginalised communities.”

You shouldn’t have to know English to use the Internet, he says. "We also shouldn’t have to throw away our languages. I’ve been in software for 10 years and there aren’t many tools meant for us, not even with the major tech players because they don’t think there’s any commercial value in African languages.

“A lot of start-ups on the continent have good ideas but they position themselves towards big companies because they have the money for it; but what about the guy on the street? That’s who I want to build with,” he says, adding that Bhala has been self-funded. “Grammarly also started as self-funded, only making money in year seven or eight, so I’m not in a rush. If we consider monetising, there are options such as translation software.”

He says one of the deterrents to working with big tech companies is the lack of data privacy, and Bhala will never commercialise its user data.

“If we start working with the big keyboard devs, we might end up selling. Many local start-ups end up selling but they forget that Africa is the future.” 

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