Languages and business in Africa

The African continent is home to 2,144 languages. The vast number of languages are often considered a barrier to the development of sustainable business ideas or strategies. However, in reality, that is not the case. If anything it is certainly a challenge but not an impossible one if businesses are geared to overcome it.

Understanding the demographic makeup of African languages

In 2009, it was estimated that out of a billion Africans 17% percent spoke some Arabic dialect. 10% of the population spoke Swahili which is native to Southeast Africa, 5% percent spoke Berber, and around 5% percent spoke Hausa which is native to Sahel. Other prominent West African languages include Fula, Yoruba, and Igbo. Languages spoken across the Horn of Africa include Somali, Amharic, and Oromo. Important languages in South Africa are Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa.

Interestingly Portuguese, French, and English are also majorly spoken languages across the continent. English is spoken by 130 million with French speakers numbering at 115 million and 30 million speak Portuguese. All colonial era languages are either spoken as primary or secondary languages. Though Portuguese is the national language of Angola.

How do businesses deal with dozens of languages?

When starting or expanding your business to the African continent, it is essential to focus on one region at a time. Take for instance if you were expanding to South Africa, the website, marketing material and other forms of advertising should adhere to the local norms. Plus, it would be a good idea that the advertising runs in both Afrikaans and English because that will cover the most number of people. The same goes for website content.

Interestingly, you don’t have to adapt your website’s content from English to let’s say Swahili because most people understand English. However, if you do, the bonus would be the fact that your message will reach a wider audience. Plus, there is less of a chance of someone misunderstanding what you want to get across.

Translating from English to African languages

It goes without saying that the fair number of African languages have no written form. However, as a rule of thumb if you expect to do business in Africa like run an e-commerce store make sure that the website is in at least Yoruba, Swahili, Somali, and Afrikaans, apart from English and French. Now, this may seem like a lot of work, but it’s not especially if as mentioned above you expand one region at a time.

Africa is a vast continent. So, if you were, for instance, expanding from the UK to let’s say, Asia, you can’t just have your website in Hindi, Japanese or Chinese. It will have to be tailored to each region accordingly, and that will have to be done one at a time.

African Business language and etiquette

The prevailing business language in Africa for face to face meetings is still English, followed by French. Africans expect foreigners to speak English and they happen to be pretty good at it too. So, you’ll not be running into any language barriers. Though having an African translator on hand when let’s say surveying the market can always be helpful.