Into Africa: Languages and Emerging Economies

Category: International Business, Translation Services

The African continent is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. According to Wikipedia, over 2,000 languages have been identified among its 54 countries, with over 500 languages actively spoken in Nigeria alone.

Economically, as of 2008, the McKinsey Global Institute reports that the continent’s combined GDP of $1.6 trillion is expected to surpass $2.5 trillion by 2020, with consumer spending forecast at $1.4 trillion by the same year. Eighty percent of the continent’s GDP in 2005 was shared between 15 of its 3016608675_a8eeab76c8_zcountries, chiefly among natural resources, commerce, farming, and telecommunications. Private foreign capital spiked dramatically from $10 billion to almost $90 billion from 2003 to 2007.

In addition, McKinsey suggests that “four groups of industries together will be worth $2.6 trillion in annual revenue by 2020. These are consumer-facing industries (such as retail, telecommunications, and banking); infrastructure-related industries; agriculture; and resources.”

Being an emerging economy with a wealth of spoken languages, how does African commerce communicate?

All African countries, with the exception of Morocco, are part of the African Union (AU), an intergovernmental organization. Article 25 of the Union’s Constitutive Act lists six official languages in total; Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili. Other African languages are included on an ad-hoc basis, while and the AU’s sister organization, ACALAN, the African Academy of Languages, focuses on the revalorization and empowerment of indigenous languages.

The AU is further divided into regional groups within the African Economic Community (AEC). One of these, the East African Community, includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, who claim five official languages between them, including English and Swahili. Its 2004 GDP, per the CIA World Factbook, is estimated at $104 million, with emerging business strengths in natural resources and financial services.

The 15 member states of the Southern African Development Community, by contrast, claimed a 2004 GDP of $737 million (GDPs quoted are PPP and not nominal). Countries in this region include South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. Working languages include English, French and Portuguese.

Outside of the AU, Morocco’s official language may be Arabic but the language of business is French. In fact, France is the region’s largest trade partner. With an estimated 2010 GDP of over $150 billion, mostly funneled into agriculture, natural resources, and tourism, it is the fifth largest African economy by GDP.

These African countries and their economic potential are just the tip of Mount Kilimanjaro. Potential foreign investors should, of course, understand African governmental politics in addition to African language politics. A localization partner can help with the latter.

With over 300 million new cell phones in service over the last decade, people on the African continent are talking…are you part of the conversation?

Photo attribution: geirarne