The Languages of Africa
Africa conjures many images. Scorching-hot deserts, wildlife safaris, nomadic tribes, and a low-tech but emerging economy are just some of them. However, the most common misconceptions are that Africa is a country and everyone there speaks African.
Africa at a Glance
Africa is a continent, not a country. It comprises 54 countries, and each one is distinct in geographical, political, economic, cultural, and linguistic structures. In the same way countries in Europe and Asia are unique, the countries in Africa are not homogenous.
Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, covering one-fifth of the earth’s land area and it’s the second-most populous continent, with an estimated 1.4 billion people. It also has the youngest population globally, with 70% under 30 years old. As a market and talent source, Africa offers global brands enormous opportunities for expansion.
To make better decisions on where to expand first, companies should consider where the largest markets are, where business is most conducive, and where economic growth is fastest.
Africa has five subregions: North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and South Africa.
- North Africa or Northern Africa: This is where the Sahara Desert and the Nile River are and approximately 250 million people live here. Egypt has the largest population. Other countries are Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara.
- West Africa or Western Africa: There are 16 countries here with around 411 million people and half of them are in Nigeria. It’s one of the fastest-growing subregions in terms of population and economy. Other countries include Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Senegal.
- Central Africa or Middle Africa: Nine countries here have an estimated 184 million people, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the largest. Situated in the tropical central portion of Africa and where the Congo River is, this subregion also includes Angola, Cameroon, and Chad.
- East Africa or Eastern Africa: This is the most populous subregion in Africa with 18 countries and it has around 455 million people. Ethiopia is the largest. Other populous countries are Kenya, South Sudan, Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
- South Africa or Southern Africa: This is the smallest and least populous subregion, but it’s also the most economically developed. There are five countries with a total population of about 68 million people, who are mainly from South Africa.
Freedom and Democracy in Africa
Monarchies still run some African countries, such as Morocco and Swaziland. In others, a prime minister or a president rules the people with varying degrees of freedom.
In its annual Freedom in the World report, Freedom House scored 8 countries as free, 20 as not free, and the rest as partially free. There’s an increasing trend toward authoritarian rule, undermining democracy. Despite risks, investing in Africa makes business sense. As such, this should not deter companies from investing in Africa, particularly in select subregions and countries.
Africa offers tremendous business and investment opportunities, as half of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa, including Morocco, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, and South Africa. Africa is also considered the world’s next great manufacturing center, with a massive consumer market and the fastest-growing Internet growth rate. And for many, it’s one of the last frontier markets.
The McKinsey Global Institute’s African Stability Index grouped Africa into three growing groups:
- Stable growers: Smaller but fast-growing economies
- Vulnerable growers: Growing but less stable economies
- Slow growers: GDP growing less than the global average
Considering their large populations, notable stable growers include Kenya, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Morocco, and Uganda. Vulnerable growers to watch out for are Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zambia. And of course, even if it’s in the category of slow growers, South Africa remains an economic powerhouse.
Africa has a rich and diverse culture, distinct between countries and within countries. Each country has different traditions, cuisines, arts, music, literature, clothing, folklore, and religions. This is expected, given there are around 3,000 ethnic groups.
The major groupings are:
- Afro-Asiatic: Around 200 languages, including Arabic, Somali, Berber, Hausa, Amharic, Tamazight, and Oromo
- Nilo-Saharan: Some 140 languages, such as Luo, Songhay, Nubian, Kanuri, and Maasai
- Niger-Congo: Approximately 1,000 languages, like Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, and Shona
- Khoisan: About 30 languages, including Hadza, Sandawe, and Tuu
There are also Austronesian languages like Malagasy, spoken in Madagascar, and Indo-European languages, such as Afrikaans, mainly spoken in South Africa and Namibia.
It’s not feasible for global brands to localize their content to all 2,000 languages. However, they should prioritize languages with a high number of users. For instance:
- Hausa: 54 million
- Pidgin: 47.5 million
- Yoruba: 42 million
- Igbo: 29 million
- Amharic: 57 million
- Oromo: 19 million
- Tigrigna: 6.5 million
- Zulu: 27 million
- Afrikaans: 17 million
- Tsonga: 5.5 million
- Swahili TZ: 47 million
Partner With Welocalize in Africa
Given the breadth and complexity of localization for the African market, global brands can’t do everything in-house. The better alternative is to work with a language services provider (LSP), such as Welocalize, which has the experience and expertise in this market. We deliver multilingual content services and localization solutions for over 20 languages in Africa. And we have translated over 10 million words since 2020.
We partner with impact sourcing organizations, such as Digital Divide Data and Sozo Consulting through our Transforming Talent program. Together, we hire and train talent in disadvantaged areas where employment opportunities are limited. We have been growing an upskilled workforce of young professionals in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nigeria for the needs of the localization industry.
Welocalize understands the value of training talent in the local populations.
When you partner with us, you have the assurance that our in-country translators and linguists are not just native speakers, but they’re also highly trained to do localization work. Just as important, you contribute to the welfare of youth and the socioeconomic stability and development in Africa.
For a full list of African languages that Welocalize supports, download PDF now.
Get in touch with us for your localization requirements.