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Opinion: The future of audio in Africa is young, bold and online

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Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy (MD Spotify SSA)Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy (MD Spotify SSA)

Until very recently, radio was more or less the only way to listen to spoken-word audio content in Africa. While people have been able to carry music around for decades, the same wasn’t really true for things like audio dramas, panel shows, and deep dives into specialist subjects. Certainly, things like audiobooks and comedy albums have always been available (albeit not to the extent that music has), but everything else remained confined to radio waves.

That’s rapidly changing. While radio undoubtedly remains a critical medium on the continent (even in South Africa, its most developed economy, 80% of the population tunes in to the radio at least once a week), a new crop of African creators are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by podcasting.

In doing so, they’re not only finding new and innovative ways to tell their own stories, but to address topics like gender norms, social challenges, and the experience of building lives and careers in some of Africa’s most vibrant and fastest-growing cities.

An enabling environment

While podcasting has been around in one form or another since the early 2000s, it only really took off in the 2010s in most of the world. On the continent, its emergence is even more recent. It was only in 2014, for example, that South Africa got its first high-profile podcasting production house in the shape of CliffCentral. But as smartphones have become more ubiquitous and capable, and data costs have fallen, so an enabling environment for the consumption and production of podcasts has been created.

In Kenya, for example, of the 40% of the population with internet access, 99.7% have a smartphone. In Nigeria, meanwhile, those same figures sit at 50% and 99.5% respectively. Even more critically, the cost of connectivity is falling across much of the continent. While mobile data remains expensive in many places, several African countries (Cameroon, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, and South Africa) reached the United Nations’ ‘1 for 2’ affordability target — 1GB data for no more than 2% average monthly income in 2021. A growing number of submarine cables connecting the continent to the rest of the world means that both fixed and mobile connection rates will continue to fall.

At the same time, peripherals like podcasting microphones have become more affordable and audio editing software has become easier to use, meaning that almost anyone can start a podcast today. Increasing familiarity with video-conferencing tools as a result of the pandemic, meanwhile, means that African podcasters can bring on guests from anywhere in the world.

At Spotify, we’re committed to playing our part in this revolution by lowering the barriers for African creators, enabling them to launch a career in audio, regardless of their financial backing, professional background, or where they live. We’re also committed to celebrating African creators by showcasing the sounds of Africa that are taking on the global stage.

Exceptional storytelling

Of course, that’s made a great deal easier by the exceptional storytellers that abound in Africa. And increasingly, those storytellers are innovating in the podcasting space.

I said what I said, for example, is hosted by entrepreneur Feyikemi Abudu and storyteller Jola Ayeye, and tells stories about the Lagos millennial experience in an honest, engrossing, and funny way. Also produced in Nigeria, Tea With Tay is hosted by Taymesan and covers societal issues and personal experiences with celebrities and other guests in a fun, light-hearted and entertaining way.

Kenya’s The Sandwich Podcast, meanwhile, is presented in a mix of English, Swahili, and Sheng, Kenya’s local slang and is hosted by four creatives discussing their life experiences. In a similar vein is After School Is After School with Sis G.U. Produced in South Africa and hosted by Gugulethu Nyatsumba, she uses the show to speak more openly and honestly about the battles that she continues to face in her 20s.

Far more serious, but no less engaging, is Mantalk.ke. Hosted by Eli Mwenda and Oscar Koome, the show tackles a range of issues including fatherhood, feminism, dating, and self-care. The podcast aims to highlight positive forms of masculinity rather than the more toxic forms that dominate media narratives.

The continent is also making its own contributions to the wildly popular true crime genre, most notably with True Crime South Africa. Hosted by Nicole Engelbrecht, the show covers solved and unsolved South African true crime cases.

Nurturing talent

Those are just a small sample of the incredible things African creators are doing in the audio space. There are many more sharing their expertise and love for entrepreneurship, finance, sport, and dozens of other topics. Others are using audio to create compelling dramas that people can listen to on their commutes or while they’re working. The more support and promotion they get, the more the world will sit up and listen to the sounds of Africa.  And, as Spotify, we are committed to playing our part.

By Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy – Managing Director SSA, Spotify

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People & Lifestyle

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Meta’s AI AI machine translation research helps break language barriers

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Today, Meta announced that it has built and open sourced ‘No Language Left Behind’ NLLB-200, a single AI model that is the first to translate across 200 different languages, including 55 African languages with state-of-the-art results. Meta is using the modelling techniques and learnings from the project to improve and extend translations on Facebook, Instagram, and Wikipedia.

 

In an effort to develop high-quality machine translation capabilities for most of the world’s low-resource languages, this single AI model was designed with a focus on African languages. They are challenging from a machine translation perspective. AI models require lots and lots of data to help them learn, and there’s not a lot of human translated training data for these languages. For example, there’s more than 20M people who speak and write in Luganda but examples of this written language are extremely difficult to find on the internet.

 

We worked with professional translators for each of these languages to develop a reliable benchmark which can automatically assess translation quality for many low-resource languages. We also work with professional translators to do human evaluation too, meaning people who speak the languages natively evaluate what the AI produced. The reality is that a handful of languages dominate the web, so only a fraction of the world can access content and contribute to the web in their own language. We want to change this by creating more inclusive machine translations systems – ones that unlock access to the web for the more than 4B people around the world that are currently excluded because they do not speak one of the few languages content is available in.

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“It’s impressive how much AI is improving all of our services. We just open-sourced an AI model we built that can translate across 200 different languages — many of which aren’t supported by current translation systems. We call this project No Language Left Behind, and the AI modelling techniques we used are helping make high quality translations for languages spoken by billions of people around the world. To give a sense of the scale, the 200-language model has over 50 billion parameters, and we trained it using our new Research SuperCluster, which is one of the world’s fastest AI supercomputers. The advances here will enable more than 25 billion translations every day across our apps. Communicating across languages is one superpower that AI provides, but as we keep advancing our AI work it’s improving everything we do — from showing the most interesting content on Facebook and Instagram, to recommending more relevant ads, to keeping our services safe for everyone,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post on his Facebook profile.

 

Language is our culture, identity, and lifeline to the world. However, as high-quality translation tools don’t exist for hundreds of languages, billions of people today can’t access digital content or participate fully in conversations and communities online in their preferred or native languages. This is especially true for hundreds of millions of people who speak the many languages of Africa.

 

“Africa is a continent with very high linguistic diversity, and language barriers exist day to day. We are pleased to announce that 55 African languages will be included in this machine translation research, making it a major breakthrough for our continent,” Balkissa Ide Siddo, Public Policy Director for Africa said while speaking about the launch of the AI model. “In the future, imagine visiting your favourite Facebook group, coming across a post in Igbo or Luganda, and being able to understand it in your own language with just a click of a button – that’s where we hope research like this leads us. Highly accurate translations in more languages could also help to spot harmful content and misinformation, protect election integrity, and curb instances of online sexual exploitation and human trafficking.”

 

While commenting on accessibility and inclusion in the pursuit of building an equitable metaverse, Ide Siddo added “At Meta, we are working today to ensure that as many people as possible will be able to access the new educational, social and economic opportunities that the next evolution of the internet will bring to future technology and an everyday living experience tomorrow.”

 

To confirm that the translations are high quality, Meta also created a new evaluation dataset, FLORES-200, and measured NLLB-200’s performance in each language. Results revealed that NLLB-200 exceeds the previous state of the art by an average of 44 percent.

 

Meta is also open-sourcing the NLLB-200 model and publishing a slew of research tools to enable other researchers to extend this work to more languages and build more inclusive technologies. Meta AI is also providing up to $200,000 of grants to non-profit organizations for real world applications for NLLB-200.

 

There are versions of Wikipedia in more than 300 languages, but most have far fewer articles than the 6+ million available in English. Following Meta’s partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that hosts Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects, modelling  techniques and learnings from the NLLB research are now also being applied to translation systems used by Wikipedia editors. Using the Wikimedia Foundation’s Content Translation Tool, articles can now be easily translated in more than 20 low-resource languages (those that don’t have extensive datasets to train AI systems), including 10 that previously were not supported by any machine translation tools on the platform.

 

To explore a demo of NLLB-200 showing how the model can translate stories from around the world, visit here. You can also read the research paper here.

 

 

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