Kenyan startup develops technology that allows you to translate into any African language

Abantu AI, a Kenyan startup has developed a deep-learning technology in natural language processing (NLP), which can translate between major world languages and native African languages.

This was developed by James Mwaniki (also CEO). This is MoVAS AbantuAI, which offers micro-lending to telecom companies in Africa, Asia and Africa, which was launched last September. AI-driven linguistic solutions are being developed to translate speech and text from African languages into English and other languages.

The deep learning model currently translates most major languages into Kikuyu or Kiswahili. This is the language spoken in Kenya and other parts of East Africa. Translation to other African languages is being worked on.

“My main motivation for this project is to build a tool that will help caregivers and health workers to better understand their patients where patients cannot speak English or Kiswahili, and in cases where the health workers themselves do not speak or understand English or Kiswahili well enough,” Mwaniki said.

According to him, NLP has progressed significantly elsewhere in the globe but has been slow in Africa. 

“Africa is a language-rich continent with a large number of people who cannot communicate in the main languages of the world, like English and French. It is thus difficult for such people to consume and give knowledge to and from the outside world without the help of a third party,” said Mwaniki. “This is the gap we saw and we decided to build tools to address this challenge.”

The self-funded Abantu AI has developed a working proof of concept and received a “better than anticipated” market response from the media, government and health sectors. 

“The next phase of our business will be to refine our products, tailor them to specific industry needs, and marketing,” Mwaniki said.

With that in mind, the startup is now embarking on a fundraising adventure. 

“We are mostly looking at grants but are open to other types of funding. So far, we received grants from Amazon which helped us in offsetting training and hosting costs for our AI models, as this is usually the most expensive part of AI industry,” said Mwaniki.

Abantu AI plans to offer its services in other African countries before the end of this year. Startup Abantu AI makes its money through a subscription model, where clients can sign up on a periodic or usage-based basis for its services. 

“We also have clients who have asked us to custom make services for them, so this too is a different revenue model for us. Since we are still early on, we are not yet at the revenue realization stage as much of the work has been in developing PoC and testing the market, so our clients at the moment are on a trial basis,” said Mwaniki. 

He explained that AI was still an emerging industry in the world, especially in Africa. It also had specific challenges. 

“It requires specific skillsets which are hard to come by locally. Multi-disciplinary skills are required. It is not easy to find the right tools to train and build models. This makes it difficult to properly train them. And then there’s the cost of training models which is prohibitively high for most startups,” said Mwaniki. 

“All these factors contribute to raising the entry-level barrier for a lot of startups, which we are hoping to help address in the future by sharing our learning processes with local institutions and organisations that would be keen to venture into this industry.”

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