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This locally developed phone ‘speaks’ 50 African languages

Story by Ange Kumasi for bird story agency



When David Kouamé decided to improve his literacy in his mother tongue, he went to the city centre in Abidjan not to register for tutoring services, but to buy a mobile phone. Kouamé had heard about a new smartphone that was made and designed in his country. It could be controlled by voice and could understand 50 African languages.

“It is important to speak our African languages and teach them to our children. When I heard about this phone, I knew I had to get it. I’m very happy to have this superphone as I can speak my mother tongue with it. And I thank this group, who had the brilliant idea to create this gem,” said Kouamé.

Alain Capo-Chichi came up with the idea. He is the founder and president of the Cerco Group, a school in the Ivory Coast.

The phone, called OpenG, for “Open Generation,” seeks to break the barriers of illiteracy, especially among the elderly.

“Our parents are currently unable to use the smartphones given to them because they cannot read or write, and I remember that my father always told me that he was not dumb but just illiterate,” explained Capo-Chichi. “On smartphones, these are commands written with a keyboard, while illiteracy is a reality in Africa; most of our parents did not go to school. The idea, therefore, is to create a slightly smarter phone that allows them to no longer write but simply speak,” he said.

The smartphone has a voice-activated assistant called KONE that uses artificial intelligence to do things that Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri can do as well.

In addition to Arabic, French, and English, the phone speaks more than fifty African languages, including fon and goun (spoken in Benin), Wolof (Senegal), Bambara (Mali), Yoruba, Igbo (Nigeria), Kiswahili (Kenya, Tanzania), and Lingala (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

It also speaks 16 Ivorian languages, including Baoulé, Senoufo, Dioula, Bété, and Agni.

“With this super phone, the user skips the writing and reading stages and speaks directly on the phone to get appropriate answers to the requests they have. Many things make this smartphone special, which is why we called it a superphone because it has super intelligence,” said Capo-Chichi.

Besides the voice assistant, the phone also has an application called “Moïse,” which allows users to perform around twenty everyday tasks such as buying goods and services online or in shops, ordering taxis, and personalized searches like finding pharmacies, hospitals, or medicines.

Thanks to a partnership between the Cerco Group and the Nigerian bank, UBA, the app has digital financial services like mobile money built in.

“Electronic money is essential to create a super-application, and we are partners with the UBA bank, which allows us to issue electronic money with the authorization of BECEAO, so we worked together to create a synergy to go much further,” he explained further.

When it comes out in July 2022, the “superphone” will also have a service called “Open Pay” that lets users move money between the MTN, Moov, Orange, and Wave (the well-known penguin) networks.

“In terms of functionality, the super phone has nothing to envy to an iPhone or any other Asian or European brand. Our features even exceed those of the brands that are more prominent in the mobile phone market. From the point of view of solving an African problem, this telephone is more suitable for all types of needs,” Capo-Chichi said.

The president of Cerco says that thousands of the phones, which cost the local equivalent of $50 to $60, have been sold in the area. African communities abroad are also increasingly adopting them. To increase distribution, Cerco has partnered with the French telecom company Orange.

“We have a strategic partnership with the Orange Group to export the superphone to more than 14 countries, and we have several other companies that call on us, so for us, it is important to manufacture more,” Capo-Chichi said.

“The factory has a capacity of 4,000 units per day, and today we are working mainly on export. But we will soon set up other production units in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and other nations to meet the growing market,” he added.

The business owner said that he thinks the phone’s many features and low price will make it popular all over the region. The OpenG is less expensive than many of its competitors because it is made in the United States and gets tax breaks and helps from the government.

“Government support has been critical. The state has created an industrial free zone in the city of Grand-Bassam and the state has accompanied our project to set up the 100% African assembly line which today produces 4,000 units daily,” the 44-year-old said.

Capo-Chichi is now making plans to add more languages to the device to meet the needs of other groups whose languages still need to be added.

“You will soon have more than 1,000 languages within a year, so we have called on several communities to support us in order to be able to develop the super phone,” he said.

The Cerco factory has in the past been a partner of Microsoft and Intel in assembling computers, but its operations are now entirely devoted to the “super phone.”

“The first team begins assembling the parts, followed by the software installation team, and then the testers. Then we move on to mass production, followed by packaging and, finally, shipping,” explained Siriki Ouattara, communication and marketing manager.

Other companies investing in the voice-operation field in Africa include software studio Mobobi, which created Abena AI, a hands-free voice assistant for Ghanaian languages, while Mozilla Common Voice is developing a voice assistant that can speak Kiswahili.

bird is Africa No Filter (ANF)'s story agency designed to shift narratives about and in Africa, away from dangerous stereotypes.

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