How many electrical engineers does it take to solve language barriers in the tech space?
Three – Thapelo Nthite (26), Sange Maxaku (25) and Xolisani Nkwentsha (25).
The trio are the young founders of Botlhale AI, a South African start-up that helps companies communicate with their customers in their own languages.
Botlhale means intelligence in Tswana and the business was born from seeing how many people struggle to engage with technology due to language barriers.
In Thapelo’s case, for instance, one particular observation rang loud in his mind during the days leading up to them establishing the company in 2019.
His grandmother was struggling to recharge her airtime.
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“She articulated herself properly in Tswana but she couldn’t do it herself. It all boiled down to her not understanding the language that’s written on the voucher and her phone,” Thapelo, the chief executive officer of the company, tells YOU.
Not long after the three friends, who were studying in the electrical engineering department at the University of Cape Town at the time, discussed possible solutions.
“We knew that there was existing technology around the world that was being utilised to help people engage with technology using spoken human language, so we wondered why that wasn't a thing for African languages,” Thapelo says.
Their initial idea was to build a banking virtual assistant that understands multiple South African languages because banks were closing some of their branches and going digital.
“But at that time open banking wasn’t really available on the one hand, and on the other hand the technology we wanted to use wasn’t available either,” Thapelo tells us. Open banking allows third party financial and other service providers to have access to data from banks.
“Because of our background in signal processing and electrical engineering, we decided to tackle the problem of the language side of things. We started building natural language processing tools and that’s the core of our business.”
The tools they offer include speech-to-text transcription, text-to-speech translation and language understanding, which essentially deals with an intelligent system’s ability to understand natural language.
In addition to the core tools, they also offer conversational AI platforms that allow companies to build multilingual virtual assistants without writing code.
“This virtual assistants can understand text and speech and can be deployed on chat platforms like WhatsApp or other apps and on the web, or it can be integrated into other systems,” Thapelo says.
This platform is accompanied by a multilingual helpdesk which can translate interactions between live support agents and their customer. When it reaches the client, it does so in their preferred language.
Botlhale AI also uses machine learning to analyse call centre calls happening in African languages.
It’s been an interesting journey for the engineering trio, who've had to learn how to take care of the business side of things.
“Funding was a challenge. Last year, we kind of overestimated how long our money would last and the year before that,” says Sange, the company’s chief technology operator.
“We got to a point where we asked families for money. People took money from their savings accounts, and others took out loans to help us. It was a tough time, but because of that situation we actually learnt to be resilient,” he adds. They've since solved their cashflow problems.
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“Our smaller challenges included being comfortable with running a business and not just building the tech, being able to communicate with people and being able to negotiate.”
Xolisani, the chief product officer, admits it took some time for him to adapt to managing a business.
“In engineering I write code and things work and I have a good day. But in this business thing I’d have about five meetings and not much work gets done, but I had to understand that meetings are work,” he says.
The challenges pale in comparison to their achievements, though. Through their company they've managed to assist close to 1 000 young people with micro job opportunities.
Having started just four years ago, their client base already includes big companies such as MTN, financial solutions company Finwell and IT company Tic-It Telecoms.
But it's not just all about the money for them. “It’s important to note the role our work has on preserving African languages because for a very long time African languages were not documented," Thapelo says.
“It’s also important for solutions like this to be developed locally. As much as technology is transferrable across geographies, there are very different cultures and cultural contexts that need to be taken into consideration when developing technology to maximise its use,” he continues.
"We need to start understanding ourselves as a people and using that understanding to develop technology and solve our own problems."