The Internet leaves Swahili internet users behind

Tuesday May 23 2017

The question of the language of the web has been on the international agenda for a while. The Internet, having been designed by English-speaking American scientists, is naturally English-centric and tends to crowd out other languages.

One report shows that English dominates 51per cent of all internet websites, with Russian websites coming in at a distant second with 6.5 per cent of the global sites, and Swahili registering a 0.1 per cent presence on the web.

Another report looks at the same data from the language perspective and shows that most Internet users are English-speaking, followed by Chinese and Spanish speakers respectively.  

So why should we be concerned that the web is dominated by English websites and users?

The simple reason is that lack of linguistic and cultural diversity on the web creates a society that has a ‘tunnel-vision’ view of the world.

Most English-speaking countries have the same Commonwealth traditions, laws, procedures and practices. These are not necessarily bad, but should not be assumed to be the only viable options available for a functional society.



With more and more of our socio-economic and cultural activities moving online, more and more indigenous cultures will implicitly surrender their identities to the ‘English way’ of doing things.

Indigenous cultures must therefore fight to retain their identities both online and offline - or they face the risk of extinction over the next couple of decades.

Additionally, large sections of populations that do not speak English automatically get marginalised and are not able to participate in a digital economy due to language barriers or existing biases.

The Russians, Japanese, French and Chinese are alive to these facts and have aggressive programmes to ensure they preserve their cultural identity both online and offline.

In Africa, perhaps because of the thousands of indigenous languages and cultures, we have barely made an impact in terms of protecting and preserving our cultural identities online.

What this implies is that our current millennial generation, also known as digital natives, who spend a good chunk of their life online, are consuming and internalising only ONE perspective of the world.


Similarly, older folks who can perhaps read and understand Swahili but not English are automatically locked out of the digital opportunities and conversations that often only happen online.

How can we begin to change this narrative?

It's not easy, but East Africa has a slight advantage in that Swahili is widely spoken and therefore policies, strategies and activities that promote cultural diversity online can be built around it.

It must be a concerted national effort that brings on board both public and private sector bodies.

Safaricom, for example, has provided language options for most of its services such that one can choose to have their M-Pesa transactions completed exclusively in the Swahili language.

Media companies could also explore how to convert selected English content into Swahili so as to enable a non-English speaking audience access to it.


Whereas the private sector may be constrained by business decisions in as far as pursuing such a goal is concerned, the government has no choice and must endeavour to pursue a diversity and inclusivity agenda.

As an example, the government-owned eCitizen portal does not seem to provide a Swahili option, thus locking out thousands of Kenyans who may be literate enough to transact online in Swahili but not English.

The government must therefore set aside funds for localisation efforts that would see most of their digital presence upgraded to providing citizens with language options in either English or Swahili.

Universities and other training institutions also have a role to play by encouraging software engineers to design and develop systems that require minimum technical effort to switch between different language or cultural options.

Ensuring diversity online does not have a quick fix, but appreciating the need for it is one small step towards pursuing this gigantic goal.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @jwalu