Voice-operated smartphones target tens of millions of non-literate people in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Ivory Coast, a so-called “Superphone” is being pitched to the 40% of the population that is illiterate.
Locally developed and assembled, the phone makes everyday tasks easier, such as reading a document and checking a bank balance.
Floride Jogbe, who saw social media ads, bought a phone for her illiterate parents.
She thought $92 was worth 60,000 CFA francs.
The smartphone uses Cerco’s “Kone” operating system, which covers 17 Ivorian languages, including Baoule, Bete, and Dioula, and 50 African languages.
Cerco hopes to reach half of the continent’s population with the help of 3,000 volunteers.
Cerco president Alain Capo-Chichi, a Benin national, said the goal is to reduce illiterates’ “frustration” with technology that requires them to read, write, and spell.
“Various institutions put literacy before technology,” he told AFP.
“We skip reading and writing to focus on economic and social integration.”
UN figures for 2016 show that 27% of the 750 million adults who can’t read or write live south of the Sahara.
The continent has nearly 2,000 languages, some of which are used for inter-ethnic communication and are spoken by tens of millions of people.
Lack of numbers or economic clout means developers have already created vocal assistants for bigger markets.
Mobobi created a Twi language voice assistant in Ghana called Abena AI. Mozilla is working on a Kiswahili assistant, which has 100 million speakers in East Africa.
Jean-Marie Akepo questioned whether voice needed a dedicated mobile phone.
Existing technology “satisfies people”
“WhatsApp’s voice message services solve a large part of the problem.”
Instead of a new phone, he suggested “local-language software for smartphones.”
The Ivorian phone is made in Grand-Bassam, a free-trade zone near Abidjan.
It was a government collaboration. The company pays no taxes or customs duties, and the assembly plant receives a $2 billion subsidy.
Cerco must pay the state 3.5% of its annual income and train 1,200 young people.
Since July 21, the company has received 200,000 orders.
The phone will be sold in 200 Ivory Coast stores thanks to a partnership with Orange.