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Hot startup of the month: South Africa's Botlhale AI

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is fast becoming the go-to technology for the global economy. It is becoming more popular for people to use AI to write blog posts and for companies to automate and improve business responses to business audiences.

As per TechTarget, AI is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. Specific applications of AI include expert systems, natural language processing, speech recognition and machine vision.

According to a report by the African Development Bank, Africa has the potential to become a leader in the adoption of AI.

However, the adoption and sometimes the use of AI tools in the African context can be lower than the adoption in other markets. That leaves a gap for companies like Botlhale AI, founded in 2020 by Thapelo Nthite, Sange Maxaku and Xolisani Nkwentsha as a response to the language divide – particularly in South Africa.

The startup has created AI tools that help businesses engage their customers in languages users understand and trust.

"The exclusion of a significant portion of the population from the digital economy, as well as the exclusion from accessing essential online activities like business registration or banking, spurred us into action," co-founder and CEO Nthite explained in an interview with Connecting Africa.

He added that the company provides its clients with conversational AI, allowing them to reduce support costs and increase customer reach, conversion, and retention.

Furthermore, he said, Botlhale AI conversational bots also help businesses provide a higher-quality service to their customers.

Botlhale AI's ins and outs

Taken from the Sesotho word that means "wise or clever," BotlhaleAI is leveraging advanced language processing technology to break down barriers in communication. The company uses three AI tools to stop communication barriers: a Call Centre Analytics Tool, Multilingual Help Desk and Virtual Assistant Builder as well as Natural Language Processing (NLP) APIs.

"Our Call Center Analytics Tool enables call centers to transcribe their interactions in multiple languages. The technology doesn't just transcribe calls, it also extracts valuable, actionable insights that were previously inaccessible," Nthite added.

"This empowers call centers to ensure compliance, enhance agent performance, and streamline their quality assurance processes for the millions of calls they handle each month, regardless of the language spoken during the call," he explained.

Nthite said that the Multilingual Help Desk and Virtual Assistant Builder, on the other hand, allow support agents to translate customer messages in real time and respond in the customer's preferred language, breaking down linguistic barriers to effective communication.

"We offer our Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools independently through APIs. This allows for seamless, custom integrations with other business solutions," he said.

API is an application programming interface that allows for more computer programs or components to communicate with each other.

"Our dedication stems from a desire to make a difference in the lives of those marginalized in the digital world and by breaking down language barriers, we aim to create a more inclusive and equitable digital future," Nthite reiterated.

Standing out in the market

Nthite said that, due to the dynamic nature of the startup, AI, and the conversational AI landscape, it has been difficult to identify the company's competitors. Furthermore, the competitive landscape is always changing, making it difficult to pinpoint specific competitors.

"Having said that though, our diverse product offerings mean that we encounter competitors across various aspects of our business. Therefore, we continually monitor the market and adapt our strategies to stay ahead in this competitive environment," he continued.

"However, our competitive advantage, which makes us better than the rest, is that we offer adaptable models tailored to specific needs and languages. Our strength lies in the customization and deep domain expertise we provide," the Botlhale AI co-founder and CEO added.

He said that the company's AI tools excel in African languages, boasting proficiency in all of South Africa's 11 official languages as well as other African languages like Kinyarwanda and Swahili.

"Our relentless dedication to expanding language support further cements our competitive edge, ensuring that we remain at the forefront of linguistic innovation," Nthite said.

Winning accolades

BotlhaleAI has in previous years been a winner of several accolades, including being part of the Grindstone Accelerator program and the nVidia Inception Program and the winner of the DataHack4I Innovation award.

In November 2023, BotlhaleAI walked away with Startup of the Year at the Africa Tech Festival Awards.

Botlhale AI Co-Founder and CEO Thapelo Nthite and Omdia Senior Research Analyst Thecla Mbongue at the Africa Tech Festival Awards 2023.   (Source: Africa Tech Festival)
Botlhale AI Co-Founder and CEO Thapelo Nthite and Omdia Senior Research Analyst Thecla Mbongue at the Africa Tech Festival Awards 2023.
(Source: Africa Tech Festival)

That award recognized startups that contribute to technological advancement.

"Winning the Startup of the Year, is more than just an incredible honor for Botlhale AI – it's a spotlight on the hard work and dedication of our team, amplified by the press attention it has garnered," he added.

"We're incredibly proud of what we've achieved so far, and this award serves as a powerful validation of our mission to provide digital access for all," he added.

Expansion plans

Nthite highlighted that because BotlhaleAI is a provider of NLP services, its primary objective is to ensure accessibility across a broad spectrum of languages.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, renowned for its linguistic diversity, we've identified close to 30 languages spoken by approximately 400 million people, our immediate focus is onboarding these languages in the near to medium term," he reflected.

"By doing so, we intend to tailor our NLP solutions to meet the distinct linguistic requirements of the region, thereby dismantling language barriers and fostering inclusivity," Nthite explained.

Follow Connecting Africa on our new X account @connect__africa to get the latest telecom and tech news across Africa.

Furthermore, he said the company acknowledges the significance of forging strategic partnerships and collaborations with companies with operations across Africa, such as Chenosis by MTN, which are integral to BotlhaleAI's expansion strategy.

"These partnerships facilitate a smoother execution of our expansion plans," he concluded.

Related posts:

*Top image is of Botlhale AI staff members. (Source: Botlhale AI.)

Matshepo Sehloho, Associate Editor, Connecting Africa

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