The Development and Dissemination of Ethiopic Standards and Software Localization for Ethiopia

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The Development and Dissemination of Ethiopic Standards and Software Localization for Ethiopia

Prepared by Dawit Bekele (Ph.D.)

Sponsored by
UNESCO’s Project

Initiative B@bel

The ICT Capacity Building Programme of the Capacity Building Ministry of the FDRE and

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

Addis Ababa

August 14, 2003

Table of Contents

I. Preface 2

II. Introduction 3

III. ICT Standards 6

IV. Ethiopic Standardization 11

V. Software localization for Ethiopia 19

VI. Project Proposal 25

VII. Plan of Action 39

VIII. Personnel, Material and Financial Requirements 41

IX. Conclusion 44

X. Glossary 45

References 48

Annex I
Points to be considered by the Ethiopic layout research team 50

Annex II
Points to be considered by the Ethiopic into Latin transliteration research team 51

Annex III

Points to be considered by the Amharic computer terminology translation research team 52


This report has been produced based on the draft report entitled "Ethiopic Standards Development and Dissemination Program" March 1, 2003 presented at the national workshop that was convened on March 14, 2003 to discuss on the draft program. One of the main resolutions of the workshop was to form a committee of professionals that suggests modifications in the programme based on the agreements reached during the workshop.

The committee members met on several occasions from March to May, 2003 and contributed in improving considerably the draft program. Much of the changes included in this final report emanate from works done by the committee.

The author is indebted to the committee members who have contributed their valuable expertise and time for the success of this work.

The Committee members are:

    1. Assefa Dagne, Cybersoft P.L.C,

    2. Degene Ejigu, Department of Computer Science, Addis Ababa University,

    3. Bezza Tesfaw, Department of Linguistics, Addis Ababa University,

    4. Birhanu Digafe, Bizsoft P.L.C.,

    5. Gebreselassie G.Anenia, Custor P.L.C.,

    6. Gemechu Geleta, ICT Capacity Building Programme, Capacity Building Ministry,

    7. Mesay Zegeye, Concept Data System,

    8. Sultan Mohammed, DISD, UNECA,

Last but not least this work should not be accomplished without the full support of the UNESCO office in Addis Ababa and most particularly, Gunther Cyranek who has provided his full support for the project. The support of DISD of UNECA and most particularly Aida Opoku Mensah has also been crucial for the success of this project.


The 21st century is with no doubt the information century. Already, during the last decade information technology has become ubiquitous, and information the most important commodity. It is enough to see the following figures to be convinced that information technology is leading the world’s economy. Microsoft was just a dream three decades ago; it is now one of the largest corporations in the world and its founder, Bill Gates, the richest person on earth. The Internet economy generates an estimated $301 billion for the U.S. and was responsible for 1.2 million jobs (Flisi 1999). Analysts are predicting that web-based electronic commerce will climb to reach a transaction between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in less than a decade (Utsumi 1999).

This information revolution brings hope as well as threat to the poorest countries of the world such as Ethiopia. It brings hope since the information revolution is much more accessible to the poorest nations compared to the industrial and the agricultural revolution. The proof is that India, one of the poorest countries in the world, has become the world’s second software exporter just after the United States, the world’s richest country.

However, there is also a threat that this same revolution brings. Unfortunately, it is likely that the information revolution widens the gap between the poor and the rich by creating yet another divide, the information divide. Indeed, there is an increasing fear that, in the information age, the poor will lose even whatever small hope they have because the great majority of their population does not have access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

It is true that the availability of the technology itself is a major cause of this divide. In July 2002, it was estimated that only 1 in 130 Africans had a PC and only 1 in 160 have Internet access (APC 2002). Nonetheless, these statistics will probably improve rapidly due to the increasing awareness of leaders of African countries (ICT has been adopted as one of the priority sectors of NEPAD) and the very low price of ICT equipment.

However, despite its constantly decreasing cost, ICT will not reach and benefit the majority of the population of a country unless it can be easily used by that population. In particular, it should not be expected for an African who speaks Amharic or Swahili to learn first English before starting to use a computer or Internet. If so, ICTs will be reserved for the elites and will not bring fundamental change in the economy of the African countries.

That’s why, the Bamako 2002 African preparatory meeting for the World Summit on Information Society recommended that particular attention is given to “financing … content suited to the needs of the population” [Bamako 2002]. Indeed, if the content cannot be used by the majority of the population, either because it does not treat matters that are relevant for that specific population or because it is in a language that that specific population does not understand, or the system put in place does not use the local parameters (ex: it uses the Gregorian calendar while the population uses the Julian Calendar), the whole investment on ICT will have very little impact. A suitable content should be, first of all, in the language of the people. And, in most African countries, the European languages such as English and French are spoken by a small minority of the population. Unfortunately, having the content in local languages is not without any challenge. One of the difficulties is to insure that the scripts and alphabets that are used to write these languages are fully supported by the ICTs. For example, some languages such as Amharic use their own script that needs specific support on computers. Others may use the Latin alphabet but with some additional characters that are not necessarily included in the regular character set shipped with most computers.

Ethiopic is the script used to write Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia, as well as many other Semitic and Cushitic language in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. Even though there are many applications that enable the use of Ethiopic on computers and even on Internet, it is much more complicated to develop and use Ethiopic based applications compared with developing and using applications that are based on the Latin alphabet. As a result, many applications and Internet sites destined for a population that speaks Amharic, Tigrinya or other Ethiopic-based languages use English. The main reason for this difficulty is the lack of standards in the area that limits the interoperability between applications and also obliges users to learn different keyboard layouts whenever they change an application.

Another problem that makes the use of computer systems by Ethiopian users much more complicated compared to the use of the same systems by other developed countries is the lack of localization. Since most software systems do not support Ethiopian specificities such as date and time system and language, users have to accept working with alien systems (Gregorian calendar for example) and languages (English for example). Since, not all the population has the possibility to easily use these new systems, it will be pushed away partially or totally from using computers.

Some local software developers have tried to adapt their products to the Ethiopian environment (language, culture, conventions, etc.). However, they have faced a number of problems such as the lack of some standards and the need of expensive research that they have been unable to perform by themselves.

Some efforts have been made in the past few years to come up with standards that would solve the problems of Ethiopic standardization. However, the pace of the development of these standards has been very slow mainly due to the limited resources made available for this purpose. Besides, even those standards that have been developed, especially Unicode, remain underutilized mainly due to lack of awareness.

As for the localization problems, individual software developers have tried to find their own solutions to each problem, which not only limits the interoperability between the systems but also creates unnecessary duplication of efforts. Some of the localization activities are so expensive to perform at individual level that they remain untouched (ex: electronic spell checker).

The National ICT policy recognized these problems and included within the priority areas the creations of "standards for interconnectivity and interoperability of computer networks" and the introduction of "character setting and keyboard layout …" and the adoption of UNICODE technology [ICT 2002].

Inline with this policy, the Ministry of Capacity Building of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, supported by Babel Initiative Project, UNESCO and UNECA has initiated and supported this project that tries to solve the problems of Ethiopic standardization and localization for Ethiopia. This paper presents the past and present efforts in these areas before presenting a concrete project that endeavors to provide solutions.

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