Mozilla to ride on Kenya as it makes Africa comeback

Senior director at Mozilla Corporation Alice Munyua. [File, Standard]

Imagine sending one of your relatives upcountry money on your phone and when it lands in their mobile money wallet, they are notified in vernacular.

Or a situation where you use a virtual voice assistant service like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant on your television remote control or laptop, and it picks up the command without being confused by your accent.

That is the situation Alice Munyua, a senior director at Mozilla Corporation, dreamily speaks about when she is asked about the vision for Mozilla Africa Mradi, the organisation she heads.

Africa Mradi is Mozilla Corporation's signature initiative, which will be headquartered in Kenya.

It aims to engage the continent through a combination of consumer products and partnerships.

The company has returned to Africa after an earlier effort to introduce a mobile phone browser, Firefox OX, in the early 2000s failed.

With Mozilla Africa Mradi, says Ms Munyua, one of the founders of Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANET) - a multi-stakeholder think tank for ICT policy and regulation, the company is looking to make a comeback, with Kenya its main testing ground before branching out into the rest of the continent.

Youthful population

She says the choice of Kenya IS "because of its vibrant, youthful and sophisticated population as well as its reputation as a good place for tech companies."

Mozilla is also drawn by the new Kenya Kwanza administration's focus on reaching hustlers, who comprise the many youths running micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) but struggling to keep their heads above the water because of either lack of opportunities, business skills, or consistent cheap funding.

Some of the Mozilla products are voice assistants, metaverse, its web browser Firefox and Firefox Focus, all of which are popular with people keen on digital privacy and lean data.

Mozilla is the company behind the Firefox browser.

With Africa Mradi, Ms Munyua says, the primary objective is to co-create products for local needs and to solve local problems, such as the need to access technology in local languages.

For the scenario where mobile money would be incorporated with local languages, for example, there is Common Voice, the technology that enables voice recognition for languages beyond those traditionally produced by technology companies.

"Our goals are to generate product development, build community, build capacity, and produce a meaningful impact on the African internet and tech ecosystem," says Ms Munyua.

African entrepreneurs

She says the initiative will directly work with African entrepreneurs, developers, international and multilateral organisations, civil society policymakers and regulators, among others.

"We want to support solutions that best address the intersection of our internet health priorities and real-world African internet user needs," says Ms Munyua.

Mozilla also plans to launch Mozilla Ventures, a $35 million (Sh4.2 billion) venture capital fund that will provide opportunities to get funding for tech start-ups.

Mozilla Ventures seeks to invest by acquiring equity and giving grants to young people with brilliant innovative ideas.

"It's still very new, so we are still looking at how we are going to put out requests for proposals, and we are hoping that next year, we can have an Innovation Week to invite developers to come and showcase their innovations that we can support and incubate through funding, engineering support and how to use open-source products," she adds.

One of Mozilla's strategies is to convince companies to use their free, open-source software.

Open source describes software that is available to any developer for free, which allows anyone using the code on that licence to maintain and modify the code to build their products.

They can do this themselves or through a skilled third party of their choosing.

"Open source allows users to know how the code works, facilitating the development of the most innovative software. It allows reuse and recycling of code, making it easier to collaborate and achieve goals, rather than trying to do everything yourself," says Ms Munyua.

Unlike other software tools, it is not proprietary, meaning it is freely available as the source code is provided to developers.

For Common Voice, which is evolving as a competitor to voice assistants such as Siri, Assistant and Alexa, for example, the company that adopts it would use it and have a licensing agreement with Mozilla.

The competitive edge that the company aims to gain over other voice assistants, which are focused on consumers in North America and Europe, is that by getting Africans to use it, Common Voice will gradually learn to recognise accents spoken in hundreds of dialects across the continent.

This will, in turn, create opportunities for African start-ups.

"Common Voice has been adopted at scale over the last decade and now forms the spine of our technology infrastructure today. It is critical to businesses of all sizes and to organisations across the public sector," says Ms Munyua said.

"From the Internet to public cloud computing platforms, we see open source as the basis for how the world communicates, does business and provides services. It's frankly inescapable."

Mozilla pushes for the adoption of open-source technology based on the principles of its founders, who were engineers who wanted to have an alternative to Microsoft, which was a monopolistic behemoth in the 1990s with the Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft tended to lock in users.

The engineers wanted to create a free alternative browser that would be given to developers and software engineers and used for innovation.

The result was Firefox, an internet browser popular with consumers who prioritise digital privacy.

The company claims that it does not store, track or sell user data or the movement of its users online.

Virtual events

Besides Common Voice, Mozilla also created Mozilla Hubs, a metaverse or a virtual reality platform (similar to what is now a major focus at Facebook), where users can host virtual events.

Then there is Pocket, a service designed to appeal to users in Africa who are either data-dark or have little money to spend on data bundles to read or view their favourite content online.

Pocket allows consumers to bookmark stories, research papers or videos they want to read later offline.

When she joined Mozilla in 2020, Ms Munyua talked to Mitchell Baker, the company's founder and CEO, about the lack of a presence in Africa, and they agreed to re-enter the continent, "but this time, thoughtfully."

Unlike other tech companies, she says, they would like to work more with partners rather than arrive with ready-made solutions.

"We want to come respectfully and work with partners, and we don't want to claim to understand the African continent. We don't want to claim to understand what Kenyans need," says Ms Munyua.

"We want to work with organisations and Kenyans to tell us what Mozilla should do for them, and not the other way round."