Categories: interviews

Crossing plains: Pocket’s journey to Africa and what it means for Mozilla’s curation across the continent

Most people know a pocket to be “a shaped piece of fabric attached inside or outside a garment and forming a pouch used especially for carrying small articles.” Now, what about a virtual pocket, full of the articles and other content that matter most to you? Mozilla’s Pocket product is exactly that: the web curated — for you and by you. It empowers people to discover, organize, consume and share content that matters to them.

Just like the items in your pockets, what you save to Pocket is always with you, across devices, and even offline. Pocket collects what people love and creates collections based on their interests.

It also recommends fascinating reads from all over the web, including from authors and curators who might be outside your typical reading channels. That was exactly Alice Munyua’s idea when she learned of the great work the Pocket team was doing and envisioned expanding their curation reach to Africa.

We teamed up with Alice Munyua, Senior Director, Africa Innovation Mradi, and Pocket Vice President & General Manager, Matt Koidin to learn more about their work.

Samantha: Alice, tell us about your role at Mozilla and how you began working with the Pocket Team.

Alice: I am a Senior Director at Mozilla, and I lead the pan Mozilla Africa Innovation Mradi. My work leverages Mozilla’s role as stewards of the web and a trusted guide to explore, co-create and develop technology grounded in the unique needs of African users and that highlight models of innovation of users from the global majority.

What was compelling to me about Pocket, is the ability to save articles to “read it later.” It is transformative for the global majority user base. Articles saved are formatted in a way that limits memory storage needs. Users can control how much memory to allow Pocket to use, and it can be configured to only download articles over WiFi. Pocket can read articles to the user (especially helpful for users with limited literacy) and as our voice tech work, Common Voice, progresses, we may be able to offer the ability to have Pocket read articles to users in several local languages including Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Luganda, etc.

I reached out to Matt Koidin and asked if the Pocket team would be interested in collaborating with the Mradi team on several experiments. I have loved every minute of it. The Pocket team has been really great to work with. We have a great product that will be very impactful in the global majority.

Samantha: What’s unique about the African Innovation Mradi, and why launch Pocket in Kenya of all places?

Alice: Pocket’s approach to curation, which combines human editors working in concert with machine learning, so content is not just algorithmic systems that risk perpetuating bias and causing harm, which often disproportionately impacts society’s most vulnerable.

The Africa Mradi is unique in that we are focused on community building with local partners that see Mozilla as a trusted guide to open source technology as well as building with instead of building for. A lot of tech companies tend to build “for.” They come up with a problem looking for a solution and that tends to lead to deploying really unethically extractive technologies. The Mradi approach is to focus on empowerment and inclusion of Africans so that we continue to improve the value proposition for users in the continent.

Mozilla will not thrive if we only build products for markets in North America and a few countries in Western Europe. With that understanding, our approach is very partner-centric based on building relationships as an initial step for brand awareness, and critical to this is working with local partners to better understand the landscape, the local needs, expertise, context, and capabilities to co-create together and develop products that suit and fit the needs of local users.

Our goal is also to solve real issues by asking questions: What are the problems? Where are the gaps? What is the job to be done? So it is not just expanding our existing activities and products to a new part of the world, or using technology to attempt to solve social issues. Rather it is asking those important questions and factoring in experiences in these parts of the world that are quite often different from, for example, the United States. This will help us realize new business opportunities, while ensuring that our engagement and products help, support, and empower rather than exploiting, excluding and extracting.

I am also from Kenya, which has the most progressive and vibrant tech ecosystem. Known worldwide to have the most innovative approaches to tech for real life, e.g. M-Pesa, Ushaidi, etc. so I thought it was a great place to start exploring and launch the first Pocket experiment. We are hoping to replicate this approach, of course with various tweaks to suit the context, in other African countries and later other regions, e.g. South America and Southeast Asia. New markets are harder to unlock than to identify. It is therefore critical to the success of our global strategy to partner with local organizations and individuals to learn and co-create. It is also difficult to understand the role that technology will play in a society if you do not understand the society in question, so we anticipate that the Africa Mradi approach will serve as a great benchmark for developing a global strategy for Mozilla.

Samantha: Matt, as the VP and General Manager of Pocket, what were the main drivers that led your team to consider this partnership?

Matt: Three main drivers got us to begin talking about Pocket in Kenya. Alice was instrumental in reaching out a year ago to explain how the Pocket approach could be useful in Kenya and the global majority more broadly. She saw a need for the type of content we championed with our curation and collections and the read it later function.

Firstly, we loved the idea of elevating local voices outside of traditional media channels. She also shared how Kenya formerly had challenges with misinformation and with their elections in August 2022, the Mozilla Foundation has been spotlighting some of the challenges there as well.

Secondly, from the Pocket perspective, we believe that Pocket is ultimately going to get better at curating content if our users are more diverse and from more parts of the world. Recalling the very first time I presented in front of our CEO, Mitchell Baker, about Pocket, I claimed that “Pocket helps us curate the best of the web.” Mitchell then politely corrected me by stating, “It’s the best of the web that our U.S.-based users – the ones you currently have today – happen to be saving and viewing”.

And she was right! Pocket builds on what our users save, share and consume, and the more people from more places we have who are saving more of the things they love and are finding on the web, the richer that experience is going to be.

Thirdly, in the vein of experimenting and expanding, we are beginning to explore what it would look like to grow and expand in a market where we are not just building off the existing installed Firefox user base, but also using recommendations. We’ve had a lot of success with Firefox’s lead in the market in Europe with Germany for example. But what might it look like if we lead with curation and content discovery as a means to introduce people to Pocket and then ultimately other Mozilla products?

Samantha: How did you officially start curation in Kenya?

Matt: We got connected with the Media Innovation Center out of Aga Khan University (AKU) in Nairobi. They had a bunch of content creators that we connected with Carolyn O’Hara, Pocket’s Senior Director of Content Discovery, to provide training and tutorials on how to create a great kind of collection for Pocket. Once they started doing that work, they came back with a wide range of content. Some things were specific to Kenya like “How to go on an Ethical Safari” or a cool collection that went deep into Kenya’s music scene, while others were more universal.

For instance, someone did a collection around returning to the office after the pandemic, and someone else made a collection that ended up being quite popular around the idea of “JOMO” aka the “Joy of Missing Out”. We quickly realized that because the quality was high these collections could be featured not just in Kenya but around on our global platform.

On our visit this past June, we got a chance to meet the Africa Mradi partners in Kenya and begin to highlight the need and value of collective storytelling. To that end, we created a site that links all the Kenyan collections called Stori Zetu Kikwetu which is a phrase that means, “our stories, our way” in Kiswahili. It was well received by everyone we spoke with. They also appreciated us embracing language in this way and seeking to focus on local voices and local stories.

The second week we were there, we organized a launch event in this new market, which enabled us to share more about the work we were doing with their community and local press, and discuss what Pocket could do for users in the market. We then concluded with a panel that featured Carolyn and Dr. Njoki Chege, the Director of the AKU Media Innovation Center, as well as several of our local curators, that brought together our vision and hopes for the future.

Samantha: So what’s next and tell us about the kinds of skills you are looking for if someone was to join your team at this stage.

We’re looking for all types of people to join our team to help us with this initiative and many others. At its core, people who believe the internet can be better and that content has a huge role to play are “our people” who we want to talk to. We believe that stories are incredibly important — people understand the world through stories. The stories that people consume give them power, knowledge, and ideas. Stories allow people to access who they are and who they aspire to be. That’s true in the U.S., in Kenya and all around the world. If that resonates with you, we’d love to speak further.

Interested in joining our team?
Check out open roles at Pocket and all of Mozilla