A Mozilla contributor since 2009, Alex is a software professional, community activist, an a leader in the Kenya and East Africa Mozilla communities. He was a Mozilla Rep for many years and has worked closely with the Mozilla Engagement team, building his skills mentor and community builder. In 2016, Alex started contributing to the Digital Skills Observatory, a research project looking at the impact of digital skills on the usage of digital financial services.
Can you can start by giving me an overview of the different types of work you do, and the general goals of your work.
My name is Alex Wafula. I’m a Mozilla contributor based in Kenya. I’ve been contributing to Mozilla for almost seven years now. I started with community building — helping grow Mozilla communities in East Africa and later on across Africa.
I’ve also been part of Mozilla’s mentorship program — Mozilla Reps. It helps foster grassroots support for Mozilla contributors in terms of resources and learning materials. I’ve been a mentor with that program as well.
This year, I’m helping the Mozilla Foundation run a research project in Kenya. It’s called the Digital Skills Observatory. It’s a one-year research project where we study the impact that digital skills have on people’s use of smartphones and their adoption of digital financial services. The interesting thing with this project is that we have local Mozilla community members who help facilitate and run the projects.
I’ll speak more this, and maybe what I hope to gain from my contributions to this particular project.
The Digital Skills Observatory respondents are first-time smartphone users, aged between 18 to 35 years. They are from low income households. We’re trying to see if access to smartphones improves or changes how they adopt digital financial services.
In Kenya, we have a rather famous mobile money system called M-Pesa. We are reviewing the use of that system, as well as other services like mobile banking, internet banking, and how the introduction of smartphones affects adoption and use of these services.
We have two groups of respondents. For the first group, we have interventions. This means we interact with them and help them better understand how their phones work. These interventions are in form of delivering curricula that we develop together with the Mozilla Foundation about smartphone usage and adoption.
We also have a chat wall. Initially, we planned to have an automated chat wall that answered our respondents’ questions, but we ended up having a real person actually at the end, replying to questions that respondents have about their devices.
The other thing we did in terms of interventions was build an app — Jisort! — that the respondents could install on their phone. It gives them guides on how to use their phones, how to connect wifi, and stuff like that.
We also have a second group of respondents. We don’t intervene at all with this group. They figure stuff out on their own, whether it’s by hacking the phones, or asking family members or friends about how they can use their phones.
We have a local research group that works with the Mozilla Foundation. They go out and interview the respondents at their residence. In some of the interviews, we send local Mozilla community members to participate, engage, and see the sort of impact the project is having on the respondents’ lives.
We have a half-year report that’s out about the project, as well as regular updates. By March 2017, we’ll have a full report about what we found from the project.
Have you worked on projects like this before?
I’ve been involved in building and delivering curricula around web literacy before, but I haven’t done research work at this scale. It’s an interesting approach.
What do you find interesting about the Digital Skills Observatory approach?
One thing is with regards to the Mozilla community here in Kenya. Comparing it to previous engagements we’ve had with Mozilla, this project is beneficial to both community contributors and the Foundation in that contributors get to learn real skills and get an opportunity to use those skills in a real-life scenario.
That’s something that Mozilla has promised — that is, to empower contributors and the open internet in general. It really hit the nail with this project in that sense. Contributors feel empowered in the sense that their lives are changing.
The second point is with the respondents. These are ordinary people that we target as Mozilla. When you run these projects you can see they have this sense of realization that, “Oh I can actually do more with my phone. I can change my life to have a better situation.” I like that specifically about this project.
What are some examples that you’ve seen where people’s lives have been changed by what they realize that they can do?
I’d say it’s in terms of discovering that, “My phone doesn’t just make calls.” Initially, when we had the respondents come in, the only things they knew they could do with their phones is make calls and use Facebook and WhatsApp.
Local smartphones sellers actually advertise saying things like, “This phone has WhatsApp!” That is shady advertising — because all smartphones should be able to get WhatsApp by just downloading an app. But a lot of the respondents didn’t realize this.
When they learned the concept of app discovery and realized how they can use that to scale what they already do in their day-to-day lives — to reach more people, to learn more, to interact with other people — you could see it in their faces like it’s something huge that they just discovered.
Are there particular apps that they find that are more popular or particularly useful?
WhatsApp and chat apps are very popular. In terms of being useful, it’s really relative, because it’s actually what you make it.
I find that apps that encourage discovery, for example, a search app. Even just getting online and being able to search using a search engine. Phones that encourage practices like that are good for opening up the minds in respondents in terms of knowing what they can do with their phones.
A lot of people in Kenya don’t do that because they don’t know they can. So just knowing and feeling empowered — it’s a real game changer here.
So through their phone they can do search and access whatever type of information they’re looking for, which is more than just receiving a call or sending a call.
Could you tell me one story about a time when you really felt a sense of success with your work? One example.
The one reason I continue to contribute with Mozilla is that, especially where I come from, we have people who are really hardworking but they don’t succeed because they’re not aware of opportunities that are out there, or how best to scale.
Mozilla gives me a platform where I can show them that, and I can empower them to do more. A good example, I’d say, comes from all the mentorship I’ve done as a Mozilla contributor. I’ve helped establish communities in several countries in East Africa.
To do this, I’ve interacted with contributors at a personal level — using empathy to identify their strengths and understand how to help them grow as contributors and maybe impact their lives in a positive way.
When you say that you use empathy, are you using that to take stock of their existing skills? Could you hone in — thinking about one person you helped — and walk me through that so I can get a sense of what that looks like?
Definitely, that’s what I do. I’d say it’s a bit tricky for somebody to just read documentation and figure things out. As a mentor, it’s my role to bridge that gap. A good example I could give would be a contributor I mentored a while back — and I still mentor to some extent — in Mauritius.
He started contributing probably even before me, but he didn’t connect that well with Mozilla. He does a lot of stuff around web literacy and teaching stuff around the web. I realized that he’s really passionate about teaching, and so I tried to help him organize and run maker events.
Before that, what he did was promote Firefox. Like, “Firefox is good to use.” But I felt there was a disconnect. It’s a good thing he was doing — but he really wasn’t growing from that.
Having somebody to bridge that gap and connect somebody to a skill set that they’re interested in is important.
If I’m understanding correctly, he went from promoting Firefox to actually running a maker event in his community?
Was this all remote mentorship?
Yes. Although I did meet him after a couple of years.
How about an example, at that same level of specificity, of a challenge?
Mozilla, in terms of an open source project. It’s a really successful open source project and a lot of people relate with it — or want to be related with it. A lot of time, you get an influx of people who come in as contributors, but maybe only in a superficial way.
They mean the best but there’s a huge disconnect between what they’re doing and what it means to contribute in Mozilla. It’s a challenge to manage people at that level because it’s not just one person. It’s a lot of people.
Once you’re engaging with people at a personal level, once you have a huge scale of people to do that, it’s very difficult to do it, personally. It takes a lot of your time. As a contributor and a mentor, if I get drained it won’t help anyone. Even the people I’m mentoring would not benefit from that. So that’s another challenge, at times.
How do you approach addressing the amount of volunteers you’re managing? Or how do you approach managing your time or setting limits?
It’s very tricky for me because I’m really passionate about what I do with Mozilla. At times, I don’t know when I should take a break. But something I realized — and continue to realize — is that Mozilla is a community. For us to scale, you have to bring in other people to help.
What I try to do — and I always try keep this in mind with whatever project or mentorship program that I’m involved in — is mentor someone else who can replace me. I find that very important in terms of making sure even if life happens — maybe you have kids, a job — and you don’t have any time left for Mozilla, you’ll be sure that there’s somebody who’s left to carry on.
You mentioned that you’re very passionate about Mozilla, and it seems that you contribute a lot as a volunteer. What drives your passion for Mozilla? What would you say are the reasons behind your wanting to engage, and remaining engaged for so long? Seven years is a long time.
I love learning at a personal level. Discovering new things. What I enjoy even more is sharing what I learn and seeing that realization on someone else’s face that I first had when I learned what I’m teaching now.
That’s a huge thing for me. Mozilla gives me a platform to do that, and I don’t think there’s a much more important platform as the internet for you to learn and to share what you know.
For me here in Kenya, generally even in Africa, with all the issues that we have as a continent, the internet is a really useful tool for us to use, scale out of our problems, and find solutions as people with similar challenges. I find Mozilla gives me an opportunity to do that at a huge scale.
Shifting now to broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the internet open and free and a platform for opportunity for all. What, for you, and I really want to emphasize the “for you” part — I don’t want the “right” answer, I want the “you” answer — is the open internet?
Maybe I should start with saying that before I started contributing with Mozilla, I didn’t understand the term, “open source” fully. I just knew it meant free software as in free of charge.
So I didn’t fully grasp why people hated corporations like Microsoft… just because they sold their software?! But then I got the part that’s beyond being free in the sense that it’s about fair/equal standards for everyone, that doesn’t monopolize to benefit an individual or a group of individuals.
For me, an open internet is a place where everybody gets to have a say, everybody has a fair chance to contribute, to grow. Basically that. A platform where everybody has a fair opportunity.
Thinking about these aspects, can you give me an example of how they’ve been important for you in your life?
The culture in itself has been important for me, because the internet is not just a connection of devices. It’s the people who are there that make it open.
When I first started using the internet, the people that I got to interact with, learn from, and share my experiences with — people from different parts of the world — who I’d expected to look down on me didn’t do that. They gave me a fair opportunity, an equal opportunity, to speak and give feedback.
That culture in itself, and relating to people at that level, was a benefit for me and a huge learning experience in the sense that the experiences I have do matter, and I should not hold back.
Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them? What was the pathway? What has that felt like for you over the last seven years?
Before I joined Mozilla, I’d just left high school and, as I told you before, I love learning new things.
So when I started at university, I was looking for a group of individuals that felt the same way. I’m the kid who had questions like, “Hey, do you know why the sky is blue?” Because I read it somewhere and thought it was cool. This guy would look at me and he didn’t get it.
One day while browsing, I came across Mozilla’s students program. Technology plus students felt like something I could connect with.
I read it, found it interesting, and when I reached out I was surprised to find someone responded. And then they came all the way to Kenya. I read stuff about empowerment and all that regarding the program, but I didn’t internalize it immediately. But when this guy came to Kenya, he told me, “It’s great that we finally met, and do you think you could be our point of contact here in Kenya?”
That was a huge thing for me. I asked, “The whole country?” and he was like, “Yeah. Sure.” I thought he was joking but he went on stage and all of a sudden introduced me as the point of contact. That’s when I got that empowerment thing. It’s not something that Mozilla just says, the way politicians say, “Hey, power to the people,” but it’s not real.
It’s real in Mozilla. It’s really the people who make what Mozilla is and move Mozilla. That was a big part for me why I joined, and to a large extent why I continue to contribute.
What was the name of the person who came to Kenya?
This is William Quiviger. I don’t know if you know him.
That’s amazing. You said you felt empowered because you were given responsibility and trust. Is that correct?
Did it bother you that all of this work was on a volunteer basis?
No, I don’t think it bothered me that it was a volunteer role. As I said, it’s not often that somebody sees you and trusts you to deliver something. I found it to be a good opportunity for me to grow as an individual, to meet new people, and to share my experiences.
Everything you’ve just talked about now, what sort of impact has that had on your life, or your career, or organizations that you work with?
It’s helped me to be more open and collaborative in the way I work. Mozilla tries to solve a problem that’s so huge, general, and ambiguous in nature. It’s not something you can just break, but Mozilla actually tries to do that.
I’ve found that it’s helped me to tackle problems in that way. You can tell me, “Your job description is to make people happy,” and I’ll say, “OK. I know how to break that down because of the experiences I’ve had with Mozilla. I know how to involve other people in breaking that problem down and provide support to your organization.”
What are some of the other challenges that you’ve tackled because of learning how to approach big problems?
Mozilla, to a large extent, for a long time has been an underdog. We’re always fighting battles that are tough to win, and for that to happen you have to have faith. You have to believe in things that are not believable. At times, that’s a challenge because you prioritize the wrong things. At times you run with the flow when you shouldn’t.
In terms of working collaboratively, you find that sometimes you support people although you don’t believe or relate to what they say — but you do it for the sake of maintaining cohesiveness and a group that works together. So that’s one challenge I face: At times I say yes when I really want to say no.
What feedback would have for Mozilla? What are ways that they could improve? For example, where there times when being part of the community didn’t meet your expectations?
One of the key things that Mozilla stands for is inclusivity, yet I feel that Africa as a continent is abandoned. There’s a lot that’s going on elsewhere except here. It’s understandable, but at times I feel like we’re not given priority in terms of getting us online and tackling problems that really matter here in a way that people in Africa can relate to.
As a contributor in Africa, that’s a challenge. We don’t have a Mozilla space in Africa. I don’t know if we have any employee who’s tasked to implement stuff for the African continent. And we’re a whole continent!
I don’t think it’s intentional, but maybe it’s something that’s overlooked and not prioritized.
That’s great feedback. Any other insights like that you want to add?
When I joined Mozilla, we had about 300 staffers. Mozilla has really grown since then. Understandably, people who are paid to work at Mozilla have goals that they need to meet, so at times there’s that disconnect between employees and contributors. But that disconnect has grown compared to my first couple of years as a contributor. That may be something that needs to work better.
How might the stories we collect be useful to you, if at all?
As I said, I feel like the way the world is tackling taking Africa online isn’t adequate, so I’m actually thinking of doing research around that.
I’d like to know works in different places and compare the kind of facilities and education systems they have relative to Africa. Anything in these stories that could help me figure that out would be really useful.