Not Apple’s Siri, Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, or some other language platform can hear or react to a single African language, but as address interaction gradually takes over fundamental functions from typing to touch, the non-profit Mozilla—which generated the free web browser Firefox—is working to bring voice-integrated technology to the continent.

Mozillas Common Voice platform, which receive support from the German and UK authorities, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an open-source initiative thats already creating voice datasets for Kiswahilia language spoken in Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan.

Since Remy Muhire details for the Mozilla Foundation, most voice datasets used in voice-activated applications are siloed, meaning that they are contained in a very few of companies, stifling innovation.

Common Voice wasn’t began only to serve Africa, it merely wished to create an open-source platform to enable voice-activation technology in any of the 7,100 “living” languages currently spoken. To date they’ve recorded more than 9,000 hours of sound from 160,000 different speakers of 60 different languages, including Welsh, which should help people looking for instructions to “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. ”

The Common Voice platform is remarkably easy, and as soon as you arrive on its homepage your voice is welcomed with open arms into the datasets if you only want to take a minute to record it.

The spirit of togetherness

The language of Kinyarwanda is spoken by about 12 million people in Rwanda. This past year, Common Voice hosted a hackathon in Kigali to create a starting dataset for Kinyarwanda. It’s now the fastest growing language on Common Voice, with over 1,700 hours of submission.

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The response to the hackathon gave rise to an AI solutions startup named Digital Umuganda— that takes the title from Kinyarwanda word for a kind of collaboration and community.

The final Saturday of every month sees people take to the streets to pitch in on community projects like building or repairing roadsthis is Umuganda, and the startup wants to take it to the electronic space to create a digital infrastructure.

Theyve created an AI-powered ChatBot named Mbaza that uses the Common Voice Kinyarwanda dataset to allow citizens to access information and guidance when using the local language.

Mbaza provides text-to-speech and speech-to-text functionality, removing the barriers of illiteracy from citizens accessing important information, such as getting in touch with local governments.

Just lately, Mozilla obtained a $3.4 million grant to expand the Common Voice platform across Africa, and Chenai Chair, Special Advisor on Africa clarified that Kiswahili is just the beginning.

“The next steps are… building up the community engagements, and the community supports because Common Voice is about people donating their voice and we want to do it ” Chair tells GNN. “We don’t want to do it in a way that we end up with the exact problems that other technology platforms have. ”

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We are initially starting off with the East African community then we would like to build up those other communities of other African languages so that they can use the Common Voice of the Common Voice toolset. ”

Chair explains that traditional illiteracy is a problem in the agriculture industry and is also emphasized within the female half of African American populations. Potential Common Voice software — for example interacting with the increasingly digital functions of government, or within the financial industry such as online banking—will be made a lot easier.

No language left behind

Language contains far more than a few unique words or concepts: it acts as the decoding tool for speakers to be aware of their history; all their stories, fables, and civilization.

UNESCO, for example, is promoting voice technology to record Indigenous knowledge, save Indigenous languages, and gain access to information.

Like the massive voice datasets of Microsoft, Google, and Apple, Wikipedia contains a variant of the historical, spiritual, cultural, and really linguistic listing of the African continent, and here too, community-driven initiatives are working to bridge the divide in access to data — particularly in African languages.

The WikiAfrica Education Program, created by the Moleskine Foundation, is an attempt to foster creativity and an interest in culture in African school curriculum by teaching students how to prepare, submit, and edit posts on Wikipediaespecially in their own languages.

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Adama Sanneh, Founder of the Foundation, has helped arrange or been a part of community-driven events which have seen tens of thousands of entries on Wikipedia in various African languages. This proved especially helpful, he advised  GNN, during the pandemic’s early days.

Adama Sanneh (far left)

“When we began that the situation was very grim, there was only 1 article in Luba, or something like that,” stated Sanneh in March.  “We started a campaign to ask people to interpret … ten posts around COVID-19 that would allow the sparking of creative solutions. ”

“In a few months we passed from one to more than 300 articles in over 20 different African languages. That gave access to more than 300 million people when we look at the composition of the languages,” he said.

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