Rwandans have a new tool in the fight against COVID: Mbaza, a chatbot that provides timely and accurate information about the pandemic in the Kinyarwanda, French, and English languages.

Mbaza is based out of the Rwanda Biomedical Center, and is a collaboration between Mozilla Common Voice, the Rwandan start-up Digital Umuganda, the Rwanda Information Society (RISA), and the German Development Cooperation, or “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit” (GIZ).

Mozilla Common Voice is an open-source initiative to make voice technology more inclusive, and the program received a $3.4 million grant earlier this year.

mobile phone in hand

Mbaza’s beginnings can be traced back to the #SmartDevelpmentHack hackathon, which sought creative, digital approaches to address the pandemic in nations like Rwanda.

Today, Mbaza can be accessed by all Rwandans using the USSD short code *114#. Rwandans can use the tool to learn about case counts and vaccination progress, to access information about symptoms and prevention, and to receive guidance should they test positive. Mbaza can also inform Rwandans about safety measures like curfews, business closures, and travel restrictions.

Says Remy Muhire, Community Lead, Voice Technology at Mozilla: “Mbaza is a great example of what more inclusive voice technology can achieve. By building a voice dataset using Kinyarwanda language, millions of Rwandans now have access to critical information about the pandemic.”

Says Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, Director General of Rwanda Biomedical Centre: “Information is very key in the way we all handle this pandemic. The more we make it accessible, the easier people make use of it to abide by preventive measures and follow other guidelines that the Government puts in place to fight this pandemic. With this chatbot, our aim is to provide accurate and timely information to the majority of Rwandans and Rwanda residents to help them take healthier decisions and curb the spread of Covid-19.”

Says Olaf Seidel, Head of the GIZ Digital Transformation Center: “Digital solutions play a key role in fighting the spread of COVID-19. We are convinced that the partnership with the Rwanda Information Society (RISA) will play a key role in improving access to information around the pandemic in Rwanda, especially to those in remote areas and without access to the internet.”

Says Innocent Bagamba Muhizi, CEO of RISA: “Rwanda is already on the path to become a living laboratory for emerging technologies, such as  Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Blockchain and AI. As the pace of innovation continues to increase, this creates boundless opportunities for the application of these technologies to solve many social and economic development challenges of our times, be it in health, education, agriculture, and everyday services while making sure no one is left behind.  The Mbaza Chatbot is a very good example of how AI will be used to improve the dissemination of reliable health related information, starting with Covid-19.”

Mbaza will evolve further in the coming months, from its current menu-based interface to a fully-fledged AI chatbot.