Category Archives: Africa

The Nairobi Kids (Hardware) Hacker Camp

The Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub in KenyaFor the last 2 years I’ve wanted to do a camp where we get a bunch of kids together for a fun week of computers and hardware. It finally is happening, this week we have 40 boys and girls, ages 10-16 and from all demographics and types of schools at the iHub. One of them is my daughter, who kept bouncing around excited about it over the weekend, chomping at the bit to get started.

(more info here on the iHub blog)

Nairobi's Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub

What gives me warm fuzzies about this is two-fold. First, acknowledgment that my colleague Jessica Colaco is as amazing as ever, pulling this whole thing together in the last few weeks with IBM and the help of a dozen university-level hardware hackers from the robotics club at the iHub. Second, knowing that it’s taken us a while to really engage kids with tech, and that we’re finally doing it.

I was only able to spend time there intermittently thus far, and I saw the kids get intro’d to robotics (servos and motors) by a guy named Peter, who had built his own remote controlled transforming car. Everything was built by hand, nothing off the shelf, even the remote control itself. Here’s a short video of it closing back up.

A handmade, transforming remote controlled car – Kids Hacker Camp Nairobi from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

remote-controlled-transforming-car

They’ve spent a couple days on breadboards, learning how transistors and diodes work using LED lights. Now they’re onto sensors and micro-controllers (Arduino), and they’re making weather stations as their final project.

The kids are split up into groups of 5-6 kids, with two adults per group, that way each kid gets a lot of time hands-on with the equipment and can ask plenty of questions.

diagraming-electricity

Learning How Power Flows – Nairobi Kids Hacker Camp from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

The Dangers of Telling a Single Story: Computers for Kids and Bill Gates

Creating solutions for one population base in a society does not mean that the others don’t exist. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED Talk, where she said, “There’s a danger in telling a single story.” She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

I have three example narratives to explore this through:

  1. When the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program first came out there were a lot of critics. Rather than try and get a bunch of primary school kids on computers, it seemed you could do more good with that money. There were more pressing needs, like clean water and better healthcare.
  2. Kenya is putting one million laptops into the hands of first graders this year, as it was part of the presidential campaign by Uhuru Kenyatta. There are a lot of critics. Rather than getting a bunch of first graders on computers, it seems you could do more with that money (approx $600m). There are more pressing needs, like better teacher pay and facilities.
  3. Google is trying moonshot ideas to get more people connected across the emerging markets, like putting broadband balloons into the air. Bill Gates thinks thinks that rather than getting a bunch of poor people internet connectivity, it seems Google could do more with that money. There are more pressing needs, like solving the problems of malaria and diarrhea in Africa.

There are valid points within each of these three stories, however we know that most decisions have a trade-off in them. Inherent in these examples are two sub-narratives; first, that of short-term versus long-term goals, and second, blanket perceptions of a continent as poor, and all with the same needs.

Short vs Long-term

My critique of the OLPC project is the same as that of the Kenyan primary school computers; that is that I don’t care about them for the same reasons most others do – they’re mostly marketing fluff and you certainly leave a lot of short-term needs in the lurch when you do them. I care about them because anytime you get computers into the hands of millions of children, a simple percentage numbers game tells you that you’ll have a lot more curiosity and exploration, and therefore more interesting stuff happening in 10 years time. Many of the best computer engineers start young, and I’d like to have more quality computer engineers in Africa.

Is there a “right” answer for whether we give kids computers early (or not at all), or spend large amounts of money on seemingly crazy ideas for internet connectivity (or on malaria meds)? Probably not, but we too easily fall into the trap of discussing them as if only a single solution will work.

We need more people to try things that move us beyond the status quo and legacy systems that we see globally for education, healthcare, agriculture, business, money, connectivity, etc. Seemingly crazy have their place too.

The Blanket Perception of Africa as Poor

There are more than poor people in poor parts of the world. The story is not as black and white as Bill Gates paints it, he is creating a false dichotomy when he pits a diarrhetic child against internet connectivity needs. We have a middle-class, we have businesses and we have people progressing faster because of their ability to connect to the rest of the world through the internet.

Paul Collier states it best:

“The dysfunction of Africa has become a part of business folk memory that keeps western multinationals from doing anything, but the Africa of the 80′s and 90′s is not the Africa of today.”

This simplistic narrative is possibly the most frustrating of all, because it’s foisted on Africa by others. It undermines Africa’s ability on the international level to show how it is progressing by boxing us into the old memories of famines in Ethiopia from three decades ago.

Yes, we need solutions for malaria and we need better teacher training (and pay) and school buildings. Yes, we need kids on computers earlier and we need better internet connectivity across the continent. We can explore both without damning the other side for trying.

[Sidenote: I realize that Gates was also digging at Page and Brin for the way that Google.org has shifted focus over the last 5 years. He's statement positions their work as a negative thing, that because they're not focusing on healthcare or education needs for the very poorest countries, that what they're doing is less valuable. Working on connectivity for poor countries is not better, it's not worse, it's different - and I would suggest equally valuable.]

Interesting Reads and Links – July 2013

Open Data for Africa
The African Development Bank has put together a great new resource for open data on Africa (200 data sets) at Open Data for Africa. Should be a good resource.

The Birth of Kenya’s Gaming Industry
A great long-read article on the beginnings of the gaming industry in Kenya.

kenya-gaming-industry

Ventureburn has also done a good piece on 8 African gaming companies.

A Kenyan Won the Tour de France
Chris Froome won the Tour de France, and there’s a great write-up in the Nation about how disappointing it is to see him do it under a UK flag, not a Kenyan one.

“Even more incredulous is the fact that Britain’s glory should have been Kenya’s, and those federation officials ought to be bluntly ashamed. But no matter, he has done Kenya proud. Congratulations, Froome. We salute you.”

“Stop Backing Visionaries”
I enjoyed this piece by Josh Miller on how seed funding could be stifling innovative startups in the Valley.

“By and large, innovative products aren’t strategically imagined ahead of time – they’re stumbled upon while experimenting on-the-go.”

Loose Links:

Savannah Fund Accelerator: Call for 2nd Round

The Savannah Fund has been in operation about 8 months now, and has done 5 investments. One at $200k+, one at $75k and three at the accelerator level of $25k each.

We’re accepting applications through the end of this week, and we’re looking for 5 quality startups to begin the accelerator program in August. Fill out this form to apply.

What is the Savannah Accelerator Fund?

Last month we put together a short video to better explain the Savannah Fund, and why it’s important for tech entrepreneurs in the region.

In short, it’s not just the $25k, which is useful but not the reason why you should be applying, it’s all of the other connections, training and access to people that bring the real value.

Mbwana has written a post on some of the lessons learned along the way, well worth reading:

“Some of the sessions included Max Ventilla who sold his startup Aardvark to Google, Carey Eaton of Africa One Media (best known for Cheki), Eran Feinstein of 3G Direct Pay a leading credit card and payment processor in East Africa, and investors including Khosla Impact. We also focused heavily on digital marketing by bringing technical experts such as Agnes Sokol who continues to advise some of the startups. In the next accelerator we will add additional resources including collaborating with iHub Research and UX Design Lab.”

Here’s Ahonya, one of the Savannah Fund accelerator companies describes how startups can benefit from accelerator programmes.

2013 Kenya Tech Community Survey Results

It’s interesting to see where the Kenyan tech community went to school, what years we graduated, where we work and what age we first started using computers regularly. As I did in 2010, here are the survey results for 2013, with 627 responses.

The live survey link.

[Kenya Tech Community 2013 Survey Base Excel File]

What age did you first start using a computer regularly?

2013 survey - Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

2013 survey – Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

You can see that we tend to get on computers when we are older, at 17+ (that’s 42% of us). There’s a definite need to get more computers into classroom settings, or homes, at a younger age.

Another view of the same age chart:
2013-Kenyan-age-on-computers-pie-chart

  • 32 People got onto computers at 8 years or younger
  • 51 People got onto computers at 9-10 years old
  • 62 People got onto computers at 11-12 years old
  • 89 People got onto computers at 13-14 years old
  • 128 People got onto computers at 15-16 years old
  • 264 People got onto computers at 17 years or older

Years that the Kenyan tech community graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Which schools did we graduate from?

The schools were across the spectrum. I don’t have the locations of each one, but it would be interesting for someone with the ability to pinpoint them, to do a heatmap of the country based on the school graduates from each location.

1980 - 1
1981 - 0
1982 - 0
1983 - 0
1984 - 1
1985 - 0
1986 - 0
1987 - 6
1988 - 2
1989 - 1
1990 - 4
1991 - 6
1992 - 6
1993 - 7
1994 - 11
1995 - 8
1996 - 17
1997 - 14
1998 - 18
1999 - 21
2000 - 27
2001 - 31
2002 - 34
2003 - 44
2004 - 54
2005 - 46
2006 - 66
2007 - 56
2008 - 67
2009 - 42
2010 - 23
2011 - 8
2012 - 4
2013 - 1

Here are the top 6 girls schools (I had a hard time knowing which were strictly girls schools):

  1. 9 Moi Girls Nairobi
  2. 6 Kianda Girls
  3. 4 Pangani Grils HS
  4. 4 St. George’s Girls HS
  5. 3 Alliance Girls HS
  6. 3 Limuru Girls

Here are the top 12 boys schools (I think some might be mixed, like Kabarak):

  1. 29 Starehe Boys
  2. 19 Alliance HS
  3. 17 Nairobi School
  4. 16 Mang’u HS
  5. 14 Lenana
  6. 12 Strathmore
  7. 10 Moi Forces Academy
  8. 10 Moi HS Kabarak
  9. 9 Friends School Kamusinga
  10. 9 Highway Secondary School
  11. 9 Kagumo HS
  12. 9 Upper Hill HS

Where do we work?

The short answer, is all over the Kenyan tech sector, plus many other areas of government, NGOs and private companies. By far and away, most of the people on the list were either students or freelancer/self-employed. Some of the companies that stood out were; Kenya Power, Cellulant, FrontlineSMS, MobiDev, Safaricom, IBM, Kopo Kopo, Ushahidi, Stripe and Google.

Mobile and Internet Numbers for East Africa (2013 edition)

iHub Research continues to put out great research for clients. They also take time to put together the numbers for everyone else as far as what’s going on in our part of Africa.

Mobile & Internet Stats for East Africa

The most recent stats for East Africa’s mobile and internet usage have been put into an new infographic.

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Here is a dump of the data used for this infographic:

Kenya Mobile Statistics
(Population: 44,037,656 July 2013 estimate)
30,429,351 mobile subscribers
16,236,583 (41%) Internet users
3.6 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
251,567 fixed lines
78% teledensity

Tanzania Mobile Statistics
(Population: 48,261,942 July 2013 estimate)
27,395,650 mobile subscribers
5,308,814(11%) Internet users
4.3 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
176,367 fixed lines
61% teledensity
7,662,504,921 voice traffic

Uganda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 34,758,809 July 2013 estimate)
18,300,000 mobile subscribers
4,800,000 (3.2%) Internet users
520 million outgoing & incoming SMS
464,849 fixed lines
52% teledensity
215,110,452 voice traffic

Rwanda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 12,012,589 July 2013 estimate)
6,039,615 mobile subscribers
903,964 Internet users
26 million outgoing & incoming SMS
42,323 fixed lines
57% teledensity
1,470,290,068 voice traffic

Burundi Mobile Statistics
(Population: 10,888,321 July 2013 estimate)
2,995,000 mobile subscribers
157,800 Internet users
80,039 fixed lines
2% teledensity
157,800 voice traffic

Sources:
http://www.telegeography.com/products/commsupdate/articles/2013/03/19/u-com-burundi-adds-mobile-banking-to-drive-customer-growth/
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.independent.co.ug/news/news-analysis/7332-telecoms-gear-for-turf-wars-in-2013
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/22/ozabs-econet-burundi-subscribers-idAFJOE76L0EY20110722
http://www.cio.co.ke/news/top-stories/Africell-buys-Tigo-to-expand-in-Sierra-Leone
http://dlca.logcluster.org/BDI/logistics-services/index.html
CIA World Factbook

2011/2012 Stats and Infographic

Here’s the 2011/2012 numbers for all of the countries in East Africa, plus some bonus numbers around mobile money at that time.

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

See the old ones from 2011 in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. You can also see the some 2012 numbers on the iHub that they put together as well.

Report: Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa

A couple months back Omidyar Network released a report (with an exhaustively long title, like all reports tend to have), “Accelerating Entrepreneurship in Africa: Understanding Africa’s Challenges to Creating Opportunity-driven Entrepreneurship.“. If you’re interested in this space at all, in even a minor way, it’s well worth a read.

Get the full 2.5Mb download of the report here: (ON Africa Report).

The gaps they see are familiar to many. We all know that part of the problem is the education system isn’t setup for problem solving, it’s about rote learning.

“Students are not afforded clear paths for cultivating competencies related to practical thinking and creative problem-solving—skills needed to successfully build and manage a business.”

African entrepreneurs aren’t helped by government policies and regulations, in fact they’re better served by doing it informally first, as seen in the responses on this to the question:

African entrepreneurs prefer starting off informally

African entrepreneurs prefer starting off informally

Another great quote about the cultural pressure not to do a startup:

“Parents and guardians pressure their wards into studying more professional courses rather than entrepreneurial or creative ones, sometimes even tagging them as ‘crazy’ when students make the decision to work in start-up companies or develop their own businesses.”

There’s also a gap in where companies find seed funding:
Africa-entrepreneurs-funding

The survey focused on four areas of the entrepreneurial environment:

  • Entrepreneurship assets: Financing, skills and talent, and infrastructure
  • Business support: Government programs and incubation.
  • Policy accelerators: Legislation and administrative burdens.
  • Motivations and mindset: Legitimacy, attitudes, and culture.

There are a lot of recommendations for each of these four areas that the report covers, enough for anyone running a tech hub, incubator, university and especially the government to think through.

Africa’s Cowboy Capitalists

I’ve been following Ian Cox via Twitter for some time now. I had no idea there was a video done by Vice about his hustling up in South Sudan and then following him on a treck where he takes 11 vehicles from South Africa to South Sudan (5,000km) in 30 days. You can find Ian’s vehicle business at Lorry Boys

It comes in 3 parts (links to 1, 2 and 3):

Part 1/3

Part 2/3

Part 3/3

It’s a great story, well documented, which I highly suggest watching.

The Problem with Hardware in Africa

Recently I wrote about the making of the BRCK here in Nairobi, and I alluded to some of the issues around doing hardware in Africa.

“Making things is hard. It’s harder in Africa. I can’t overnight an order of processors, boards or 3d printing filament here. There aren’t an over abundance of local fabrication facilities or tools, and the milling machine you find might be in disrepair and take you two days to calibrate. We’ve got our work cut out to create the right spaces for prototyping and small-scale fabrication on the continent.”

I just had another experience that underscores the difficulties.

FedEx called me with the news that a package we were waiting for had arrived. The true value of the components was listed on the package at $230. These were new plastic cases for the BRCK, as well as a couple modem and router components. The Kenya Revenue Authority decided that it actually should be valued at $300, and then charged 100% duty. To clear the package, we have to pay $300 (26,000 Ksh).

Kenya Revenue Authority

Before I go any further, I’ll state that I think it’s imperative that you build hardware like the BRCK, or Kahenya‘s new Able Wireless device, where it will be used. You need to build it close to the ground, where the working conditions, and the real pain of the problem is part of the product team’s life. For both Kahenya and the BRCK team, that means here in Kenya.

It’s hard to get the components that you need. Kahenya and I did backflips trying to getting 5 Raspberry Pi’s and cases ordered and delivered to Kenya. Similarly, we have issues with anything we need for the BRCK. The ripple effects on your business for this delay in time can be a big issue, it carries a lot of friction. If you want an Arduino kit or simpler components that you can’t purchase in Kenya, then your two options are; a) someone is coming from that country and can bring them in for you in their luggage, or b) you’re willing to pay a lot of money for FedEx or DHL to ship it in, then pay even more on duty.

This is the very earliest prototype of the BRCK. It's made up of components that aren't all found easily in Kenya.

This is the very earliest prototype of the BRCK. It’s made up of components that aren’t all found easily in Kenya.

So, not only is it hard to get the parts you need, the government has set up its regulation in a way that discourages local prototyping and even local manufacturing. The revenue authorities would rather make quick money off of a component import than more money later off of a manufacturing industry. I’d rather set up an assembly factory here in Kenya than one in another country, but that isn’t possible if component import isn’t changed.

ICT Ministers of Africa should note that in this rapidly changing world of tech, that the regulatory system needs to keep pace. If it doesn’t, it can produce a tech ecosystem that strangles innovation at the expense of short-term tax and duty.

If Kenya wants to pretend it can get to Vision 2030 without some changes in regulation for local companies, there will be some surprises coming.

Reports on m:lab and Umati

This week two reports have come out of the iHub community.

m:lab East Africa after 2 years

The study which was conducted between April and May 2013 focused on 3 key activity areas at the m:lab namely:

  • Mobile entrepreneurship training
  • Pivot East regional pitching competition
  • The incubation program

The highlights are found on the iHub blog for now, the full report to be downloadable as soon as it is formatted.

Umati: monitoring dangerous speech in Kenya

The Umati project sought to identify and understand the use of dangerous speech in the Kenyan online space in the run-up to the Kenya general elections. Apart from monitoring online content in English, a unique aspect of the Umati project was its focus on locally spoken vernacular language; online blogs, groups, pages and forums in Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kiswahili, Sheng/Slang and Somali were monitored.

umati-dangerous-speech-kenya2

Download the full Umati report (PDF)

O3b Satellite Internet (Finally) Launches

5 years ago I wrote about the news that Google had invested, along with others, in this new internet connectivity via medium-orbit satellites for the parts of the world that were hard to reach with terrestrial cable or even mobile phone towers, called O3b Networks.

Last week O3b finally launched.

A Russian Soyuz-STB rocket launched from Kourou in French Guiana today, 25th June 2013 at 19:27 UTC.

The rocket carried the first four satellites of the O3b Constellation. O3b will provide internet access for hard to reach parts of the world. 8 more O3b satellites will launch in a further two launches later this year and then in 2014.

Who are the first users?
First is Telecom Cook Islands, who will receive the first commercial signals across the network this summer and then Maju Nusa, soon to roll out a state of the art 3G backhaul network in Malaysia built on O3b’s low latency capacity.

The plans originally were to have these over Africa as well, let’s see if that happens.

Arrogance or Laziness

Last year for Pivot East, we flew in one of the top trainers in presentation design in the world from Duarte Design to spend two days with the 25 companies who would go on stage. The first day was a general training for all hands. The second day was one-on-one sessions. Only half decided they needed to do the personal session.

IBM decided to open up its new research arm in Kenya, these are well paying internships for university students to understudy with some of the world’s top researchers. 100+ students applied, 20 were shortlisted for interviews. 11 showed up for their interview.

These types of responses by members of the tech community point towards either arrogance or laziness.

Why?

The GSMA Opens an Africa Office in Nairobi

The GSMA is the global association for the world’s mobile operators. Back in 2010 when the iHub first opened, we had some of their staff who were in Kenya working out of the iHub and using the space for different meetings. They loved the vibe and makeup of the Kenyan tech community and wanted to figure out how they could connect and be a part of this same energetic space, while at the same time fulfilling their obligation to Africa’s mobile operators.

gsma-nairobi-office2

gsma-nairobi-office1

The main office for the GSMA is in London, and their times in Nairobi coincided with their internal strategy discussions on opening up offices in each continent. Today they are opening up their Africa office, which is on the first floor of the iHub building (Bishop Magua Centre), on Ngong Road.

This is great news for all parties, as it brings the large mobiel operators into closer connection with the startups and tech innovators found in the building already, and it allows the tech companies to better connect to the association that bridges the big mobile players. I’m excited about what will come from the interactions that this new space will bring.

My experiences with the GSMA team, both in Kenya and London, have left me with nothing but a great amount of respect for what they’re doing globally. I also love them for their mobile statistics and reports, which is why I’ll leave some exerpts from their press release here:

Why the office in Nairobi?

“The rapid increase of mobile connections has attracted GSMA to the region. Mobile connections in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 20 per cent to 500 million in 2013 and are expected to increase by an additional 50 per cent by 2018. The GSMA’s permanent presence in Kenya will enable the organisation to work closely with its members to put the conditions in place that will facilitate the expansion of mobile, bringing important connectivity and services to all in the region.”

From their Anne Bouverot, Director General, GSMA:

“The rapid pace of mobile adoption has delivered an explosion of innovation and huge economic benefits in the region, directly contributing US$ 32 billion to the Sub-Saharan African economy, or 4.4 per cent of GDP. With necessary spectrum allocations and transparent regulation, the mobile industry could also fuel the creation of 14.9 million new jobs in the region between 2015 and 2020.”

On the internet and data:

“In Zimbabwe and Nigeria, mobile accounts for over half of all web traffic at 58.1 per cent and 57.9 per cent respectively, compared to a 10 per cent global average. 3G penetration levels are forecast to reach a quarter of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2017 (from six per cent in 2012) as the use of mobile-specific services develops.”

You can read the full press release here.

Building the BRCK: A backup generator for the internet

Why do we rely on equipment made for the Berlin, Orlando and Tokyo when the conditions we have in Nairobi, Lagos or New Delhi are completely different?

The BRCK is Africa's answer to internet connectivity

Today we’re announcing the BRCK: The easiest, most reliable way to connect to the internet, anywhere in the world, even when you don’t have electricity.

We have a BRCK Kickstarter going, where we’re asking for your on taking it from prototype to production.

The BRCK is a simple, and it came from us asking:

“How would we design a redundant internet device for Africa?”

It would need to do the following:

  • A router for 20 people
  • With 8+ hours of battery for when the power goes out
  • That fails over to 3g when the Internet goes out
  • That travels, so you become a mobile hotspot
  • With cloud-based backend that supports every country
  • On device with both a software and hardware API

As a web company, being connected to the internet when you need it is a big deal, small outages cause lag that ripple through the organization. Even in Nairobi with it’s 4 undersea cables and growing tech scene, we still have power and connectivity problems. Could we do something to scratch this itch of ours that would help others too?

Since we travel a lot, we decided that it needed to work in every country. The BRCK had to work when the power was off for a full day (8 hours), had to fail over to 3g internet when the ethernet didn’t work, it also had to work in any country we were in, by just changing the SIM card. At the same time we wanted it to be accessible for both software and hardware extensions by others.

Having a BRCK cloud means that you can login to your device from anywhere in the world, load apps and services on to it, such as a VPN, Dropbox or other services and also control sensors and other devices connected to the hardware. We think that the BRCK model of both a software and hardware API represents the glue that will make the internet of things work.

As Ushahidi we’ve always used simple technology to create tools and platforms that work for us in Africa, and which is also useful globally. This holds true for the BRCK too. We’re redesigning technology that’s been around for years, but making it work for our needs in Kenya.

BRCK-header

Some History

A year ago I jumped on a plane from South Africa back to Kenya without my book and my phone battery almost dead. Funny enough, these happenstances which leave me bored and with nothing to do but think have lead to my most interesting ideas (I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…). I subsequently broke out my notebook and started sketching out what I thought would be a fun hardware side-project for Ushahidi’s core team that would give us something to work on, when we were too fatigued with the normal coding/work.

We live in possibly the most interesting time for technology in history, where we’ve created this incredible thing called the internet, connecting us globally while at the same time getting to the point where the people who can code software can also “do” hardware. An era where analog and digital are democratized and the making of both attainable by anyone with a computer.

Making things is hard. It’s harder in Africa. I can’t overnight an order of processors, boards or 3d printing filament here. There aren’t an over abundance of local fabrication facilities or tools, and the milling machine you find might be in disrepair and take you two days to calibrate. We’ve got our work cut out to create the right spaces for prototyping and small-scale fabrication on the continent.

We actually started with Jon Shuler doing a lot of the early builds being done by him at his home in California. I’d bring these builds back to Brian Muita and team in Kenya where he was hacking on the firmware to make the system work. All the while hoping that air travel security would let me through with what to all appearances looked like a remote detonation device…

The BRCK being built at the University of Nairobi FabLab

By prototype version 5 we were in Nairobi with a bunch of plastic, using the University of Nairobi’s FabLab to mill the body. There was a fair bit of repair and adjustment needed on the machines to make it work. Like most things in Africa, you either fix what you have or you don’t do it, because there isn’t another option. After a couple days we got it within close enough allowances that we could do it. It still wasn’t pretty, but we knew it would work by then.

That was all just the hardware bit. Concurrently we wireframed the software side, ensuring that this device was much more useful than just a MiFi on steroids. The BRCK Cloud falls directly in Ushahidi’s software development wheelhouse, so we set about creating a simple responsive interface that would work on both phones and big screens.

BRCK setup - mobile web

The software side does three things:

  • A simple setup interface with only 3 form fields. Router setup is scary and hard, so we’re trying to take the pain out of it.
  • A dashboard, so you can see if your BRCK is running on backup or primary power, how fast your current internet connection is, your provider, and how all of these have done over the last hour, day, week and month.
  • A marketplace for free apps and services, as well as the place for others to offer up their own creations to the rest of the BRCK users around the world.

While having a device that was remotely programmable and that could run its own apps and service is important, we realized this was only half of the equation. We would need to create a similar interface for hardware creators and users. This means we needed the device to have hardware ports for everything to connect to, from temperature sensors to Raspberry Pi’s (as an aside, I want to get a Raspberry Pi hooked into the BRCK, thereby making a small, working server). We also decided to put special hex nuts at the top that would allow you to pop the top and get into the guts easily to do your own re-jigging.

The plan for the future is that you’ll be able to stack components under the BRCK like Legos, so that if you need an additional battery pack, a temperature sensor, solar charger, or other product you could do so with ease.

For a full rundown of the all that the BRCK can do, check out the Kickstarter. If you want to get into the real details, see the spec sheet.

Final Thoughts

This week I’m in Berlin to speak at re:publica – and as this post goes live I’m finalizing my talk. I find myself driven to tell the story of Africa’s great potential and growth, tempered by my experience building companies, communities and products here. I see the other entrepreneurs, hungry to create new products and driven by the same powers that are seen in their European and American counterparts. Here, it’s a harder road to hoe in many ways, it takes more grit, more determination and more belief in a future that is not yet realized to do it.

I look at the success we’ve had as Ushahidi and what this new hardware product means to us, and I’m humbled that we have the luxury to self-fund the R&D to get it to this stage, while so many my peers are struggling to take great concepts to even the prototype stage. The opportunities afforded us by our international awareness, the advantage of attracting and hand-picking the top talent that come through the iHub, the ability to have funds that we can risk on a half-baked original idea, a Board who believes in us and trusts our decisions – these are what I’m grateful for.

For this same reason, we’re committed to making a difference for our friends and peers in Nairobi. We’re going to build a makerspace through the iHub that allows others to start from a better position. A place that will give hardware hackers and entrepreneurs a chance to get trained on tools and machines, meet their peers and take risks on their own crazy half-baked hardware ideas. We’re calling this Gearbox.

Gearbox - an iHub Nairobi initiative for makers

We’re looking for corporate, academic and other partners right now to make it a reality. I’ll write about it more at another time (as this post is already too long). However, if you’re interested in being a part of this initiative, do let me know.

GSMA 2013 Mobile Economy Report

GSMA 2013 Mobile Economy Report

No organization is in a better position than the GSMA to get data on mobiles globally. After all, they’re the global association for almost all of the world’s mobile operators. When they release a report, it’s worth looking at. This time they’ve done a great job of putting some of their research and statistics into visuals, check the full report on “The Mobile Economy 2013” website. It’s a virtual treasure trove of valuable global and regional mobile information.

Some interesting takeaways:

  • 3.2 billion mobile subscribers at the end of 2012
  • Data is what is driving the growth to the tune of 1,577 Petabytes of data, with the biggest driver being video.
  • Africa is expected to see a 79% growth in data by 2017
  • SMS usage is growing, but slowing in growth to 28%. This is thought to be from VOIP and social networking apps.
  • 77% of all connections globally are pre-paid
  • The GSMA is pushing their “OneAPI” approach, which I wish the African operators would subscribe to, as everyone would make more money – MNOs included
  • Average revenue per user has dropped form $30.3/month in 2008 to $25.9 in 2012 – this is a big deal in Africa.

GSMA: global ARPU drops globally

Most people don’t appreciate just how much investment goes into creating viable mobile networks. To put that in perspective, see the chart and comments below:

Global Mobile CapEx

The mobile industry, if you go by this GSMA report, are all about personal security and privacy. We know this is a load of crap, but we can all pretend that the mobile operators really are acting in our own best interests… They are a long way from their mantra of, “an industry supporting and protecting citizens”.

The mobile operators do not care about privacy or security

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SMS spam, by category