A busy week for tech entrepreneurs in Kenya

A photo posted by Ciril Jazbec (@ciriljazbec) on


National Geographic photographer Ciril Jazbec was in town capturing the tech entrepreneur feel of Nairobi and surrounds.

I’m about a week late on my post, but thought I’d round up some of the news from the crazy week that ended with the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Nairobi. With US President Barrack Obama in town, bringing some of the biggest names in tech and business with him, it was bound to be a circus.

We embraced the madness at the iHub and there were a great many events.

One of the highlights for the week was seeing our very own Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix and long-time iHub member, up on stage seated between President's Uhuru and Obama on the main GES stage.

One of the highlights for the week was seeing our very own Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix and long-time iHub member, up on stage seated between President’s Uhuru and Obama on the main GES stage.

Big things that happened:

Bloomberg came by and did a photo walkthrough of the iHub, featuring Ushahidi and BRCK as well.

There was a good piece in TIME magazine about Obama’s visit and BRCK’s work around education, titled, “Obama Sees Kenya as a Hotbed of Innovation — Not Terror

A timely piece on TechCrunch titled, “The Rise Of Silicon Savannah And Africa’s Tech Movement” came out.

VC funding in African Tech Startups chart

The Next Africa bookThe Next Africa book launched, written by Aubrey Hruby and Jake Bright, we had a session at the iHub to talk through it with some of the subjects, like Just A Band, Dr. Bitange Ndemo and IBM.

We did a Fireside Chat with Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of AirBnB, that was one of the best we’ve had.

A piece in Forbes, “Why Kenyan Tech Entrepreneurs Deserve All Obama’s Praise“.

IBM partnered with the iHub to launch the innovation @ iHub space, so we’ll be working a lot closer with them going forward and that means members of the iHub community will get a lot more access to IBM, its partners and its resources.

Jean and Steve Case at the iHub
Jean and Steve Case, AOL Founders and investors, came to the iHub and ran a social impact tech pitching competition. They brought with them other investors, including Jim Sorenson, and Nina Tellegen CEO of the DOEN Foundation. Here’s Jean’s writeup on the week.

Finally, the US Gov’t made a lot of commitments to African entrepreneurs.

While it was a big week, and it served to remind us how far we’ve come and a chance to celebrate it with the world, we still have a long way to go.

BRCK: Also designed in Kenya and made in the USA. We had a little fun at BRCK with the Obama activity... :)

BRCK: Also designed in Kenya and made in the USA. We had a little fun at BRCK with the Obama activity… :)

The iHub at 5

Celebrating the Community - iHub's 5 Year Tech Bash

Celebrating the Community – iHub’s 5 Year Tech Bash

43 companies in the Kenyan tech scene have come together to put on an event for 3,000+ people in the tech community, the #5yrTechBash at the Arboretum. The iHub is turning 5 and it’s a testament to the people and companies who make up this space that we’re thriving and have a chance to celebrate.

It’s a community event by all of us, for all of us!

iHub-5-year-music-bash

Community as our Legacy

There has been a long history of the tech community in Kenya coming together, from Skunkworks and Barcamps to the iHub itself. I tend to think of community connectedness as one of Kenya’s key competitive advantages. Read this blog post by the founders of Angani, a company made up of some of the pioneers in the space, to understand some of the background on how this has come together.

If you read this post I wrote on “What makes the iHub Work” from 4 years ago, you’ll see that it’s a combination of many people that ultimately makes it different and why it still makes such an impact on people’s lives. Also take a moment to read Josiah Mugambi’s piece on the last 5 years.

The iHub community over 5 years

The iHub community over 5 years

Tracking the Numbers

One of the great strengths of the iHub is the serendipity that you have by coming in and running into people. However, that’s an inherently difficult thing to measure. I wrote a blog post 1.5 years ago about “what has the iHub done“, and it’s time for an update.

If you’re a place like the iHub with your own Research arm, then you measure other things, this from Leo Mutuku and the team at iHub Research:

iHub Startup Numbers over 5 years

iHub Startup Numbers over 5 years

In the second year of the iHub, we started the iHub Research arm and the m:lab, both of which have excelled. iHub Research’s job is to shares stories about the vibrant East African technology community by conducting ICT research on technology innovation within the community. Here’s what they’ve done:

iHub Research over 5 years

iHub Research over 5 years

To the next 5!

As much as the big bash today is a celebration of the past 5+ years, it’s also a time to get ready for the NEXT 5 years. While we’ve made a lot of progress as a whole, we’ve gotten much further than many thought we could in this time, we still have a long way to go.

A timeline of events in Tech in Kenya over 5 years

A timeline of events in Tech in Kenya over 5 years

A Gallery of Pics

EDIT: Wanted to add some pictures that bring me the memories of the faces and events of the past few years.

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$100m For African Entrepreneurs

TEEP goals

The Tony Elumelu Foundation has set an ambitious goal, “…to create 1 million jobs and $10 billion in annual revenue in Africa.”

They are choosing 1,000 entrepreneurs from across Africa to be a part of the new TEEP program, and they plan to do 1,000 more each year for 10 years – that’s 10,000 entrepreneurs total. Not a small number. If you do the math, this works out to $10,000 per entrepreneur, so it can’t be about funding as much as it is about learning.

Applications open today (Jan 1, 2015), it’s 87 questions long so make sure to read up and apply right away. (Hint: read their TEEP blog to know how they think)

Not enough successful African entrepreneurs are using their money to invest in other younger entrepreneurs. Those that do tend to be greedy with the percentage they ask for, so many entrepreneurs look to capital from the US and EU to use to grow their companies.

However, this could all be changing, if this program works and sends a message to other African high net worth individuals. This is one of the strongest moves by any African to invest back into other newer/younger African entrepreneurs, if not the strongest. Tony Elumelu has always been at the forefront of giving to the next generation, so it’s not a surprise that he leads on this as well.

The Rules

(full terms and conditions):

  • Open to citizens and legal residents of all 54 African countries, 18 years and above.
  • Applications can be made by any for-profit business based in Africa in existence for less than three years, including new business ideas.
  • Applicants can only submit one business.

Selection Criteria

Since most people won’t actually read the full terms and conditions, I’ve done some scanning and pulled out some important elements. Here’s how you will be scored by the selection committee:

  • Feasibility: content of the business idea. A good business model that has clear and compelling mission to grow a sustainable, commercially viable business and is effectively communicated (25 points);
  • Market Potential: knowledge and understanding of the market, customers and competitors for their idea/business (20 points);
  • Financial Model: understanding of the basic financial requirements of running a business, costs and revenues. (20 points);
  • Scalability: Demonstrates potential for replication and growth of their product or service to create jobs and wealth (10 points);
  • Leadership Potential and Entrepreneurial Skills: Applicant has demonstrated leadership potential, capable of attracting people, customers and resources. Also exhibits strong passion and commitment for the business (25 points).

The Program

The TEEP program

Digging a little deeper into the terms and conditions doc (see Section 9), and the program unfolds a bit more. It looks like there is $5000 set aside for each entrepreneurs part in the program, and another $5000 as a direct amount injected into their business. Finally, if you do your 3 reports and take part in all of your mentorship sessions, then another returnable $5000 can be given to you.

There seems to be three main parts to the program:

  1. Online – 12-week online skills learning assignments.
  2. Mentoring, where we are assured, “The Mentors are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement as it relates to personal information which may come into their possession during the Programe and are committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards when mentoring.”
  3. 3-day boot camp and Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum – where you are physically in Nigeria (costs for travel/lodging are covered by the program, which is where that initial $5000 goes).

In Conclusion

My thinking is that they’re going a bit broad on this. After what I’ve seen within the iHub community and as a partner in the Savannah Fund, I’m not sure that $10k is enough. It would have made more sense for me to see them go with 100 entrepreneurs a year, where each has a chance at $100,000. However, if any organization is going to make it work, I believe the Tony Elumelu Foundation can.

My guess is that they are going to focus on smaller, very early stage startups that largely aren’t tech related. A leg-up of $5,000 to a single guy trying to start a small business outside of a major city can go far with that amount.

Kenya: Who Got Funded in 2014?

Which tech companies were funded in Kenya in 2014? I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I know of.

Send me any that I might have missed.

Early stage capital

Angani – Public cloud computing provider
BRCK – Rugged, wireless WiFi device
CardPlanet – Mobile money payment system aimed at business and NGOs
iProcure – Software for optimizing rural supply chains
OkHi – Physical addressing system for logistics solutions
Sendy – Motorcycle delivery service
Tumakaro – Diaspora driven education funding
Umati Capital – Factoring for farmer cooperatives, traders and processors
GoFinance – Working capital finance to distributors of FMCGs
BuyMore – Electronic student discount card
TotoHealth – SMS technology for children’s health
BitPesa – Bitcoin for African remittances
Sokonect – Mobile agriculture tool to eliminate brokers
BookNow – Buy bus tickets online in East Africa
Mdundo – African music on your phone
Futaa – Source for football news in Kenya
Movas – Global provider of B2B/B2C m-Commerce solutions
Hivisasa – A free, county-level online newspaper
Yum – Online ordering and food delivery service in Kenya
Akengo – Learning management system
EcoZoom – Hardware. Clean burning, portable wood and charcoal powered cookstoves
Jooist – A gaming network for mobile phones
Globa.li – A platform to connect hotels and distributors for bookings

Growth capital

MKopa – solar power financing using mobile money
BuyRentKenya – Real estate classifieds
Wave – US-to-Kenya remittance provider
Eneza Education – Mobile tutor and teacher’s assistant
Sanergy – hardware tech, building solutions for urban toilets and composting
Bridge International – Education in low-income environments, uses tech to send teaching content
Soko – Handmade jewelry and accessories shopping from East Africa
EatOut – Find and book seats in East African restaurants

Exited/Acquired

M-Ledger (by Safaricom) – Monitor your Mpesa transactions
Wezatele – Mobility solutions in commerce, supply chain, distribution and mobile payment integration

A special thanks to John Kieti, Rebecca Wanjiku, Nikolai Barnwell, and Ben Lyon for refreshing my memory!

The Rested, the Slow and the Robbed

TL;DR – We’re chilling by Victoria Falls today, a 5-hour drive took us 11-hours yesterday, and someone stole our med kit, a vest and 300m Nikon lens in Livingstone today.

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Friday was amazing. We had gotten in the night before to Lusaka, and this meant we got to spend the whole day with the BongoHive team and the rest of the tech community here. They were some of the most hospitable people, and we gave demos/talks on the BRCK, as well as Mark giving a talk on User Experience (UX), which was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a long time. Later, I gave a talk on Savannah Fund and raising investment money for startups, and the whole evening was finished by Juliana and myself giving a joint keynote to get the local Startup Weekend going. Busy, and fun!

It’s interesting, with Lusaka being a smaller, though major African city, they have the ambitions of larger things. However, their issues become more challenging than people who live in some of the larger cities like Lagos, Cape Town or Nairobi, since there isn’t the critical mass of things like investors, customers or talent. It seems like the strategy to build a big company is that you have to move across borders and anchor off of a larger region more quickly.

A Day Off on the at Vic Falls

Today I’m sitting in a camp on the edge of a tributary to the Zambezi river, a couple kilometers from Victoria Falls. The rains have been late here, so everything is dry, including the falls themselves – they’re still epic, but not nearly the same as the real falls. We went out there this morning to get a few pictures, and were able to get the BRCK connected from “Danger Point”.

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

BRCK at Vic Falls

BRCK at Vic Falls

Today is mostly about rest. We’re doing a bit of testing, connecting the BRCK to the vehicle mounted Poynting antenna, and then amplifying that with a Wilson booster, which successfully turns a non-existent signal on a mobile phone into a 19 (with antenna) and then a 61 (with amp + antenna). It’s great to have a device like this where we can get such great connectivity wherever we go.

Mark has begun his lessons on how to ride a motorcycle today. He’s been busy putting around the campsite this afternoon with a big fat grin on his face. :)

Mark Kamau learns to ride a bike at Victoria Falls from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

The Road to Livingston

We had an interesting day yesterday, with a plan for a 5-6 hour ride from Lusaka to Livingstone. It turned into an 11-hour drive though, since the Land Rover had some issues with air in the fuel line. For a while, we could only go 20km at a time before it would stop and we’d have to bleed it. Luckily Philip really knows his way around a diesel engine, we worked through all the obvious issues and finally got it to go 100km before we had to bleed it again.

Fixing the Land Rover

Fixing the Land Rover

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Last night Reg spent some time on it and though we think the fuel lift pump is the culprit (and weak), it’s working well enough to make the 500km run to Francistown, Botswana tomorrow.

Stinking Thieves

We thought Zambia was different. Mark accidentally left Juliana’s big Nikon camera at a restaurant in Lusaka. Mark wanted to go by and see if it was there, I was skeptical, it was lost forever. However, the next day our friend and TED Africa Fellow, Mulumba went by and they had found and kept it for us. Where were we? This doesn’t usually happen in a big African city…

Today, we had to run to pick up some food at the local Shoprite grocery store in Livingstone. We locked up the Land Rover and went in for 30 minutes or so. When we cam out we found everything sitting in the back seat was stolen, including a nice 300mm Nikon Lens, a riding vest, and most importantly of all, our amazing Med Kit. This med kit is put together by my wife, a nurse practitioner, and has some of the best expedition stuff you can find.

Oh, just found out that they got our Mozilla Firefox phone… this is a 3-SIM phone, and it’s what we used to top-up credit on SIM cards and figure things out along the way. What a shame.

We’re more than a bit pissed off about this, if I found the thieves there might be violence.

Pushing On and a Jua Kali hack

With the vehicle acting well all day today, the bikes tightened up and a chance to rest ourselves, we’re all set to hit the Botswana border in the morning and do a run down to Francistown. Reg had to head back to Kenya, so Mark will take over on the Land Rover, though we will miss having an engineer with us.

With Joel’s riding vest gone, we had no water for him. Fortunately, I carried an extra bladder. We put together a jua kali water pack for him using this, along with one of those small Alite chair bags, and a couple Rok straps (see below).

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

Sendy: Digitizing Motorcycle Deliveries

Motorcycle couriers in Timau, Kenya

Motorcycle couriers in Timau, Kenya

This year at Pivot East I had my first look at Sendy, which does for motorcycle courier deliveries and customers in Nairobi, what Uber did for taxis and passengers in San Francisco. At its heart, Sendy is about bringing the vast and growing motorcycle courier and delivery network in Africa into the digital and networked world.

Motorcycles in downtown Monrovia, Liberia

Motorcycles in downtown Monrovia, Liberia

This is a big deal, because those of us who live in large African cities know just how inefficient driving a car around the traffic-plagued metropolises can be. With the bad roads, traffic and high cost of fuel, motorcycle deliveries are a natural path.

Indeed, in almost every city, from primary to tertiary throughout the continent, you’ll find thousands of motorcycle guys sitting by the side of the road, ready to courier a package or serve as a taxi. They ride inexpensive $800-$1200 Chinese and Indian motorcycle brands, are generally not trained very well, have little safety equipment and are some of the most reckless riders I know.

When Alloys Meshack, Sendy’s CEO, stepped onto stage for his 7-minute pitch, I was hooked. It sounded like the right team, a good business plan, and one that could scale well beyond Nairobi. I met with him again this month, and got into a lot more details around the business, and this encouraged my thoughts on both him and his team, as well as the broader scope of the business that they are building. It is truly impressive.

How it Works

Sendy delivery - Android app screenshot

Sendy delivery – Android app screenshot

I also signed up for the service, and then used it.

It’s as simple as this:

  1. Download the Android app, or sign-in to the web app at Sendy.co.ke
  2. Click the button that you have a delivery (or pickup) to be made.
  3. You can see the map for where the rider is – my wait was approx 5 minutes for the courier to arrive
  4. Give him the package and directions

There is a GPS transponder on the motorcycle, and you get an SMS update when the delivery rider gets withing 50m of the delivery zone. Once the package is delivered, there is another confirmation that the rider sends to Sendy, that comes to you as well. Payment is then made automatically by either credit card or Mpesa.

My delivery took about 25 minutes, from first Android app entry, to delivery about 5km away. At the end, you can rate your delivery rider, so that the best are known and get more business. I found my particular rider courteous and patient. He also told me that he makes about 5-6 deliveries a day with Sendy, and loves the service.

Challenges and Opportunities

The Sendy opportunity in eCommerce

The Sendy opportunity in eCommerce

With Africa’s growing need for logistics around eCommerce, Sendy presents a natural option for everyone from Jumia to your local supermarket. Motorcycles are already an accepted means of delivery for non-traditional business and large enterprises alike. The idea of capturing a large portion of this, without all the baggage of a normal courier company setup, is good for both Sendy and the everyday bodaboda/courier guy.

There are a couple hurdles to overcome to make this a simple process to onboard new customers, receive payment and then send payment to the courier riders. Unlike the US or EU, not everyone has a credit card, and the mobile payment options don’t allow for “pull” billing (instead, the customer has to “push” a payment to your service), which is clunky.

Sendy has corporate accounts (which is now used by both BRCK and Ushahidi), and for businesses, finding a good payment process isn’t a problem. However, there will need to be some creative thinking for individuals and small businesses in order to make Sendy as painless as it promises to be.

The service verifies the courier riders, keeping their records on file, and providing the necessary technology for both tracking of motorcycle and communications with the rider. This means that qualified riders are picked, lessening the chance of getting robbed, and the ability to rate a courier creates a system that builds trust over time.

The opportunities that Sendy represents are staggering. I encouraged Meshack to get Nairobi right quickly, then scale up and move beyond into other major cities in the region.

Sendy is raising a seed round of investment. If this opportunity is interesting to you, you should reach out to them.

Kazi ya Mkono

Entrepreneurs who succeed are hungrier, and they get their hands dirty. A couple stories:

The Coffee Man

Pete Owiti is a coffee connoisseur, he learned the trade back in the late 90’s as one of Java House Nairobi’s earliest baristas, became one of the best in Kenya, winning global barista competitions and then went to the US and Canada to do even more coffee training and serving. When I moved back to Kenya in 2009 to get the iHub going, we wanted a coffee bar in the space. I put out a call for proposals, and he was one of three that responded. By that time he had moved on from just serving coffee, to a business where he trained all of the baristas for both Java House and Dormans (the top two coffee houses in Kenya at the time).

There was no doubt who was the most qualified to run the iHub coffee bar, he was far and away the winner. Since then, Pete’s Coffee has gone from strength-to-strength, culminating in the Pete’s Cafe on the ground floor of the building that does an amazing amount of business.

Still today, you can find Pete doing the hard work, cleaning up, taking orders, making coffee – alongside his wife Christabel (who works harder than anyone else I know). Yes, there are employees now, but he still gets his hands dirty.

Read more about him on this profile piece (with video).

From the Village to the City

One of my favorite entrepreneurs in Kenya is also another good friend, she sits on the iHub Advisory Board, and is someone I go to for advice all the time. Rebecca Wanjiku started life in a village on the outskirts of Nairobi, with little to her name beyond a work ethic and drive to succeed. She worked her way into journalism, realized there was a gap in tech journalism in the region, educated herself by reading everything she could on every topic around the internet, and became the go-to tech journalist for many years. She’s flown around the world to cover major internet and tech events to bring an African perspective to the news. Still, today, she writes hard-hitting pieces for different magazines and on her own blog.

Rebecca Wanjiku

Becky didn’t make it because of a benefactor, she made it because of her own hard work and drive. Today she has a networking company that wires up buildings and people’s homes with internet connectivity, Fireside Communications, that has seen great success and continues to hire, and has even built a retail outlet in Westlands.

“Kazi ya Mkono” as a culture

I recently had someone who works with me complain about being given “Kazi ya Mkono” (aka, KYM) jobs (which is a term for “work of the hands” and is often used as a derogatory term for manual labor). I was stunned. Did this person not understand that I still get my hands dirty and build stuff? That I still run errands myself? That nothing gets built if you aren’t also willing to get down to do the hard work yourself?

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Becky Wanjiku earlier in the year, where she was complaining about graduates with university degrees and how unemployable they are in Kenya. They come out thinking that they’re “management material” and won’t do hard things. She tried to hire someone straight out of university for a networking job, and he refused to climb a ladder to install a WiMax solution.

Simply put, most of Kenya’s university graduates are not hungry enough. I see it when I look at the people we interview for positions at my companies. I see it when I mentor startups, where the CEO wants a business card that says that, and a desk, but won’t leave that desk to get his feet dirty knocking on doors. They don’t know that hustling isn’t just what you say to get work, business or jobs, but doing the actual work too.

Some of the best people I’ve had the honor to work with come with no degrees. They’re hungry. They hustle. They make up for their lack of training by educating themselves, watching, learning – but most importantly, trying. They will do whatever it takes to get that job done.

This attitude towards Kazi ya Mkono is a cancer in our system. It’s an unearned, entitlement mentality that is disturbing to see in anyone, but especially in 23-year old recent grads.

Hard work is something that shouldn’t be looked down upon, whether in a kiosk owner, a road sweeper, a barista or a coder. Yes, try to do it “smarter, not harder”, but still dig in and get your hands in there.

Not all jobs are manual. However, all companies are built on hard work. I hope that we’re not losing this thread in our community.

Bonus Content

Emeka Okafor just pointed me toward this great article, “Kenya’s Over-educated and Unemployable youth“.

No one says it better that Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame. Besides the video below, read his response to a fan.

A BRCK Journey

We’re about to ship our first orders of BRCKs next week, on July 17th.

Tomorrow (Wed, July 9th) we have a launch event happening at Sarit Centre for our Nairobi friends and media, starting at 9am, where we take over our partner Sandstorm‘s store for the day. We’ll be there all day, so come on buy if you can make it. You’ll be able to use the devices and ask questions from anyone on the BRCK team.

A BRCK Journey - how it was made

The BRCK is a rugged, self-powered, mobile WiFi device which connects people and things to the internet in areas of the world with poor infrastructure, all managed via a cloud-based interface.

It is designed and engineered right here in Nairobi, with components from Asia, and final assembly done in the USA. Specs here.

the Journey

Most people heard about the BRCK a year ago when we ran our Kickstarter campaign that raised $172k. What a lot of people don’t know is that the journey started long before that, 1.5 years earlier in fact.

Back in November of 2011 I was in South Africa for AfricaCom, and it was in a discussion with my good friend Henk Kleynhans (the founder and then-CEO of SkyRove) that we started talking about routers. Knowing nothing about routers, I asked him why he didn’t build his own, to which I think the answer was something like, “that’s hard” and it wasn’t their core business anyway.

Later on that evening I was flying back to Kenya and I started pondering what it would be like if we built a router made for our own environment – something that would give us good solid connectivity in Africa. I started sketching out the first ideas around what would be in the BRCK, what it would need, etc. When I landed in Nairobi, I started talking to the Ushahidi team about this, and whether anyone wanted to try prototyping this with me in their free time.

My initial notes on the BRCK in the airplane, thinking through what it should be, basic features, and products I liked.

My initial notes on the BRCK in the airplane, thinking through what it should be, basic features, and products I liked.

Initial BRCK idea, drawn in my notebook in November 2011.  You can tell I hadn't a clue as to where things should go yet.

Initial BRCK sketch, drawn in my notebook in November 2011. You can tell I hadn’t a clue as to where things should go yet, it was just barebones features and simplicity was key.

With the problems we have around power and reliable internet connectivity in Nairobi, we all had an itch to do something, and so we did.

The 1.5 years between that point and the Kickstarter was filled with Jonathan Shuler doing a number of early prototypes, Brandon Rosage hammering out an early brand and design, and Brian Muita getting into the guts of the software. Sometime in there was a walk with Ken Banks in a field in Cambridgeshire, discussing what this future product could be as a company. Then there was the entry of Philip Walton, volunteering his time to do the first truly functional designs that married the components and some customized firmware, throwing it all into an Otterbox case, held together by Sugru and tape, to make sure it worked (seem image below). Then Reg Orton came along in late 2012 and started volunteering his time and knowledge around case and PCB design, and started to professionalize our hardware production. All of this culminated in a working prototype.

An Early BRCK Prototype from mid- 2012

An Early BRCK Prototype from mid- 2012

We ran the Kickstarter in June last year to test the market, to see if there were others who thought this BRCK device was cool, useful and something that they would purchase. It worked out well, and we found out that there were a number of business types who wanted something just like this.

Then the real work began.

From Prototype to Production

It’s fairly easy today to prototype a cool new device, we did that for 1.5 years with many iterations even before we did our Kickstarter in June last year. When you go to production though, that’s a whole different beast, and we ended up spending a year from our Kickstarter until today going through more levels of prototypes before we finalized on our production-level hardware back in February. Keep in mind, that’s with people on the team, like our CTO Reg Orton, who have been in this hardware space for 12+ years.

There’s also the software integration issue that had a lot of unknowns which we couldn’t tell in advance. It’s not just hardware we’re building but an integrated software and hardware package that consists of hardware + firmware + cloud. Fortunately we’ve got some pretty amazing problem solvers who don’t seem to sleep on our team, between the heroics of our COO Philip Walton and cloud lead Emmanuel Kala, we were able to find workarounds and put together a robust BRCK management package.

What I’m getting at is this – software is hard to get done well. Hardware is harder. Software plus hardware is amazingly complex, and it’s easy to underestimate the level of difficulty in what seems like a simple device.

It’s been a battle, one with multiple fronts and many setbacks along the way. We’ve had our modem supplier go end-of-life on one of our core components, and subsequently had to find a new supplier and redesign our board and case. We’ve found crazy bugs in OpenWRT that took us weeks to figure out a way to work around. We’ve mixed in some fairly harsh testing of the BRCK in some of Kenya’s hardest environments, and we’ve seen it perform and change the way a business can do their work. We’ve also seen our earliest users loading up education materials on it for schools that aren’t fully on the grid.

Rachel running on a BRCK in Uganda, by Johnny Long

Rachel running on a BRCK in Uganda, by Johnny Long (more on their Education page).

We’re finally there, after many, many months.

Some Thanks

It’s with great gratitude to my BRCK partners and team that I say thanks for pushing through. I’m also extremely grateful to Ushahidi, especially David and Juliana, and the Board, for helping push the BRCK through, even in those early days of 2012 when it seemed so crazy. None of this could have been done without a few brave souls willing to risk some money on us, to our seed round of investors who came together and put in $1.2m, which meant we could hire more people and build an amazing team.

Finally, our biggest debt of gratitude goes to our early backers, those of you who over a year ago put some money into this little black box. You will have your BRCKs soon, and we hope that they live up to your expectations. After all this time, I can say I’m probably more excited about getting them into your hands than you are in getting them! :)

Builders and Talkers: The Fallacy of the Grant vs Investment Debate

A bunch of people are talking about where the money comes from that funds the tech startups and/or the ecosystem in East Africa’s tech community:

Most of the people talking haven’t actually built anything – they’re media, analysts, investors or grant-giving organizations.

A few are entrepreneurs – and I’m not talking about the type that thinks that is a sexy title and who wave around a CEO business card – I’m talking about the real entrepreneurs, the ones who are in the trenches, finding the right talent, securing funding, battling it out for clients, and shipping solid product. Too few of the voices we hear are of this type.

The debate is skewed. You’re told that money is evil if it is free (grants), that it’s only pure if it comes from an investor (angel, seed, VC). That if you get grant money that it will take you off focus and derail your business. Sure, this is a danger. It’s also a danger that you get a VC who gives you money, and who doesn’t understand the market, our region, or something else about your business and forces you to go off focus and derails your business as well.

The truth is, that as a leader of a company, your job is to decide what is the “good” money and “bad” money. This isn’t some academic or theoretical issue, it’s real life or death decisions that you stake your company on. When you can’t pay payroll and have to take a loan from the bank at 24%, you’ll take it to keep the business alive. When you’re starting up you might go for those piddly $15-25k grants that everyone seems to think grow on trees (but don’t). When you’re at that stage where you have real success, but now you need to expand much further, you’ll deal with the slick-talking VCs in order to work out the best deal for your future. It’s just how it works.

This argument of grant vs investment money is a false dichotomy – neither is pure. As a leader of my own business, if someone offers me free grant money that I believe is in our best interest, I will take it every day of the week. I measure it in the same way that I would if a VC wants to give me a dodgy deal – I refuse it.

If it was easy, everyone would do it

As a tech entrepreneur in our region, be objective and pragmatic. Be wary of pundits, analysts, investors, NGOs and anyone who hasn’t built something of their own. The entrepreneur life you’re signing up for means you’ll work harder, sweat more, stress more and feel both great euphoria and defeat. It’s hard, grinding work, and those who push hardest, longest and the most creatively win. And if you win, the prize is big, so it is worth trying for.

Everyone has an opinion, but few have tried, and fewer have built something that succeeds. Your job is to think bigger, and more creatively, and to boldly aim for success. Few have the courage it takes to go this route, so remember that and make sure the person you’re talking to actually has the qualifications worth your time to listen to.

However, do listen to those who have been there, they are the rare ones who have made it through the battle lines and won, seek them out. The best mentors are rarely found in the institutions that have the money. A few investors have been there and have the experience, not many. Even fewer on the NGO and foundation side.

Here’s a better idea. If you can build your company without taking investment money, do it. There’s a fallacy in thinking that you need investment or grant money at all. Instead, try to do as much as you can, get as many clients as possible, grow fast, build a great product, and then only when you actually HAVE to have it, should you go for any other outside money.