Category Archives: Gadgets

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. 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! :)

A Suswa Excursion

BRCK Excursion: Mt. Suswa from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

We took a day ride out past the Ngong Hills into the Rift Valley and up Mt. Suswa. Here’s a (very) short video where were playing with a DJI Phantom 1 and a GoPro to do some flyovers of the vehicles. We went with 4 motorcycles (2 KLR 650s, 1 Suzuki DR650, and a BMW 650GS Dakar), plus a Landrover Defender 90. A good grouping of bikes and a backup vehicle, and a day with some fun dirt riding. The rocky road up to the top of Mt. Suswa is a lot of fun, and I was glad there had been rain the day before in order to reduce the dust.

The Masai live on Suswa, and though it looks bleak and unforgiving from down below, once you get to the top there is a lot of nice land for grazing and for growing crops. There’s also an extensive network of large lava caves. We explored through a few of them with our guide Jermiah (pictured below).

For this picture, we’re standing in the “Baboon Parliament”, a huge entrance to a cave, with it’s own skylight. The baboons live above, and they congregate, play and have meetings in the area where we are standing. It smells horribly, as all of the beautiful colors on the rock are from baboon urine, and all of the dirt below is baboon crap. If you go further inside, there’s a bat colony.

Here’s the BRCK sitting on the top rock in the baboon parliament’s cave.

We came back by the satellite dishes in the valley, through Mai Mahiu and up the Lower Road. Luckily we didn’t get any rain, though we did have to contest with cars deciding to come towards us on Waiyaki Way, when there was a jam going the other direction. It’s quite a shock to face oncoming traffic when you’re on a road with a wall between you and the other lanes…

Gear Worth Buying for Africa: PowerMonkey Extreme

I’m lucky enough to have friends like Toby Shapshak who, being the Publisher and Editor of Stuff Magazine, ends up having tons of people give him cool tech to write about. Every once in a while he dumps some stuff on me, things that I normally wouldn’t have bought, but am grateful for later. Toby is a bit of a road warrior, so he and I have a good understanding of what actually works and try not to carry useless stuff with us.

Some travel organizers from Shapshak

Recently he gave me some more self-organizing bits, like this blue Moleskine case, some color-coded cable ties and a smaller Micro-USB cable.

The Powermonkey Extreme

The last time I was in Jo’burg Toby casually handed me this solar kit. At first glance it seemed a bit big, but I stuck it in my bag and headed for the airport. A week later, I found myself camping with the family and broke out this thing with a funny name, the PowerMonkey Extreme ($200). Inside, there’s an inbuilt 3v solar panel, a 9000mAh battery and some cables for plugging it into the wall, computer or solar panel for charging.

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquacable

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquastrap

What’s cool about it:

  • The battery seems to charge pretty quickly using the solar or DC-in cable.
  • The battery is watertight, with a clip down cover over the ports. With the Aquastrap, it’s also IP65 rated for dust and water even when the ports are plugged in.
  • It has two power-out ports, so you can charge two things at once.
  • The case is well designed for packing it all in.
  • The digital readout is easy to see, and watertight controls
  • A velcro strap on the solar panels let you attach it to things in awkward places.
  • The folding mechanism for the solar panels means it can pack better, and this also helps for positioning it towards the sun.

What I wish were different:

  • The device has this strange touch-sensitive button that I didn’t know was a button until I hit it.
  • I couldn’t understand what the readout meant right away, I had to go look it up. The power charging vs the battery icon confused me.

Keep in mind that the pictures you’re seeing are of the PowerMonkey Extreme after being battle tested, not just on little camping trips with the family either. I took this device up into the northern deserts of Kenya on our BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana and back. On the last day, this was the only thing keeping people’s phones charged as it was the last thing standing, and it could fit in a Land Rover window to keep trickle charged. This is a serious device for real adventure.

Some more pictures:

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Watertight seals

Watertight seals

Power-in port

Power-in port

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Plugging it into the solar panel

Plugging it into the solar panel

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

All packed up and ready to zip.

All packed up and ready to zip.

Zipped up.

Zipped up.

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.

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.

Fab Factories: Hardware Manufacturing in Africa

Across Africa there is a vibrant culture of people creating things. Hardware products. It’s rarely glamorous as our inventors and micro-entrepreneurs innovate on products due to necessity – there simply aren’t enough jobs and they need to feed their families.

Regardless of the reasons why they do it, what this has created is a culture of innovation.

When you have a problem in Africa, there isn’t another option, you either improvise, adapt and overcome, or you die. You don’t give up, you figure out a way to make things work.

This environment has bred a generation of problem solvers: people confront immense challenges and keep at it until a solution is found. It might not always be the most beautiful solution (usually the finishing isn’t up to par), but it works and that’s what matters.

Concurrently, we’re a net importer of fabricated products from around the world. We might make some of our own software now, but we do little to nothing with hardware. How can we be the masters of our own future if we don’t do any meaningful levels of fabrication?

A while back I wrote about the need of “hardware hacking garages” in Africa, a place where the innovation and inventions that deal with things you can actually put your hands on happens. I think this is our next frontier to explore: fabrication and manufacturing.

Moving from FabLab to Fab Factory

The one place that we do do some type of fabrication, at least where we explore and invent, is the network of FabLab’s across the continent. They are very much university focused (and constrained), but they have had a great amount of innovation coming out of them as well. In Kenya, Kamau Gachigi runs the one in Nairobi, and it has been a model of both invention and innovative revenue streams to keep itself going and to bring in funds to the engineers working through it.

The FabLab is small though. What would happen if you put it on steroids and made it 10x larger? What if we were talking about a Fab Factory instead?

A Factory
A space that has all the machines needed to fabricate prototypes and manufacture pieces in at least small quantities. It would need machine tools, laser cutters, 3d printers, wood working tools and more. A place that you could rent time on the machines, rent a workshop, and get training on the machines you don’t know how to operate. Something that looks a lot like the TechShop in San Francisco, but tweaked to work in Africa.

A Warehouse
Take the Factory model, and layer on a warehouse. There are some items that we will not make on our own, namely computer chips. Having a warehouse would allow group buying to happen, where economies of scale could be reached for supplies to be brought into the country, as well as serving as a central facility for distribution of these items to the community.

A Nodal Network
Having a central “factory” and “warehouse” provides many benefits, but it’s not enough. As we know from 3 years of running Maker Faire Africa events, many of the most interesting inventions come from rural areas, mainly due to the fact that they have strong commercial upside. In this case it makes sense to take the original FabLab model and export that to the major cities around the country, making these types of capabilities much more accessible to a wider user base.

A Tech Store
Beyond building and inventing, there’s a gap where the people creating things can take them to market. Providing a space for these people to sell their products (and services), provides a bigger target for buyers, both consumer and b2b buyers to find new items. It also provides a much needed stream of income for the small-scale inventors, with the potential to put them on the map for efforts to commercialize and scale their work.

Ideas and Examples

A couple examples of things that could be built locally, while at the same time keeping the money in-country and increasing technical capabilities in the market:

  • In Kenya, the local energy company is moving to pre-paid meters for home electricity. These are simple boxes, imminently hackable, and all made in China. Why? These could be fabricated right here in Kenya, and made better, cheaper.
  • The Kenya Wildlife Service needs UAVs for tracking poachers and remote viewing of the parks. They’re currently spending large amounts of money on imported ones. We can build those here too, to the standards needed, and for a lot less.

Emeka Okafor, my organizing colleague for Maker Faire Africa, has been on this fabrication thing for years. He has even more examples of small scale manufacturing on his blog at Timbuktu Chronicles.

I imagine a place like that would get immediate use in certain markets; namely Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, though others might line up quickly as well. It certainly makes sense for the governments in these countries to invest in this future, or at the very least to incentivize this type of ownership of our own technological future.

What I’m wondering is what other models are there like this?

If building the iHub, m:lab and Ushahidi have taught me anything, it’s that getting something going is the most important thing you can do. Do something, even if small. Get traction. Get started.

The answer isn’t to wait on the government, even though we all see the argument for them being involved here. I imagine the next step is to raise some money, find a space and get a few fabrication machines in place. It will grow from there. Standby for this in Nairobi soon. It has to happen, and it will happen.

This will take money. Anyone interested in getting involved?

(On a sidenote, I’m finally getting to visit the TechShop as I’m in San Francisco this week. Very excited about this!)

Manufacturing our Future

When I was a kid of around 10 years old, I used to collect small motors and electrical components with my school friends in Nairobi. We’d find some batteries and create small rotating and whirling contraptions, dreaming of how we’d one day make a walking robot that we could sit in and control – no doubt inspired by the Star Wars AT-STs.

I’ve always enjoyed tinkering. It’s what drove my interest in telling the stories of Africa’s innovative hardware hackers in the jua kali sector, writing on AfriGadget. It’s why helping to organize and be a part of Maker Faire Africa has been so much fun for me (which I’m missing, as it’s taking place this weekend in Cairo, due to family reasons). It’s why I buy kids solar and hydraulic kits to build things with my daughters.

I’ve been buried in the software (web) side of technology for the past few years. In this space it seems like we’ve been happy with de-linking software and hardware, after all, pure internet software is easier to spread, export and get access to. I can’t shake the tinkering side though, knowing that the two sides are interlinked and that more of the bridging of the two is needed. We’re just waiting for the Moore’s Law treadmill to slow down enough for the two to sync up again.

Firefly Inspirations

Laura Walker Hudson shares a fascination with the Firefly TV series, which suffered a short-lived life spanning only half a season in 2002. It’s a space western, reminiscent of Star Wars, gritty with witty realistic characters. That’s not why I’m bringing this up though. Laura reminded me of what something that made the show more compelling, the fact that it was a merging of Western and Chinese cultures.

“…it is a future where the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures…”

This reminded me of an article I read about the Shanzhai hacking, copying and innovating culture in China.

The contemporary shanzhai are rebellious, individualistic, underground, and self-empowered innovators. They are rebellious in the sense that the shanzhai are celebrated for their copycat products; they are the producers of the notorious knock-offs of the iPhone and so forth. They individualistic in the sense that they have a visceral dislike for the large companies; many of the shanzhai themselves used to be employees of large companies (both US and Asian) who departed because they were frustrated at the inefficiency of their former employers. They are underground in the sense that once a shanzhai “goes legit” and starts doing business through traditional retail channels, they are no longer considered to be in the fraternity of the shanzai. They are self-empowered in the sense that they are universally tiny operations, bootstrapped on minimal capital, and they run with the attitude of “if you can do it, then I can as well”.

This sounds like we’re seeing the beginnings of our sci-fi worlds becoming real. Mix this with what you see in other parts of the world with open hacking garages, like what my friend Dominic Muren (TED and PopTech Fellow) is doing with Humblefactory. We’re seeing hardware hacking spaces being set up, allowing small-time inventors to cook up new ideas on machines that they couldn’t afford by themselves. This is a trend that is growing.

Manufacturing our Future

Large technology companies drive both the diffusion of technology globally, and the costs of components. As the parts needed to make new tech “things” become commoditized, smaller manufacturers can get them at a low enough price point that they can also create their own inventions and sell them profitably. This is where the Shanzhai story becomes so compelling. We’re able to create more customized, and more innovative products, because they’re not created for a generalized mass market.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about small factories taking root in Africa. Most of them don’t have much, or anything, to do with technology creation. However, the story does point out the emergence of more manufacturing happening on the continent.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we had our own jua kali industry working on higher tech products, like their Shanzhai counterparts in China. What types of innovative technology (hardware and software) would come from Africa that differs for the local context?

I won’t go into a great amount of detail, on what I’ve written before around the idea of “Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation” in Africa. I think we need it, as it could help kickstart this next phase of localized R&D, prototyping and ultimately small-scale manufacturing that we need on the continent.

If we can’t provide a technology manufacturing base of our own in Africa, I’m worried that we’ll forfeit our future in the space. We might not reach the scale of Asia, but we need to have the competency and the capacity to do some of it locally.

Another way of thinking about this is that the non-traditional businesses in Africa are well positioned to provide a distributed manufacturing base already. Think of it as horizontal scale instead of the vertical scaling you see in massive Asian factories. If there were a way to provide logistical, communications and market efficiencies to that loose and distributed network, then we might find that the foundation is already set.

Further Reads and Links

The Space Hackers are Coming! [small PDF]
The Hackaday blog
Fundibots – Ugandan-based robot building and training
The hardware hacker manifesto
Arduino

Fundi Bots: Robotics Lab, School Clubs and Camps

Hardware hacking is what Solomon King does in Uganda, he already makes his own robots, now he’s taking that idea a little further. He’s taking it to kids, trying to get robotics into the hands of Ugandan youth through his Fundi Bots project. (Fundi is the word for technician).

Their plan comes in three parts: a lab, school robotics clubs and robotics camps.

That first item is important, a lab. A central place where the members of Fundi Bots can come in and find the relatively expensive tools, software and computers needed to make the robots and learn together. It gives a hub to their spokes of activity taking place in the schools throughout the year, a much needed “club house” for the community.

This idea of hardware hacking garages is something I’ve spoken about before:

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.

Interestingly, the founder of Fundi Bots is from the software side, he’s the CEO of his own web services company Node Six, and a well-respected member of that community. I find it interesting that a lot of times, the people who get into the robotics side come from a software background.

What I find even more encouraging is that Solomon and his colleagues in this enterprise, Betty Kituyi and Gasper Obua, are doing this on their own. They aren’t waiting for investment, grants or some other form of support to get started. Instead, they’re creating robots, making inroads into schools and figuring it out as they go. Too many times people sit on a good idea and make excuses for why they’re not doing something about it. That’s not the case here.

Finally, if you’re interested in Fundi Bots, I do know that they could use some support. It might be getting them into schools, or connections with robotic parts manufacturers or resellers.

Other Hardware Hacking News

Makeshift Magazine

Put together by Steve Daniels, Myles Estey and Niti Bhan, Makeshift is a new quarterly magazine and journal about maker culture from far parts of the world. The first publication will be themed “Re-culture: Reuse, repair, and recycle at the grassroots,” featuring stories such as everyday product hacks in Kenya, industrial fabric recycling in India, improvised tools in Myanmar, recycled art in Colombia, and adaptive reuse of industrial sites in the United States. Support their Kickstarter campaign.

Maker Faire Africa 2011: Egypt

Also happening later this year is Maker Faire Africa, in Egypt. It’s a mashpit of hardware hackers, just like Solomon, who are creating new inventions and making new products. This is the third Maker Faire Africa, following Ghana and Kenya, and will bring a unique northern Africa flavor to the event.

Africa’s small merchants and payments

I’ve been pondering small business, payments and incentives quite a bit recently. Partly because of the web startups I’ve been seeing crop up locally, partly due to the inefficiencies in the system, and also because I’m a bit of a merchant at heart.

Specifically, I think that small business in Africa will bring a major wave of activity in the online space. That some smart startups will take advantage of mobiles and the internet, and will be beneficiaries of this growth. We’re all quite impressed with the peer-to-peer mobile money growth on the continent, but those numbers pales in comparison to what can be done with high penetration of active merchant payment options.

The African Payments Picture

A recent post about Square (the merchant payment system for iOS devices) and their use by small businesses started me thinking beyond the mobile peer-to-peer payments we’re so focused on here in Kenya and more in the direction of the merchant side. Right now Square moves $4 million per day, a healthy business, but not a massive amount compared to the big guys in the field. Most merchants in the US and Europe default to having some type of credit card or bank card payment setup for customers, it’s almost a given.

Meanwhile, in Africa it’s a different story. Mobile payments have taken the stage due to the lack of credit/debit card penetration. In short, African’s lack payment options, so innovative ways to use what they do have (phones) has pushed payment innovation forward.

While the mobile operators have been busy diversifying their revenue streams and figuring out new ways to hook in their subscribers with mobile money, the banks haven’t been nearly as active. Many of them would rather just create a mobile way to check your balance, rather than provide a tool with truly meaningful interaction, something you could pass money through to merchants or your contacts. Instead of offering something of equal, or better, value they’ve instead chosen to try and block the operators movements.

As I’ve suggested many times, we need an agnostic system, where the user isn’t penalized for their choice of mobile operator or bank.

New Ideas

While the big players continue to fight it out, the small players are innovating where they can. We’re seeing mobile payment aggregators, such as PesaPal, begin to see success as their web options catch on with merchants, schools and events. Meanwhile, groups like KopoKopo are going further down the stack, providing a subscription-based mobile payments processing package for SMEs.

New startups like Niko Hapa are creating locally-relevant incentive systems for merchants that works with everyday customers. Others, like M-Order, are creating simplified mobile and web-based ordering systems for customers to order services and products. MIH-backed Dealfish and Ringier-backed Rupu/Pigia continue to duke it out against each other across sub-saharan Africa, getting small merchants to list their goods on their marketplaces.

What I’m pointing out is that we have a wave of new products and services specifically aimed at merchants. Most of them are small and don’t have critical mass, but that is changing rapidly. These are just the first movers.

Shifting Sands

Bonk is a t-shirt company in Nairobi that offers the coolest designs around for their target market of urban Nairobians, and they have a shop set up in a nice shopping center in town (Junction). Let’s call them the high-end of the small merchants who need a good way to get payments. Their current setup allowing Visa transactions account for around half of their customers, and they have to pay a rather large 5% transaction fee. They don’t have an online store (yet… Shame on them.), so walk-ins are their only sales channel and they do very well with them.

Other examples of small businesses that run the range of medium- to lower-level transactions would be auto parts stores, retail clothes shops and restaurants. They all have a need to attract customers and they are all served better by having an easier way to setup a merchant account and have easier ways for their clientele to pay.

There are hundreds of thousands of these small businesses across Africa. Few of them have any solution other than cash. Companies that accept credit cards, like Bonk, are the anomaly.

A Hybrid Solution

What would a Square-type solution look like for them? What if a company were to create a simple (for customers) payment system that solved the problem that Square is solving? That is, a way to get your hands on a solution easily, without oversized transaction fees, and which also worked within the local context of mobile payments plus credit cards.

I can imagine someone coming up with an device that works on most phones. Probably Android phones here instead of iOS devices. That way, as a merchant I can buy an $80 IDEOS Android phone, get one of these swiping devices, that also has a chip in it for near-field communication payments and which seamlessly works with Mpesa and other mobile payment options. It’s simplified, and it works across not just a country, but across the continent.

What would this device look like? How could it connect to the phone? What type of technology would be embedded in it to make it work right? Which merchant systems could be signed on in order to allow people to signup and get started?

Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation

As many of you know, I’m the founder of the AfriGadget blog, and one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa, which happened in Ghana last year and Kenya this year. Though I pretty much only build software apps and services, I’ve got a soft spot for hardware hacking. Last week I put an idea into the website for this month’s Open Innovation Africa Summit taking place upcountry in Kenya, put on by Nokia, infoDev and Capgemini. This is that idea.

I’m enthralled by software, apps and platforms. It’s the low hanging fruit with very few barriers to entry, it’s the place where a great deal of innovation is happening and where money is being made. However, when we look at innovation in Africa, we often overlook the hardware – yes, the handsets, but also the other devices and accessories that local engineers (trained/untrained) can get their hands dirty with. Sometimes this is pure fabrication, other times it’s hacking existing products, many times it’s a mixture of both.

We’re already seeing stories of the way guys are doing everything from creating their own vehicle security systems, home security systems, distance-triggered food preparation and even fish catching alerts. That’s with no support at all. What happens when you provide a space to make it faster, better and possibly an avenue to manufacturers and funders?


[Image above: a porridge making machine by a Malawian inventor, triggered by an SMS.]

Maker: Simon Kimani from Butterfly Works on Vimeo.

[Video above: Kenyan inventor creates an "SMS House Automation System" where you can give a command via the phone to  perform tasks, including turning on/off the TV, Lights.]

Hardware Hacking Garage
Ever since we put up the iHub (Nairobi’s Innovation Hub) this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about a physical space as its own platform. We deal with the software side of the web and mobile innovation. We don’t have a parallel space for doing the same with hardware. I’m talking about a tinkering, micro-fabrication and engineering environment. This would require some space, basic tools and a few specialized electronics and computers to make it work.

Here are just a few areas (If you have any more ideas, put them in the comments and I’ll add them below):

  • Power hacks = using dynamos, solar, hydro and other  ideas to hack new power systems that work off the grid and in remote rural regions (made by the people who live there).
  • SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content  already on them, including books (libraries), encyclopedias, etc.
  • Arduino Boards = an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output board and a development environment that implements the Wiring language.
  • DIY Mesh Networks = Adjusting and improving upon ideas like the Village Telco project
  • [From Solomon King] – If you’re to explore physical computing, you might need a wide array of sensors for environment management, we’re talking GPS, tilt swtiches, digital gyros, sonar, etc. This stuff is pretty expensive so having a  space to play with them (on-site) would be nice.

Physical Space
It’s important that the Hardware Hacking Garage be setup as a centralized resource for the inventor community. Memberships should be available to any inventor, or student, upon application and approval. Many times access to tools and a workshop is all that enterprising inventors, micro-entrepreneurs, and youth, need to create their first innovative project.

For a sustainable approach, this Hardware Hacking Garage could have a store attached, which can serve as a sales and marketing outlet for the devices, inventions and solutions created by the community.

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.