WhiteAfrican

Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Strategy (page 2 of 12)

3.5 years later, what has the iHub done?

Becky Wanjiku sits on the iHub Advisory Board with me, and started a discussion on the iHub, asking “What has the iHub Achieved?“. Her main takeaway point being that the iHub is a platform, and it’s what YOU do with it that is important. T

he iHub started in March 2010, so it’s been about 3.5 years and a lot has happened here in the intervening years. Many people ask me, “so, what has the iHub done?” The best way I could think of to answer that is to just list as much as I could think of, so here’s a rather exhaustive list, though I’m sure that I’m missing some things.

Why Tech Hubs in Africa Exist

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011


Before I get into that though, maybe a framing on why tech hubs exist is important. They’re not just there for startups, in fact our thoughts on incubation and products going back to 2010 was just pre-incubation and connecting to other businesses and investors. Places like the iHub exist to connect this community together, while we get involved in other gaps that exist in the market (UX, incubation, research, etc), these are just part of providing a place where serendipity happens for those who are involved across the network.

These spaces are more than just nurturing talented entrepreneurs, and to not see that means you’re missing the bigger picture on why they exist. They’re not only about entrepreneurs, though we have seen some of them grow from nothing to 40-person orgs that run across multiple countries.

The tech hubs in Africa are more than just places focused on products, much of what goes on is about connecting the people within the tech community in that area to each other and to the greater global industry. For instance, we started Pivot in East Africa, an annual event that does two things: First, it created a culture where the entrepreneurs learned how to pitch their products. Second, it gave a reason for local and global investors and media to come and see what’s going on. Both funding and media coverage have resulted.

Another example is the connecting of global tech companies to local developers, the training that comes out of it for everyone from network operators to Android devs. Google, Samsung and Intel all play strongly in that space.

Some work at increasing the viability and skillsets of freelancers. Whether they’re web designers or PHP software engineers increasing their understanding of how to setup a company, know what IP law is about, take training on project management or quality assurance testing – these all add up to a community that is evolving and becoming more professional.

Those are just a few of the things that tech hubs do across Africa. I can speak for the iHub in Kenya, but know that there are others such as ccHub in Nigeria, Banta Labs in Senegal, ActivSpaces in Cameroon and the other 19 tech hubs in the Afrilabs network are all doing amazing things that create a base for new innovative products, services and models to grow out of. There are new models for ecosystem development around tech in Africa revolving around these technology hubs that are, and will breed, more innovation over time.

New initiatives and organizations from the iHub:

m:lab – first tech incubator in Kenya (2011)
Mobile testing room – all the tablets and phones from the manufacturers (2011)
iHub Research – tech focused research arm (2011)
UX Lab – first user experience lab in East Africa (2012)
iHub Consulting – an effort to connect freelancers to training and businesses (2012)
Savannah Fund – a funding and accelerator program (2012)
Cluster – first open supercomputer cluster in East Africa (2013)
Gearbox – an open makerspace for rapid prototyping (2013)
Code FC – iHub Football Club
Volunteer Network team – the iHub internet network was setup, and is run by, volunteers

Startups who met, work, or started in the iHub:

BitYarn
NikoHapa
KopoKopo
M-Farm
BRCK
Eneza Education
Ma3Route
Uhasibu
Fomobi
Whive
Zege Technologies
Afroes Games
iDaktari
MedAfrica
SleepOut
M-shop
Angani.co
Wezatele
AkiraChix
Upstart Africa
Juakali
CrowdPesa
Elimu
iCow
Sprint Interactive
Lipisha
6 Degrees / The Phone book
Pesatalk
Skoobox
Waabeh
MamaTele
RevWebolution
Smart Blackboard – Mukeli Mobile

Not all groups start their company at the iHub, but they do meet their future business partners there. The Rupu founders met at an iHub event, and subsequently went on to grow their business, the same is true of companies like Skyline Design, and probably many others who we don’t even know about.

It turns out that serendipity is intrinsically hard to measure.

Larger events, groups and meetings:

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

  • Pivot East – annual pitching competition for East Africa’s mobile startups
  • iHub Robotics (now Gearbox community) meet-ups and build nights
  • EANOG – East Africa Network Operators Group
  • Kids Hacker Camp – 40 kids hack on Arduino, learn about robotics and sensors in a week long full-day hackathon, in partnership with IBM
  • NRBuzz – A monthly event on sharing research on new technologies and communication
  • Summer Data Jam – an annual 6-weeks training on Research and Data
  • Tajriba – month-long user experience event
  • m:lab mobile training – 22 students, 4 months, business and mobile programming (2 years to date)
  • Legal month – annual event with visiting legal professionals leading workshops
  • Barcamp Nairobi (2010, 2011, 2013)
  • Waza Experience – volunteer outreach initiative to expose Kenyan youth to technology and spur creative thinking, problem solving, and better communication skills
  • Fireside Chats – A session for VIP and seasoned speakers
  • Mobile Monday
  • Wireless Wednesday
  • JumpStart Series
  • Pitch Night
  • iHub Livewire – music concert by the iHub community
  • iHub Research Coffee Hour
  • We have a Policy Formulation Team which consists of Jessica Musila, Martin Obuya Paul Muchene, and Jimmy Gitonga. Each one of us sits or has sat through a policy formulation process, such as the AU CyberSecurity (Martin and Paul) and MySociety, Mzalendo (Jessica Musila) and National Broadband Strategy (Jimmy Gitonga).

Outreach events

Egerton University
Catholic University
Kabarak University (Nakuru)
JKUAT (Juja)
Dedan Kimathi (Nyeri)
Maseno University
Nelson Mandela University – Arusha
Strathmore / Intel
University of Nairobi – School of Computing and Informatics

Research-related activities:

Launching of the Data Science and Visualization Lab – 2013
First Summer Data Jam Training – 2013

Research published:

List of infographics created (PDF Links):

iHub-Research-infographic

Mobile Technology in Tanzania: 2011
Mobile Technology in Uganda: 2010/2011
Mobile Technology in Kenya: 2010/2011
Kenya Open Data Pre-Incubator Plan: 2012
3Vs Crowdsourcing Framework for Elections: Using online and mobile technology: 2013
How to Develop Research Findings into Solutions using Design Thinking: 2013
Mobile Statistics in East Africa: 2013
iHub Infographic: 2011
Crowdmap Use
Mobile Tech in East Africa: 2011
An Exploratory Study on Kenyan Consumer Ordering Habits

Tech hubs in Africa research (PDF Links):

ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factors that make up Hive Colab in Uganda: August 2012
ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factor that make up ActivSpaces Model in Cameroon: August 2012
The Impact of ActivSpaces model (in Cameroon) on its Entrepreneurs: January 2013
Draft Report on Comparative Study on Innovation Hubs Across Africa: May 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding the Key Factors of the iHub Model, Nairobi Kenya: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the KLab Model in Rwanda: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the MEST ICT Hub – ACCRA, Ghana: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors That Make Up Bongo Hive, Lusaka Zambia: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up Kinu Hub Model in Dar es salaam, Tanzania: April 2013

Key partnerships:

  • Intel
  • Wananchi Group – ZUKU
  • SEACOM
  • Samsung
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia
  • Google
  • Qualcomm
  • MIH
  • InMobi

VIP speakers:

  • Michael Joseph, Safaricom
  • Joseph Mucheru, Google
  • Vint Cerf, Google
  • Stephen Elop, Nokia
  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo
  • Bob Collymore, Safaricom
  • Larry Wall, Creator of Perl
  • John Waibochi, Virtual City
  • Mike Macharia, Seven Seas
  • Ken Oyola, Nokia
  • Isis Ny’ongo, Inmobi, Investor
  • The tweeting Chief Kariuki
  • Louis Otieno, Microsoft
  • Dadi Perlmutter, Intel
  • Susan Dray, Dray and Associates

Launching Gearbox, A Kenyan Makerspace

Gearbox: Kenya's Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

Gearbox: Kenya’s Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

We’ve been talking (and talking, and talking) about a rapid prototyping space here in Nairobi for ages. Without the resources to do it, the community got things started on their own with the iHub Robotics Group, who does all kinds of cool meetings; from training newbies like me and my daughters on Arduino and Raspberry Pi, to events where they showcase locally made solar tracking systems and help to run kids hacker camps.

This week we’re announcing Gearbox – our makerspace in Nairobi.

What is a Makerspace?

A makerspace (or hackerspace) is where a community of people who like to make physical products, who enjoy tinkering, and who design everything from electronics gadgets to plastic toys meet and work. To us, it’s a place where the worlds of high-tech software geeks meet jua kali artisans. This is why our space covers to flavors; what we call “Gearbox: Light” (electronics and plastics) and “Gearbox: Heavy” (wood and metal). Keep in mind, this isn’t a manufacturing facility for many items, instead it’s a place where you rapidly prototype out your idea to see if it will work – once you figure it out, then you have to find another facility for real production.

This is a place that is very community oriented, where there are advanced users and experienced fabricators around who are part of the community as well. It’s not enough just to be a member, but you also must give back by helping the newbies and running a few trainings to get people up to speed on the equipment.

Gearbox: Heavy
This is where we have heavy duty equipment, the metal working and wood working equipment and tools that allow you to build and prototype large things. Our friends at Re:Char built a “shop in a box” – basically a container with a bunch of amazing equipment. They’ve donated that to the iHub, and we’re finding a home for it now, so that everyone in our community can start building big things.

re:char factory is 20' container

Examples of the equipment:

  • CNC table w/ backup supplies
  • Diesel Generator
  • Welding equipment
  • Band saw, full + handheld
  • Compressor, full + portable
  • Power supply scrubber
  • Oxyacetylene torches
  • Saws, table + chop
  • Soldering iron
  • Drill press, hand drill, corded + cordless
  • Grinders
  • Forge

Gearbox: Light
When we were building out the BRCK, we found that we needed a polished space where we had access to some of the tools and equipment needed for higher-level electronics, while at the same time a place where we could mill out, or 3d print, early versions of the case. We soon found out that there were others creating robots, drones, TV devices and point of sale systems that also needed a place to do rapid testing of their ideas, but who didn’t have the tools themselves.

Solar Kits at Maker Faire Africa in Kenya

Our plan is to have this part of the electronics and plastics part of Gearbox on the 2nd floor of the iHub building. Where you’ll be able to come in and use a 3D printer, laser cutter, smaller CNC machines and soldering equipment. Again, the idea that there are experts around who you can talk to about the right materials, or a more efficient process for building your gadget, is here.

What we need

  • Makers – you want to build something, here’s your chance. Jump on the website and register for a membership, come in and build stuff.
  • Experts – if you’re beyond novice, have built products, please get in touch. We need you to help train and build up the next generation of makers.
  • Interns – a number of you have already been in touch, but we’re looking for 2-4 paid interns who will help manage the space and build the community.

On capital
It costs some money to get started with Gearbox, and a lot of groups are stepping up to help, and we could use some more. The partners for Gearbox are Sanergy, Ushahidi, BRCK, Knowable and Mobius Motors, and we’re looking for more. Academic partners are MIT thus far, and we’d like to get a few more signed up here too. If your company needs access to this kind of equipment from time-to-time, get in touch.

Right now we could use about $50,000 for some equipment purchases, as it’s expensive to buy and ship some items to Kenya. If you can help on that, please get in touch.

Long-term we have other plans for keeping Gearbox sustainable in 3 ways:

  1. Membership: There will be monthly membership fees, the rates are still being determined, but it will be affordable.
  2. Gearshop: There will be a store, where you can buy the small components and resources you need, as well as a place where we sell on consignment, things made by the community.
  3. Partners: Corporate partners who want to be a part of this community can do take part showcasing their products and doing events.

I’ve said for a long time that I think we in Africa have an advantage in making things. It’s a culture that’s never been lost, and we’re used to improvising, adapting and overcoming challenges that come our way. This is our first foray into that meeting of the worlds between high-tech and low-tech making, and I’ve not been this excited about something for a long time.

Join us!

Prizes Help You Get Noticed (a response to Kevin Starr)

Kevin Starr is a good friend and someone I respect a great deal. He’s a surfer, doctor turned investor focused on impact over monetary returns. He’s got one of the best heads in the business, and I tend to agree with most of his assessments.

I don’t completely agree with his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Dump the Prizes: Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.”

Let me caveat this by saying that I do agree with most of what Kevin talks about with prizes:

  1. It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

If you’ve read his article (please do), then you’ll notice that I agree with Kevin on every salient point he makes. Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with Kevin’s position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

Why then are prizes worth it?

Simply because prizes serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

This outlook comes from my own experience. As Ushahidi, way back in the early days of 2008, we were part of the NetSquared Challenge, where David and I walked onto a stage and pitched Ushahidi for a whopping 2 minutes (crazy short!). A day later we walked out with $25,000 – which allowed the newly formed organization to become a reality. It tided us over until we received real funding from Humanity United 3 months later.

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

I’ll add two more points of my own – one of contention, one opinion:

Contention: I remember, when Ushahidi was just 8 months old, winning a prize. This was the last prize we ever applied to be a part of, as I realized that it was only $10,000 and that the cost of the award ceremony alone was more than all the prizes added together.

Opinion: When an organization gets the initial recognition and wins a prize or two, they should remove themselves from that world of smaller prizes. Applying (and even winning) a bunch of small awards takes time and energy, and it has decreasing value over time – both for recognition and for bottom-line value.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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