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.

Chasing the Sun (Tanzania to Zambia)

Catching up on a few updates at once here, you can read about Day 2 of our trip here.

It’s 6am in Lusaka, Zambia as I write this. The last two days have been a blur as we covered over 1,700 kilometers from Dodoma to Lusaka in what can only be considered as marathon sessions from sunup to just after sundown. Fortunately, both Tanzania and Zambia have some of the best roads we’ve seen, and the motorcycles and car all behaved well with only one slow puncture the whole way. We took small breaks every 100-200km in order to rest and move around a bit, but we’re still quite sore and ready for this day to do no travel.

Some twisty's on the road to Iringa

IMG_3803

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

The border crossing from Tanzania into Zambia at Dunduma left a little something to be desired. What felt like it should have taken about 1.5 hours at most, ended up taking 3+ hours, which meant our last 50km into a campsite were done in the dark on the only section of bad road we’ve seen. People did warn us of this, so it wasn’t unexpected. However, the reason wasn’t because of long lines of trucks slowing us down, it was due to inefficiency in the process itself at both immigration and customs.

From here, our days get a little more sane, with a run down through Victoria Falls into Botswana and then finally Johannesburg. As an aside, it turns out that half-way between Nairobi and Jo’burg is almost exactly at a small town called Serenje, Zambia – 2,200km from each.

Time at Bongohive

We pushed so hard to get to Lusaka by now so that we would be here in time for the events at Bongohive, Lusaka’s tech hub, which were all scheduled for today.

1pm – Demo of BRCK (Philip Walton and Reg Orton of the BRCK team)
3pm – Meeting with Startups (Mark Kamauof the iHub UX Lab) – HCD, UX, DT
4:30pm – Meeting with Startups (Erik) – Investment readiness, experiences with Savannah Fund, getting into new markets etc
6pm – Keynote at Startup Weekend Lusaka (Erik and Juliana Rotich)

Lukongo Lindunda is the co-founder of the space, and we’ve known each other for years, since before they got it started back in 2011. I’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone here in the tech space for a while, and I’m interested in hearing what’s brewing in the startup scene.

Some of the startups that I’ve heard about from Zambia include: 

  • ShopZed.com
  • Bantu Babel 
  • Venivi
  • DotCom Zambia, BusTickets
  • TeleDoctor 
  • SCND Genesis

If you’re part of the tech community in Zambia, I hope you can swing by, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you as well.

Lessons From the Trip

Since we’ve started this trip I’ve been thinking a lot about communications, as one would expect with a BRCK expedition, and especially mobile comms. We outfitted the truck with a omni-directional Poynting antenna on the front bumper, hooked up into the car, where we can also connect it to an amplifier if needed. As we drive down the road, we have a pretty good mobile WiFi hotspot, as long as we’re in range of a tower.

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The last few years have seen a number of countries implement a registration process to buy SIM cards (ostensibly this is for security though it’s not been proven to be useful for anything more than big brother activities by governments). Even buying a SIM card is then a process of identification (usually passport or drivers license), so you have to budget for that 30-60 minutes to get that done, since it’s usually filling out a form by hand.

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

You then purchase credit for the SIM card and load it up – this is the easiest part.

Now you get into the “mystery meat” part of the process, which is how do you turn that airtime you just bought into internet credit? Each network in each country has a different way of doing this, some combination of USSD or SMS to get it going.

A couple things come to mind now when we look at the BRCK.

First, we need a terminal screen in the BRCK interface for us to do all of this from the device itself. Right now we find ourselves popping out the SIM card and using a phone (Mozilla’s 3-SIM phone is amazing for this purpose), and then inserting it back into the BRCK when done.

Second, there needs to be a database of this “airtime to internet data” information that we can all use. I’m not sure how best to get this going, but I know it would be immensely useful when you drop into a new country to have this at your fingertips.

We’re already working on the first issue, of USSD/SMS interface, but it’s complicated, so it’s taking longer than we’d like. This trip is about learning, and we’re already finding a lot of things to do better. Look for more posts on the BRCK blog from the others as well.

Great roads and a bit of engine trouble (day 1)

(Cross posted from the BRCK blog)

I’m writing this blog post using my Mac, connected to a BRCK which is connected to a satellite internet connection using an Inmarsat iSavi device, somewhere about 100km from Arusha towards Dodoma. Inmarsat gave us this test device, a small unit, made for global travelers, so we could test out what worked and give them feedback on their tools. It also helps us figure out what connecting to the internet looks like when you’re beyond the edge of the mobile phone signal in Africa.

Here’s Reg, using his phone to do the same at our campground this evening:

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

Reg using the BRCK and iSavi in Tanzania

The Journey

We left at 5:30am from Nairobi to beat the traffic out of the city. With the beautiful new roads, we were at the Namanga border by 8am and cleared by 10am. Before you go on one of these trips, make it easy for yourself and get the following:

  • Carnet de Passage for each vehicle (get this via AA)
  • COMESA insurance (get via your insurance company, or buy at the border)
  • International driver’s license (get via AA)
  • Yellow fever card
  • Passport

By noon we were in Arusha, and took a chance to see the cafe that Pete Owiti (of Pete’s Coffee in Nairobi) set up with some Tanzanians, called Africafe. If you ever find yourself in Arusha, this is the first place you should go. Great food, good coffee, right in the middle of everything.

Knowing we were only going about 100km more today, we set off around 1pm. We got to a roundabout, and I knew which direction the main road was, so even though Philip mentioned we should go right, I went left to the main road. 45 minutes later we realized my mistake when Philip checked his GPS and realized we were further away than we were supposed to be.

Lesson learned: always listen to your cofounders (especially the one with the GPS).

With many sighs, we turned around and went back to Arusha, where Reg had been smart enough to stay with the Land Rover when he realized we went the wrong way. We quickly split off in the correct direction, aiming to get to the camping spot by 4pm latest.

As we were sitting in traffic in Arusha, Joel says, “Erik, your bike is smoking.” I replied that it was likely just the car I was parked next to. Nope. Sure enough, I was leaking oil… For those of you who don’t ride motorcycles, this is the last thing you want to hear when on the front end of a 4,400km trip. I ride a 2007 Suzuki DR650 – they have some of the most bullet-proof engines, and are perfect for Africa’s roads.

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Working on the DR650 in Arusha

Fortune smiled upon us, and we were pointed towards Arusha Art Limited, which turned out to be an amazing garage (the best I’ve ever seen in Africa). Their director, Hemal Sachdev helped us out by helping to troubleshoot what could be wrong, and even fabricating a high-pressure oil hose, with compression fittings on the spot. There was oil everywhere, so we washed it off and kept going.

Lesson learned: there are a lot of people willing to help you in your journey, especially if you ask nicely.

5 km down the road, I was still smoking… Thanks to Hemal’s help, we knew what the problem wasn’t. It was now that we chanced to notice that the problem seemed to be coming from the timing chain setting hole. We realized this could be filled by a normal M5 screw, so got trucking to the campground where we could let the engine cool down and screw it in.

Now, I sit here in Wild Palms Camp, some place we saw on the side of the road near the Tarangiri game reserve. For 10,000 Tanzania Shillings ($6) each, you get a patch of ground to put a tent, there is a banda with table/chairs, and there are even some showers and toilets. Not real camping, but definitely nice after a day on the bike!

A Journey South

Two days from now we begin a BRCK overland expedition to South Africa. Like any of our trips, it is meant to be fun and adventurous, while at the same time giving us the opportunity to stress test our product beyond the norm.

BRCK Expedition

In the vein of our past expeditions to Turkana and the Nile, this one is on the edge. We’re taking 3 motorcycles and a Land Rover from Nairobi to Johannesburg in time for Maker Faire Africa on Dec 3-6.

As usual, we’ll have a couple guests, or “shotgun riders” as we call them:

On the way south: Juliana Rotich (Ushahidi, iHub, BRCK), and Mark Kamau (UX Lab lead at iHub).

On the way north: Aaron Marshall (CEO, founder of Over, Africa’s biggest selling IOS app), as well as Matt Schoenholz (head of the Kitchen Studio at Teague which focuses on prototyping and making).

You can keep up with us:

A Dash South

If you do the math, you’ll realize this is more of a mad dash south in time for the event, covering 4,400km in 9 days. Here’s what the route south looks like, from Kenya through Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and into South Africa.

Nairobi to South Africa - southern leg

Nairobi to South Africa – southern leg

The journey north takes us through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and back to Kenya, which we’ll take a little slower.

The People We’ll See & Events We’re At

We do have plans for a day off along the way. We’ll be stopping to visit our friends in the Zambian tech community in Lusaka. The Bongohive has been kind enough to host us, and we’ll be hanging out there, doing BRCK demos for techies and businesses, and I’ll give the keynote that evening for the beginning of Lusaka’s Startup Weekend.

Since I’m a founding organizer for Maker Faire Africa, I’m excited to go back, and this time have a product of our own to show for it. Besides demoing the BRCK and sharing how to build a hardware business in Africa, we’re also going to have some fun hacking on the devices with whoever is around and wants to play with them. We’ll have a couple of our engineers on hand as well.

Gearbox, our new prototyping and making initiative in Kenya, is a supporter of this year’s MFA too, so I’ll be able to speak to that and will have one of the Gearbox team with us at the event.

On the way back North we’re stopping in Harare, Zimbabwe to meet up with the tech community there. We’ll largely spend our time around the Hypercube, though plans are underway to get together with members of multiple tech spaces.

Testing BRCKs and Electronics

There are a couple new things we’re testing on this trip, three of which I’m extremely excited about:

    When you add a RaspberryPi, a hard drive and another 8 hours of battery to a BRCK, you get a BRCKpi Microserver

    When you add a RaspberryPi, a hard drive and another 8 hours of battery to a BRCK, you get a BRCKpi Microserver

  1. BRCKpi – this is our RaspberryPi + BRCK device – it’s an add-on to the BRCK (we call those MRTR, as in “bricks and mortar”). We launched it last month with Mozilla in London, and are targeting it primarily at schools and clinics in Africa. However, we know there are a lot of other use cases for it, and one of those will be as a media server for our images and video on this trip.
  2. Real off-grid, portable internet in Africa.

    Real off-grid, portable internet in Africa.

  3. Satcoms – we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can extend the BRCK beyond the edges of the network, so that it’s the one internet device that’s smart enough to pick the right connectivity type depending on what it can sniff around it. To that end, we’ve been having great conversations with Inmarsat and we’re testing out their newest product, the iSavi (not even on the market yet, first one in Africa). Internet speeds are comparable to cellular networks at up to 384 Kbps down, and 240 Kbps up. It’s much smaller and more portable than a BGAN, so we’re excited to pair it up with the BRCK, stress test it and see how it goes off-grid.
  4. Some of the best antennas on the market, made in Africa

    Some of the best antennas on the market, made in Africa

  5. Antennas – We’ve tested some of Poynting’s antennas before, and they’re some of the best we’ve ever found. This time around we’re testing their mobile units, paired with amplifiers which we built into the vehicle, in order to see if we can create quick, deployable units at the edge of the grid. Of course, Poynting is a South African company too, and as one of our partners, we’re going looking forward to seeing them in-person for the first time in Johannesburg.

Getting Gear for Gearbox

Gearbox - Kenyas maker and rapid prototying space

Perhaps one of the longest projects to come to fruition for me has been Gearbox. Over three years ago, a couple of us started talking about the need for a makerspace in Nairobi, which turned up a notch to something more like a rapid protoyping and light manufacturing facility. We see Gearbox as the on-ramp for more industrial manufacturing to happen in Kenya.

We were thinking of two types of users. First, somewhere that the rapidly growing community around robotics and electronics at the iHub could use. Second, something that was a step beyond a the FabLab at the University of Nairobi, so more useful to smaller companies.

Recently Lemelson Foundation, alongside AutoDesk, USAID and an unnamed benefactor stepped in to make some funds available to find the location and bring on a full-time Director. Dr. Kamau Gachigi started the Univ of Nairobi FabLab, and having him come on to lead this initiative is a real coup – there’s no one better in the region who has more experience than this for crating a place for inventors and companies working on rapid prototyping.

Kamau Gachigi - Director of Gearbox

Kamau Gachigi – Director of Gearbox

Finding a Space and Filling it up

The two main things we’re trying to get done before the end of the year are finding a great location, and getting the machines and equipment to fill it.

Finding a Space
We’ve been looking all over Nairobi for a 10,000-20,000sqft space for Gearbox. It needs to be convenient to get to, large enough to allow us to grow and flex in, and taking a lesson from TechShop we’d like it to be near places where people would like to be already. This means we don’t want it too deep in the industrial area, but we’d like the edge, say something near/in Railways, or by the Bunyala roundabout.

If you know of someone who has a good location for Gearbox to grow, please let us know.

Getting Equipment
If you’re involved in manufacturing in Kenya, or if you’re just someone who wants to get involved, we’ve created a Gearbox page that shows you how to do that. You can become a corporate or individual sponsor, donate equipment and gear, or give your time to train and help others learn new skills.

The Big Stuff ($5,000 – $100,000+)

  • Vacuum Former
  • 5-axis CNC Router
  • 3-axis CNC Milling Center
  • 3-axis CNC Router
  • Laser cutter
  • Lathe
  • Vertical Mill Machine
  • Automated Pick and Place
  • RFID Access System
  • Punch Press
  • Benchtop CNC
  • Reflow oven
  • Powder Coating Set-up
  • Metcal Advanced Rework Package APR5000-DZ-ML
  • V275-S 4-Pack Inverter Rack Multi-Operator Welder – K2666-1
  • MULTI-WELD® 350 Multi-Operator Welder – K1735-1
  • Elektrabrake, manual
  • Dr. Boy Injection Moulding Machine

There is a lot more needed, many smaller items, which you can also find on the same page.

The companies who are behind getting Gearbox off the ground are the iHub, BRCK, Sanergy, and Ushahidi – while this is a start, it’ll take a lot more help from many more small organizations and individuals. Reach out to Kamau and see how you too can get involved at this early stage.

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.

Barcamp Nairobi 2014 Edition

Barcamp Nairobi 2014Barcamp Nairobi 2014 is set to begin, seven years after the first one was held. It’s one of those events that brings people out of the woodwork around the city, where techies who don’t normally meet end up having great conversations, and relationships are formed.

This Saturday, Aug 30th at 08:00, your chance to lead a conversation on something interesting begins. Nailab and iHub are hosting it, and we’re expecting 400 people to show up for the event.

Go register now, if you haven’t already, it’s free.

It was while sitting around after Barcamp Nairobi 2008 that the seed for what would become the iHub was planted, and why this post was written (many old blog posts from 2008 here). Many of the people I work with today on the teams at BRCK and Ushahidi were at these same events over the years.

Past Barcamp Nairobi Pics

Discussion topics

You’re the one who decides what the discussion will be, and we’ve seen everything from “how to make yoghurt” to “Python 101″ to “blogging for women” conversations (and everything in between).

This year, there’s bound to be some discussions around government surveillance and personal privacy in Kenya.

We entrust our most sensitive, private, and important information to private technology companies. At the same time the increasing usage of technology has attracted the attention of authorities eager to provide caveats on the openness of the Internet and the range of freedoms, which we enjoy online.

That’s sure to be a firestorm, of the best kind…

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! :)