I’m (finally) playing around with updating my blog theme and layout for easier posting of images and asides. Standby today as this goes through some iterations.
I just wrote a post on the BRCK blog upon returning from our 9,000km jaunt from Nairobi to Johannesburg and back. What I didn’t cover there is that most of the fun in these trips is mixed in with the people you go with, and the list of characters who were a part of this trip was amazing.
Before we left Nairobi, 2 weeks ago, I though that a 500km day on a motorcycle was a long time. Now I just ask, “well, what will we do in the afternoon then?”
We left Harare, where the Arensen’s had hosted us for two nights in their lovely home, for a bit of a long day. We were gambling that we could make it through the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border AND then the Mozambique-Malawi border in good enough time to get to a campsite by the end of the day. A quick breakfast of chai, coffee and pre-boiled eggs underneath a baobab tree saw us to the first border in good time.
The Douane border crossing is less busy than it’s Beit Bridge counterpart. Leaving Zimbabwe, the customs and immigration officials are efficient and helpful. Getting into Mozambique was equally problem-free, especially since we had all gone to get our visas already.
Now, Mozambique, this part of it anyway where you shoot across the Tete corridor towards Malawi, is a hot, dry and barren land. The only thing of any note is the nice bridge you cross over the Limpopo river passing through the city of Tete. Besides that, I’d suggest it’s not a place you want to spend any time.
Two interesting things happen as you run to the Malawi border. First, you realize that you cross back and forth between the two countries a couple times on the way. Second, when you pass through the Mozambique side of the border you’re still 5km from the Malawi border crossing. Strange… but, again border crossings are not about security, they’re about revenue generation.
The Mozambique customs officials had clearly never seen a Carnet de Passage (it’s like a passport for your vehicle), so they acted like it was something they couldn’t stamp. We were able to convince them that it was something normal, and that their colleague at the previous border had stamped it, so they could as well. Stamped and moving, we shot off for the campground, as we saw a storm rolling in.
It was at this time that our small team mascot, Lobo the Australian cattle dog puppy, decided to have an explosive experience inside of the vehicle. Many curses were heard as people sprayed themselves down, and cleaned out the dog’s carrier. Praying for a dry night, we took off a bit behind schedule, and still managed to roll into Bushman’s Baobabs (great place), and had a warm still night of sleep.
500km up Lake Malawi
Off early, as always, we were half-way to our destination by 9:30am and got to camp by just after noon. As an aside, I think the word “Malawi”, and the flag symbol, all are pointed at the meaning of “land of the bicycle”. We saw so many people on bicycles today, more than in any other country we’ve been to.
Makuzi Beach area of Lake Malawi is beautiful, and having a full afternoon ahead of us was something we didn’t know quite what to do with. So, of course we broke out the drone and OpenROV to have some fun.
We got some shots.
Philip managed to crash the drone into the lake, so we’re trying to see if we can resurrect it. (Update: we dried it out all night and now it’s working again. DJI makes an amazingly hardy device)
We had a grand idea of Paul driving the OpenROV underwater vehicle under a rock and taking a video of someone jumping into the water. We kind of did that, the problem was the cable was a bit short. The other problem was that it cut my toe with a blade as it came up directly underneath me. The good thing is that we had a lot of fun trying and leaned some of the limits of the vehicle.
There is now a beautiful, slow moonrise happening at 9pm, over Lake Malawi. We’re all well, fat and happy. The bikes and Land Rover have been behaving well. We’re set for our early AM departure as we have 750 kilometers and a border crossing to go through.
We made it into Harare, Zimbabwe last night after a long 17-hours traveling. Due to the rainstorm in South Africa we were forced to sleep 230km from the Beit Bridge border crossing, well shy of the 30km we had planned. The wind was blowing and gusting so hard we were forced to ride at odd angles. Eventually we were forced to call it and went to find a place to sleep by 11:30pm.
A 4am wake-up and we were traveling and at the border by 7:30am the next morning.
Beit Bridge Border
Beit Bridge border crossing is something of a legend, where you’re usual transit time is 3-5 hours, but can take up to 7-8 if you’re unlucky. The SA side was fine, taking only 20 minutes or so. We then spent the next 3 hours going through the ridiculously disorganized and obtuse Zimbabwe side, until finally we popped free.
Border crossings in Africa make you realize that they’re about revenue generation, not security.
Zimbabwe has thin but good roads, and many (15+) police checks and radar guns along the way to Harare. They really do try to stop you We got in at 9:30pm and slept almost immediately.
Hypercube and the Zim Tech Community
The most advanced one seems to be Hypercube, which has an amazing house that has been converted into a nice space. They hosted an event where I talked at length about building tech communities, startup thoughts, and what we’ve learned about building hardware through the BRCK experience.
Overall, I really like Zimbabwe and the tech community seems to have their heads and hearts in the right place. They’re working together to try to make something out of a hard situation, they’re hungry and they’re bright.
Zimbabwe has the core infrastructure necessary for real growth, and with a few changes in the business climate here I think they’re ready to take off. With their current drive and strong foundation, I think they’ve got a bright future ahead.
I met Netia McCray at Maker Fair Africa yesterday. She’s an MIT grad who’s working on a project called Mbadika (it means “idea” in the North Angolan language of Kimbundu), which is about teaching kids the basics of electronic prototyping. She does this using some very inexpensive solar-charging kits, designed to be put together and understood in an educational workshop, or on their own.
Mbadika is a new program, so they’re just getting off the ground themselves, however they’ve already taught 250+ kids in 6 countries.
As a father, I can appreciate the simplicity of this kit, having worked through some more complicated electrical engineering kits with my own children. There’s value in having something that is immediately buildable by a 10 year old that they can put to use right away. They can design/paint it how they like and make it their own.
You can help them out on the new South African crowdfunding site, ThundaFund.
One of the most ambitions items at Maker Faire Africa this year in Johannesburg, South Africa is Samuel Ngobeni’s “art car”. He’s a designer from Germinston, who has spent the last three years building his ANIMAL car, from the ground up, that means the frame and all. It’s a work in progress, though starting in 2011, it’s not quite done yet.
The first thing you’ll notice about it is that it’s completely covered in denim. When I asked him why, he said, “because it’s tough and can withstand a lot of things like the sun and rain, like the cowboys, that’s why I chose it.”
At first glance, from afar, it looks a bit like a BMW shape, but when you get close you can tell just how much customization and work went into it. Then, when he opens the hood and shows you underneath, you can see that he actually hand-built the whole thing with steel piping and sheet metal, by hand.
It’s running a 3 liter, straight 6 cylinder engine, has suicide doors and leather seats.
Samuel’s next big idea is to find a v8 or v12 engine, slap that inside a custom built 6-wheel vehicle (4 in front, 2 in back) and then skin it all in croc-skin. His denim ANIMAL is already pretty slick, so his next car can only get better, and it sounds like it’ll be a lot more powerful and meaner too!
How You Can Help
It’s difficult for designers like Samuel to get far on their own. He’s looking for someone who can take him to the next level. We’re setting up an email address for him now, but you can reach him on WhatsApp at 0822 110122 for now.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
- Bantu Babel
- DotCom Zambia, BusTickets
- 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 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.
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.
(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:
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
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.