WhiteAfrican

Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: brck

The Case for Connectivity (part 2)

(Part 1 here)

I’ve argued before, alongside others, that the main inhibitor of ubiquitous and perpetual internet connectivity at a global level isn’t a technology problem, it’s a business model problem. Mostly the tech exists to put the signal everywhere. What we overlook when we say this is, that while that is true, it’s unsavory to point out that many of “those users” are not valuable – that the population covered won’t make a good return on business investment. So, even if you covered the initial cost of the equipment outlay in those areas with a subsidized government funds, without a proper business model to support the ongoing operations of running the network, then the ROI would be weak and maybe even negative.

A low cost tower set up in rural Africa

The unspoken technology issue

Many of the incumbent ISPs and mobile operators have sunk too many resources into legacy technology, and then subsequently, outsourced their technical capacity and platform knowledge to foreign firms. This leaves them in an unfavorable position when it comes to new technology that would decrease the cost of rollout by up to 90%, or of taking advantage of how software is changing the way networks work. Due to heavy GSM investment, the industry thinks it best to switch those from 2G/EGDE to 3G. This misses the mark though, it’s iterative change driven by sunk costs, ignoring the fact that we’re moving to a data-only network world. GSM is a dead man walking. IP networks are the future.

It’s not just me saying this, two years ago Deloitte was saying,

“African MNOs should create business models around smartphone users and brace for the rise of the data exclusives and data centric phone users.”

This then provides the opportunity. This is the time to bring new networks without legacy business or technology paradigms, and the ability to apply web-scale economics to the network itself, backstopped by new open software stacks and business models that don’t rely solely on end-user payment.

Fortunately at BRCK we’ve been able to find great investors and strategic partners who see this bigger picture and understand the investments needed to make change happen in this connectivity industry of ours. BRCK, alongside some other firms, are on the forefront of changes happening across all types of data pipes, at the infrastructure level all the way through to the retail side – for both people and things. And as we start running the numbers it becomes increasingly clear just how big of an opportunity this actually represents. It only helps that many incumbents are stuck in aged technology stacks and legacy business models, so the window for positive change is here and profits are substantial.

East Africa Railways train

A new railroad

I tend to think of what we do in the connectivity space as similar to our forebears building railroads, making it easier, faster and more efficient to move data and connect far-flung parts of the world. The 1990’s brought us the rebels in the form of scrappy upstart mobile operators and ISPs, they were real cowboys and renegades then! Inspiring leaders, courageously trying everything from pre-paid credit models in Africa, to thinking of mobile credit as cash, to digging the first fibre cables into the hard parts of the continent. Regrettably, these cowboys have handed the reins over to our modern day robber barons, sitting fat and happy on their oligopolies (or monopolies), and making damn sure that no one else has a chance to build something better if they can help it.

I like to think that at BRCK we are building the new connectivity railroads. The tip of the spear for us is unlicensed spectrum, where we take advantage of the ability to roll out public WiFi hotspots without much in the way of regulatory or political hurdles. We layer this with a free consumer business model, so that anyone who can get that signal can connect and take advantage of the whole internet. The underlying economics of the Moja platform are built around the idea of a digital economy. Businesses create engagement tasks that users can complete to earn value within the system. Users then spend their value on faster connectivity, premium content, or additional services. The flow of value into and out of the Moja platform creates the monetary value necessary to profitably run the network.

This is just the BRCK model though, and as I sit on some global boards and in meetings I hear of the others trying their new models as well. New technology stacks, driven primarily by open source software (and some key open source hardware plays), are a big part of the significant decrease in the cost profile (both CapEx and OpEx). But again, the business models… this is where we see the real changes coming and I’m excited to have a front row seat.

As these new railroads are built, by us and others, there lies such great opportunity for economic growth, social development, and business profit.

The Case for Connectivity (part 1)

As with most CEOs of younger companies, I find myself on the investment raising treadmill. Doing so for a company focused on internet connectivity in frontier markets provides an extra layer of complexity, since it’s not a sexy of a proposition as a new app for ecommerce, agtech, fintech, etc might be. Those are easier to invest in since you’re playing with a world of software, not any hardware or infrastructure to muddy your hands with. Unfortunately, in my BRCK world, we have to deal with atoms, not just bits and bytes (though we do those too). Which is why many of my conversations find me explaining why connectivity is critical – thus this post.

What I find interesting is that everyone wants to benefit from a basic underlying availability of connectivity, but few understand what it is or why it is so important. If you’re with me at a public event, I’ll eventually spout off something along the lines of, “you can’t have a 21st century economy without power and connectivity.” This is my simplified way of stating that for any industry to be meaningful on the world stage (or even their own country stage), they need the ability to move data. If power and connectivity are the foundation, then the aforementioned ecommerce, agtech, fintech, and others are all pillars that stand on that foundation.

Economic growth

I’ve written before on how smartphone penetration has reached critical mass and proceeds on a noteworthy trajectory across Africa and other frontier markets. Africa, coming from a largely 2g/Edge based on old legacy GSM technology will have some of the highest growth rates in mobile data subscriptions globally, driven by chat apps and mobile video, as we transition to data-only networks. In 2022, there will be eleven times more mobile data traffic in Central and Eastern Europe and Middle East and Africa (Ericsson 2017).

Mobile subscriptions (global)

  • 250M smartphone subscribers in 2016
  • 770M by 2022 (Y-o-Y growth of 30%) (Ericsson 2017)
  • Over half of mobile phone shipments into Africa in 2016 were smartphones (Deloitte 2017)

All of this means that there are millions of new customers available for new, smart, and data-intensive financial products, agricultural services, marketplaces, logistics, and the list goes on. This is why we’re seeing the rise and rise of startups in these spaces, as well there should be.

What we’re not paying attention to is this: the market is still smaller than it could be.

Imagine that you’re finding amazing market traction with your new mobile lending app, or with your logistics system, or with your online goods marketplace. Imagine that you’re doing well, however did you know that you’re only reaching 20% of the people who own smartphones in the country…. Oh, right, that’s the piece that’s surprising! You could be doing even more, growing faster and capturing more market share if only the other 80% of smartphone owners in your market could afford the costs of getting online regularly to use your service.

This is where BRCK is stepping in with our Moja platform (free to consumer internet). You’ll benefit greatly from our growth. We’ll benefit greatly from your growth.

Social development

Even though I’m largely driven by the economic reasoning for connectivity alone, since I believe that the best way for us to make significant change in Africa is to grow wealth for everyday Africans, there is a strong social argument for widespread and affordable connectivity as well.

Connecting an additional 2.5 billion people to the internet would add 2 trillion dollars per year to global GDP and create 140 million jobs

  • It enables improvements in health (Deloitte 2014)
  • Unlocks universal education (Deloitte 2014)
  • Strengthens civil society through public services, social cohesion, and digital inclusion (Deloitte 2014)

It turns out that if we connect people to the largest, greatest network of knowledge and information in the the world, then a lot of great social benefits are realized across a number of important areas. It’s hard to argue against more jobs, better education, better healthcare, more informed citizens, and a stronger civil society in any country.

Connectivity is the foundation

Like everyone else not involved in the plumbing and distribution of the internet, I used to think of this only academically. It’s easy enough to understand and think through intellectually. However, I found that in living it, in dealing with the practicalities of the internet, in coming to know the end-user I began to appreciate just how important connectivity is. Building a new app or service can have big effects, changing the affordability equation for connectivity and you send a shockwave reaching everyone, everywhere.

Reflection on 5 Years of BRCK

It was 5 years ago that we created BRCK as a company, and I’ve had the great joy of being on a journey with some fantastic people, including the three here with me in this picture (Reg Orton, Emmanuel Kala, and Philip Walton).

We had an idea of what we were getting into back in October 2013, but none of us were sure where it would actually take us. All we knew then was that the barriers to creating hardware had dropped enough for us to get into it, that there was a problem in the internet connectivity space in Africa (and other frontier markets), and that we had the right mixture of skills, naiveté, and optimism to figure it out. Over the next 12 months we grew to a team of 10 that had this the desire to meet a big challenge and believed we could do hard things. As I write this, 8 of those 10 are still at BRCK.

In the intervening years we’ve built 3 full products and taken them to market (BRCK v1, Kio Kit, SupaBRCK), and a fourth (PicoBRCK) that is still in R&D. That alone is quite an accomplishment. I hadn’t known back in 2011 when the idea for creating a device was first hatched, just what the life cycle of building a hardware+software product would be. I do remember having a conversation with an old friend, Robert Fabricant, that I thought we should be done with the first one in about a year. He laughed and said it would be at least 2-3 years. He was mostly right.

The BRCK at a dry Victoria Falls

The BRCK at a dry Victoria Falls

I’ve since learned that it takes approximately 18 months for a product to go through the concept, design, testing, productization, and first samples stages. Then it typically takes us another 9 months for iterations and small fixes on hardware to happen, while that same time is spent concurrently hardening up the software side of things. For example, our most recent SupaBRCK took approximately almost two years from conception to product, and then another 6 months of continued fixes/changes to the low-level software and the hardware before it worked well consistently.

Asking the Right Question

You would often hear us saying, “Why do we use hardware designed for London or New York, when we live in Nairobi or New Delhi?” as a way to frame the problem we thought we were solving. It was only in late December 2014, after we had shipped the BRCK v1 to 50+ countries, that we realized we were only partially on the right track.

It turns out the problem isn’t in making the best hardware for connectivity in difficult environments. Sure, that’s part of the equation – making sure that you have the right tools for people to connect to the internet. But the bigger question involves people, who is connecting to the internet and who isn’t? If, after many years of building BRCK, we had built the best, most rugged and reliable solution for internet connectivity, that would be something we could pat each other on our backs for. However, if the problem instead was “How do we get the rest of Africa online?”, and we were able to solve that problem, then that was a legacy we’d be proud to tell our children about one day.

Sitting in our tiny office around Christmas 2014, we started thinking hard about this bigger issue and began doing deeper research into the problems of this loosely defined “connectivity” space. We started doing some user experience research, manon the street interviews, to figure out what the pain points were for people in Kenya.

Connectivity can generally be broken into two buckets:
First, accessibility – can I connect my device to a nearby signal?
Second, affordability – can I afford that connection?

The results were quite telling, it was definitely about affordability.

For everyone who’s not deep in African tech, let me lay out some interesting numbers for you. Accessibility in most of the emerging markets has been moving rapidly since the mid-2000s when we started to get the undersea cables coming into the continent. These cables then went inland and started a rapid increase in available internet connections and wholesale internet costs decreased rapidly. Since 2008 we’ve had more than one million kilometers of cable dug across the continent, and we have over 240,000 cell phone towers. Concurrently, the mobile device prices continued to drop globally, and by 2016 we started to have more smartphones imported into Africa than non-smartphones.

Reaching deeper into the market research, we started to study this affordability problem.

A4AI found that the average price of 1GB prepaid mobile broadband, when expressed as a % of average per capita Gross National Income (GNI), varied between 0.84% in North America and 17.49% in Africa.”

It turns out that in almost every country in Africa, there is a consistent ratio among all the smartphone owners in a country: 20% could afford to pay for the internet regularly, and an incredible 80% couldn’t.

Interestingly, when we looked at who else was working in this connectivity space, almost everyone was focused on accessibility, not affordability. Those that were focused on affordability thought that just making the price cheaper was enough. What we’ve seen is that if you just make “less expensive” subscription WiFi (as most do), then you’ll capture another 10% of the market. And while that can make a profitable enterprise, it still leaves 70% of the market unaddressed.

This last blue ocean of internet users in Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America, is still largely ignored. Those who do have the resources go to after it tend to try with iterative approaches in both business models around affordability, and only marginal creativeness in solving for technology accessibility.

Moja Means ONE

It’s taken us five years, going through multiple iterations of new tech, building new hardware, and creating new software stacks that go from the firmware up to the cloud. We’ve been mostly quiet for the past year as we put our heads down and tried to take a new platform to market. Where are we now?

“Moja” means “one” in Swahili, and it was the brand name that we chose to call the software platform that we would build on top of the BRCK hardware. While Moja means one, “pamoja” means “together” or “oneness”, and that was the root we were looking for. To us, Moja is the internet for everyone.

We started by trying to make it work on the BRCK v1, but that was a bit like trying to make a sedan do a job built for a lorry (truck) – it wasn’t powerful enough. The SupaBRCK was envisioned as the hardware we could leverage that would allow us to not just have enough of a powerful and enterprise-level router, but a tool that was actually a highly ruggedized micro-data center. With this, we could host content on each device, as well as get people connected to the internet. Another way to think about the accessibility side of what we do is that we have a new model for how a distributed CDN works on a nation-scale, moving away from the centralized model that the rest of the world uses. In environments like Kenya, we can’t continue to just copy and paste models from more developed infrastructure markets, we have to think of new ways to deal with how the undergirding system actually works and operates.

We give the internet away for free to consumers. How does that work if we all know that the internet isn’t free? After all, someone always pays.

The business model is an indirect one. We charge businesses for some form of digital engagement on our Moja platform (app downloads, surveys, or content caching), and the free internet to our consumers is a by-product of this b2b business model. Like everyone else, we thought we could do it with advertising at first. But we realized that our unique hardware capabilities allowed us some other options, since advertising is a poor option for all but a few of the biggest global tech platforms.

Today we’ve deployed 850 of the SupaBRCK’s running our Moja software into public transportation (buses and matatus) in Kenya and Rwanda. They’ve been quite successful with almost 1/4 million unique users monthly in just the first 3 months. We have both a tested and working technology platform, as well as product market fit. With unit economics that make sense, a growing user base, and a business model that works, we’re excited for the growth phase of the business. This next step means going nation-scale in each of these countries, and also determining our next market to enter.

It’s important that ordinary people across Africa and other frontier markets can stop thinking about the costs of the internet and don’t have to turn off their mobile internet on the smartphones that they already have in their pockets.

Once they know they can afford it, the way they used the internet changes dramatically. An Internet like this is feasible today, and it’s a cheaper, faster, more distributed and resilient one. It’s also being built from the ground up in Africa, where we’re close to both the technology and human problems, and have a better chance of building a the right thing.

Thoughts and Lessons Over 5 Years

First, make sure it’s a big enough problem.
If you’re going to spend 5+ years of your life on something, make sure it’s something that matters. At BRCK we are creating the onramp to the internet for anyone to connect to the internet, and a distribution platform for organizations trying to reach them. If we succeed we only succeed at scale, which by its nature means that we’ve done something big and that it has made a large impact on people.

Second, figure out what to focus on.
When you start out it’s difficult to determine product market fit. We started with a wide funnel of possibilities for our technology, industries that we could target and consumer plays. Over time, we were able to narrow down what could work, and what we could actually do, to the point where we focused on this big “connecting people” problem. We did detour into education with our Kio Kit, which we still think is one of the best (if not the best) holistic solutions for emerging market schools – after all, it’s in places across Africa, as well as the Pacific Islands and as far as Mexico. However, it proved to be too costly for our bottom line to hold inventory, sales cycles are too long, and it was largely a product sale. When we realized that, we started to focus most of our efforts on the bigger underlying issue across all of the markets, which was affordable connectivity and our Moja platform.

Third, persistence trumps skill.
building hardware is hard. It’s even harder doing it in Africa. The upside however is that you’re both closer to the problem, and that if you succeed in figuring it out, you have a good head start on everyone else. The process takes time, costs money, and there are people and organizations who don’t want you to succeed. It always takes longer than you want to get software working properly, or hardware built and reliable. We’ve often been faced by that same problem that plagues all venture backed companies in Africa, in that you have to do a lot of education to investors to even raise the capital, and then when you do you get charged a premium for perceived risk. Partner organizations take resources and time to work with, and they don’t always come through on their promises. All of these things (and more) mean that the best ideas don’t always win in the market, because it’s those that push the hardest and longest that win.

Fourth, it’s the people you do it with.
If you’re going to be on a journey that takes a great deal of time, with intense pressure, and where success is not guaranteed, then you had better do it with people that you can trust, who you can work with, and it helps if you like them too. Throughout my work career I’ve been more fortunate than most (whether at Ushahidi, iHub or BRCK), and this time is no exception. I get to work with a host of wonderful people; not just smart and talented, but also genuinely good human beings. It makes work a joyful challenge, not an exhausting chore.

So, to those back in the day who believed we could do this when it was just a sketch in my notebook, thank you Shuler, Kobia, Nat and Juliana (and the rest of the team at Ushahidi). To our investors who have joined us in this dream of connecting and doing hard things, you’ve continued to step up and that has made this possible. Thank you.

To Jeff, Janet, Birir, Kurt, Barre, and Oira, thank you for sticking it out for all these years and stepping up to more leadership challenges as we’ve evolved. To Philip, Reg, and Kala, I want to thank you for making the impossible happen, time and again, each for more than 5+ years.

A busy week for tech entrepreneurs in Kenya

A photo posted by Ciril Jazbec (@ciriljazbec) on


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

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

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

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

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

Big things that happened:

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

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

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

VC funding in African Tech Startups chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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! 🙂

“When You Get to Kenya”

Because the falam is flooded, you can drive back through South Horr, then to Baragoi then to Maralal, alafu utafika Kenya (then you’ll be in Kenya)” Said a Samburu man to us in Northern Kenya.

There and Back from BRCK on Vimeo.

It seems that Northern Kenya likes me so much that it doesn’t want to let me go… This time, we only got back a day and a half later than expected. It took us 7 days, and we had an amazing adventure with a host of challenges thrown our way, overcome by teamwork, courage and tenacity, with the help of old and new friends met along the way.

I wrote about our adventure along the way on the BRCK Blog, you can find the posts here:

Day 1 – A change of vehicles was in order
Day 2 – Dust and Mud
Day 3 – Night Riders
Day 4 – Setting up for the solar eclipse
Day 4 – The Hybrid Solar Eclipse
Day 5 & 6 – Many roads and no progress
Day 7 – Home again!

Instagram pictures #BRCKeclipse
Flickr pictures
Crowdmap (pictures on a map)

It used to be called the NFD

20131107-164628.jpg

Back in colonial times, the the areas north of Isiolo were called the Northern Frontier District (NFD), a land that was part of Kenya but far enough removed to be considered the “wild west” of the country. It still is today. When you talk to people who live there, they talk about going to visit Kenya, which means that they come down country to the big population centers.

I was 17 years old when I first traveled up north, it was on a motorcycle with 8 others from my school and a backup Landcruiser. We were on our way back home when we stopped in a dusty old town called Maralal for a cup of chai and a samosa break. In walks a tall, rangy old Brit, who promptly sat down with us and started regaling us with his tales of travels. This was none other than the last of the great African explorers, Wilfred Thesiger, in his final years. He had made all of his travels via horse and camel, and thought that the combustion engine was the devil’s handiwork. A few awkward moments later, us boys sidled over to our 2-wheeled combustion engines and rode off to the south.

The North of Kenya is still a land apart. It’s arid and dry most of the time, while people and towns are far apart and hard to get to. Fuel and water are in short supply and high demand, and there is unrest between the different ethnic groups, as well as visiting shifta (bandits) from Ethiopia and Somalia who stir things up a bit more. There is beauty and freedom in it, but also hostility and danger.

Our trip to see the eclipse

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ernest Hemingway

As I mentioned in my last post, the BRCK team decided to test out our device in this environment, with the excuse of the hybrid solar eclipse as our focal event. We took 3 motorcycles and a Land Rover for this excursion on a 1900 kilometer round trip, 7-day trek to Sibiloi National Park, and back. Here’s the basic route we took:

20131107-164231.jpg

This trip was a real test for all of us. From a broken down Land Rover on day one, to night drives and dust storms that meant we couldn’t see the actual eclipse, to limping into Nairobi with a flashlight replacing a headlamp and a dead alternator on the Land Rover to cap it all off.

Three Lessons I Learned

Work together. Helping each other selflessly makes for a happy bunch who can overcome almost any problem. Not just helping for one’s own well-being, but simply because something needs to be done and it’s good for the group as a whole.

It took all of us to unstick the Land Rover

It took all of us to unstick the Land Rover

When hands were needed to dig out the Land Rover, people stripped down to shorts and dug – for hours. I remember how hard Reg and Jon worked to unstick our vehicle, buried to the waste in mud and muck, trying to get the high-lift jack to find purchase. I remember Fady jumping on a motorcycle and learning to ride it in 5 minutes, so that he could ride the next 4 hours in the bush, in the dark, to get us all to Sibiloi. I remember Emmanuel packing, unpacking and repacking the vehicle so many times that only he knew where things were. I remember having to tell Philip to step away from the heavy equipment so that he didn’t damage his hand more as he tried to assist.

Think creatively. Push harder. When you meet friction and resistance to your mission, it’s easy to give up. Instead, think creatively and persevere. There’s a great deal of friction in everything up north, from bogged down vehicles, to broken clutch plates, to making a special solar eclipse camera out of odd parts, to dust storms that darken out the sun.

Untitled

Last night on the ride home, we had already been traveling for over 12 hours, and the headlight on my motorcycle went out. The last place that you want to be driving at night is the Naivasha to Nairobi road without a light. We pulled apart the headlight, tested all the electronics, only to find the bulb was burnt out. Instead of giving up, we found a super intensity flashlight in Fady’s kit, and put it inside the bulb housing. It was like driving with your brights on at all times. This became my light, and I closely followed our car into Nairobi. You can’t give up and you have to be creative.

Always get back up. Life throws some punches, everyone has them and it’s a test of your character whether you let that stop you or you find a way.

Untitled

Falling off a motorcycle is hard. Getting up and riding again is harder. Philip took a few tumbles this trip, especially on day two as we did a 3 hour night ride through soft sand – which is some of the most difficult stuff to deal with even in daylight. I knew we had a good leader on our team when he kept getting back up. I knew we would make it when I saw his resolve settle visibly, he relaxed his shoulders and rode on and fell no more.

20131107-161445.jpg
The BRCK team of Philip, Reg, Erik, Emmanuel and Jon.

Everyone has different strengths on this team, and while there are experts in specific things, when we worked together it was amazing to see the results.

The Problem with Hardware in Africa

Recently I wrote about the making of the BRCK here in Nairobi, and I alluded to some of the issues around doing hardware in Africa.

“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.”

I just had another experience that underscores the difficulties.

FedEx called me with the news that a package we were waiting for had arrived. The true value of the components was listed on the package at $230. These were new plastic cases for the BRCK, as well as a couple modem and router components. The Kenya Revenue Authority decided that it actually should be valued at $300, and then charged 100% duty. To clear the package, we have to pay $300 (26,000 Ksh).

Kenya Revenue Authority

Before I go any further, I’ll state that I think it’s imperative that you build hardware like the BRCK, or Kahenya‘s new Able Wireless device, where it will be used. You need to build it close to the ground, where the working conditions, and the real pain of the problem is part of the product team’s life. For both Kahenya and the BRCK team, that means here in Kenya.

It’s hard to get the components that you need. Kahenya and I did backflips trying to getting 5 Raspberry Pi’s and cases ordered and delivered to Kenya. Similarly, we have issues with anything we need for the BRCK. The ripple effects on your business for this delay in time can be a big issue, it carries a lot of friction. If you want an Arduino kit or simpler components that you can’t purchase in Kenya, then your two options are; a) someone is coming from that country and can bring them in for you in their luggage, or b) you’re willing to pay a lot of money for FedEx or DHL to ship it in, then pay even more on duty.

This is the very earliest prototype of the BRCK. It's made up of components that aren't all found easily in Kenya.

This is the very earliest prototype of the BRCK. It’s made up of components that aren’t all found easily in Kenya.

So, not only is it hard to get the parts you need, the government has set up its regulation in a way that discourages local prototyping and even local manufacturing. The revenue authorities would rather make quick money off of a component import than more money later off of a manufacturing industry. I’d rather set up an assembly factory here in Kenya than one in another country, but that isn’t possible if component import isn’t changed.

ICT Ministers of Africa should note that in this rapidly changing world of tech, that the regulatory system needs to keep pace. If it doesn’t, it can produce a tech ecosystem that strangles innovation at the expense of short-term tax and duty.

If Kenya wants to pretend it can get to Vision 2030 without some changes in regulation for local companies, there will be some surprises coming.

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.

© 2018 WhiteAfrican

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑