Tag Archives: brck

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.