The Rested, the Slow and the Robbed

TL;DR – We’re chilling by Victoria Falls today, a 5-hour drive took us 11-hours yesterday, and someone stole our med kit, a vest and 300m Nikon lens in Livingstone today.

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Friday was amazing. We had gotten in the night before to Lusaka, and this meant we got to spend the whole day with the BongoHive team and the rest of the tech community here. They were some of the most hospitable people, and we gave demos/talks on the BRCK, as well as Mark giving a talk on User Experience (UX), which was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a long time. Later, I gave a talk on Savannah Fund and raising investment money for startups, and the whole evening was finished by Juliana and myself giving a joint keynote to get the local Startup Weekend going. Busy, and fun!

It’s interesting, with Lusaka being a smaller, though major African city, they have the ambitions of larger things. However, their issues become more challenging than people who live in some of the larger cities like Lagos, Cape Town or Nairobi, since there isn’t the critical mass of things like investors, customers or talent. It seems like the strategy to build a big company is that you have to move across borders and anchor off of a larger region more quickly.

A Day Off on the at Vic Falls

Today I’m sitting in a camp on the edge of a tributary to the Zambezi river, a couple kilometers from Victoria Falls. The rains have been late here, so everything is dry, including the falls themselves – they’re still epic, but not nearly the same as the real falls. We went out there this morning to get a few pictures, and were able to get the BRCK connected from “Danger Point”.

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

BRCK at Vic Falls

BRCK at Vic Falls

Today is mostly about rest. We’re doing a bit of testing, connecting the BRCK to the vehicle mounted Poynting antenna, and then amplifying that with a Wilson booster, which successfully turns a non-existent signal on a mobile phone into a 19 (with antenna) and then a 61 (with amp + antenna). It’s great to have a device like this where we can get such great connectivity wherever we go.

Mark has begun his lessons on how to ride a motorcycle today. He’s been busy putting around the campsite this afternoon with a big fat grin on his face. :)

Mark Kamau learns to ride a bike at Victoria Falls from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

The Road to Livingston

We had an interesting day yesterday, with a plan for a 5-6 hour ride from Lusaka to Livingstone. It turned into an 11-hour drive though, since the Land Rover had some issues with air in the fuel line. For a while, we could only go 20km at a time before it would stop and we’d have to bleed it. Luckily Philip really knows his way around a diesel engine, we worked through all the obvious issues and finally got it to go 100km before we had to bleed it again.

Fixing the Land Rover

Fixing the Land Rover

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Last night Reg spent some time on it and though we think the fuel lift pump is the culprit (and weak), it’s working well enough to make the 500km run to Francistown, Botswana tomorrow.

Stinking Thieves

We thought Zambia was different. Mark accidentally left Juliana’s big Nikon camera at a restaurant in Lusaka. Mark wanted to go by and see if it was there, I was skeptical, it was lost forever. However, the next day our friend and TED Africa Fellow, Mulumba went by and they had found and kept it for us. Where were we? This doesn’t usually happen in a big African city…

Today, we had to run to pick up some food at the local Shoprite grocery store in Livingstone. We locked up the Land Rover and went in for 30 minutes or so. When we cam out we found everything sitting in the back seat was stolen, including a nice 300mm Nikon Lens, a riding vest, and most importantly of all, our amazing Med Kit. This med kit is put together by my wife, a nurse practitioner, and has some of the best expedition stuff you can find.

Oh, just found out that they got our Mozilla Firefox phone… this is a 3-SIM phone, and it’s what we used to top-up credit on SIM cards and figure things out along the way. What a shame.

We’re more than a bit pissed off about this, if I found the thieves there might be violence.

Pushing On and a Jua Kali hack

With the vehicle acting well all day today, the bikes tightened up and a chance to rest ourselves, we’re all set to hit the Botswana border in the morning and do a run down to Francistown. Reg had to head back to Kenya, so Mark will take over on the Land Rover, though we will miss having an engineer with us.

With Joel’s riding vest gone, we had no water for him. Fortunately, I carried an extra bladder. We put together a jua kali water pack for him using this, along with one of those small Alite chair bags, and a couple Rok straps (see below).

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

Manufacturing our Future

When I was a kid of around 10 years old, I used to collect small motors and electrical components with my school friends in Nairobi. We’d find some batteries and create small rotating and whirling contraptions, dreaming of how we’d one day make a walking robot that we could sit in and control – no doubt inspired by the Star Wars AT-STs.

I’ve always enjoyed tinkering. It’s what drove my interest in telling the stories of Africa’s innovative hardware hackers in the jua kali sector, writing on AfriGadget. It’s why helping to organize and be a part of Maker Faire Africa has been so much fun for me (which I’m missing, as it’s taking place this weekend in Cairo, due to family reasons). It’s why I buy kids solar and hydraulic kits to build things with my daughters.

I’ve been buried in the software (web) side of technology for the past few years. In this space it seems like we’ve been happy with de-linking software and hardware, after all, pure internet software is easier to spread, export and get access to. I can’t shake the tinkering side though, knowing that the two sides are interlinked and that more of the bridging of the two is needed. We’re just waiting for the Moore’s Law treadmill to slow down enough for the two to sync up again.

Firefly Inspirations

Laura Walker Hudson shares a fascination with the Firefly TV series, which suffered a short-lived life spanning only half a season in 2002. It’s a space western, reminiscent of Star Wars, gritty with witty realistic characters. That’s not why I’m bringing this up though. Laura reminded me of what something that made the show more compelling, the fact that it was a merging of Western and Chinese cultures.

“…it is a future where the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures…”

This reminded me of an article I read about the Shanzhai hacking, copying and innovating culture in China.

The contemporary shanzhai are rebellious, individualistic, underground, and self-empowered innovators. They are rebellious in the sense that the shanzhai are celebrated for their copycat products; they are the producers of the notorious knock-offs of the iPhone and so forth. They individualistic in the sense that they have a visceral dislike for the large companies; many of the shanzhai themselves used to be employees of large companies (both US and Asian) who departed because they were frustrated at the inefficiency of their former employers. They are underground in the sense that once a shanzhai “goes legit” and starts doing business through traditional retail channels, they are no longer considered to be in the fraternity of the shanzai. They are self-empowered in the sense that they are universally tiny operations, bootstrapped on minimal capital, and they run with the attitude of “if you can do it, then I can as well”.

This sounds like we’re seeing the beginnings of our sci-fi worlds becoming real. Mix this with what you see in other parts of the world with open hacking garages, like what my friend Dominic Muren (TED and PopTech Fellow) is doing with Humblefactory. We’re seeing hardware hacking spaces being set up, allowing small-time inventors to cook up new ideas on machines that they couldn’t afford by themselves. This is a trend that is growing.

Manufacturing our Future

Large technology companies drive both the diffusion of technology globally, and the costs of components. As the parts needed to make new tech “things” become commoditized, smaller manufacturers can get them at a low enough price point that they can also create their own inventions and sell them profitably. This is where the Shanzhai story becomes so compelling. We’re able to create more customized, and more innovative products, because they’re not created for a generalized mass market.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about small factories taking root in Africa. Most of them don’t have much, or anything, to do with technology creation. However, the story does point out the emergence of more manufacturing happening on the continent.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we had our own jua kali industry working on higher tech products, like their Shanzhai counterparts in China. What types of innovative technology (hardware and software) would come from Africa that differs for the local context?

I won’t go into a great amount of detail, on what I’ve written before around the idea of “Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation” in Africa. I think we need it, as it could help kickstart this next phase of localized R&D, prototyping and ultimately small-scale manufacturing that we need on the continent.

If we can’t provide a technology manufacturing base of our own in Africa, I’m worried that we’ll forfeit our future in the space. We might not reach the scale of Asia, but we need to have the competency and the capacity to do some of it locally.

Another way of thinking about this is that the non-traditional businesses in Africa are well positioned to provide a distributed manufacturing base already. Think of it as horizontal scale instead of the vertical scaling you see in massive Asian factories. If there were a way to provide logistical, communications and market efficiencies to that loose and distributed network, then we might find that the foundation is already set.

Further Reads and Links

The Space Hackers are Coming! [small PDF]
The Hackaday blog
Fundibots – Ugandan-based robot building and training
The hardware hacker manifesto
Arduino

Maker Faire Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ll be in Ghana next week to help with the final preparations for Maker Faire Africa, taking place August 14-16 in Accra, with the rest of the organizing team. It’s looking to be quite the event with many Ghanian Makers, as well as some from Kenya, Liberia and Malawi. The FabLab teams from Nigeria and Kenya will both be showing what they’ve been building, as well as some of the teams from the IDDS event.

A Small Taste…

Dominic Wanjihia from Kenya will be coming to show his evapocooler invention for cooling camels milk in Somalia, along with an number of his other inventions.

The FabLab team from the University of Nigeria on their way. Look for a bunch of neat stuff, including: a mobile device battery charger using cycle power, a simple mobile robot, a Wi-fi phone network, and a universal remote control for switching on/off your lights.

Planish, a company that makes cool, funky looking furniture from water bottles will be showing their wares.
Water bottle furniture from Ghana by Planish

Nana Kofi Acquah is an amazing Ghanaian photographer with images that capture the spirit of Ghana. His breathtaking pictures have been used by the likes of FIFA, Nike and Nestle in campaigns around the world. You can find his professional site at NKAphoto.com »
Picture by Nana Kofi Acquah in Ghana

Pat Delaney, of Multimachine fame, is coming. This is an, “all-purpose open source machine tool that can be built inexpensively by a semi-skilled mechanic with common hand tools, from discarded car and truck parts, using only commonly available hand tools and no electricity.” Though he can’t bring the full machine, he is bringing all the knowledge cased in DVDs for anyone to build their own out of locally available parts.

Most of my blogging about Maker Faire Africa will happen on AfriGadget, but there will be a lot of content up on the MFA blog as well.

Sponsors

An event like this just wouldn’t be possible without the help of others. We’re fortunate to have some great sponsors on board, including: IDDS (happening right now in Ghana, read their blog), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Butterfly Works, Inveneo, Moving Windmills, Mozilla, AndSpace Labs and many individual donations totaling up to $2400 (thanks!). Lastly, a special thanks to Dale, and the rest of the O’Reilly team, for letting us use the “Maker Faire” moniker for this event.