Mbadika – teaching kids about circuits

Netia McCray of Mbadika

Netia McCray of Mbadika

I met Netia McCray at Maker Fair Africa yesterday. She’s an MIT grad who’s working on a project called Mbadika (it means “idea” in the North Angolan language of Kimbundu), which is about teaching kids the basics of electronic prototyping. She does this using some very inexpensive solar-charging kits, designed to be put together and understood in an educational workshop, or on their own.

Mbadika is a new program, so they’re just getting off the ground themselves, however they’ve already taught 250+ kids in 6 countries.

Inside the Mbadika solar kits

Mbadika solar kits

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As a father, I can appreciate the simplicity of this kit, having worked through some more complicated electrical engineering kits with my own children. There’s value in having something that is immediately buildable by a 10 year old that they can put to use right away. They can design/paint it how they like and make it their own.

You can help them out on the new South African crowdfunding site, ThundaFund.

Gear Worth Buying for Africa: PowerMonkey Extreme

I’m lucky enough to have friends like Toby Shapshak who, being the Publisher and Editor of Stuff Magazine, ends up having tons of people give him cool tech to write about. Every once in a while he dumps some stuff on me, things that I normally wouldn’t have bought, but am grateful for later. Toby is a bit of a road warrior, so he and I have a good understanding of what actually works and try not to carry useless stuff with us.

Some travel organizers from Shapshak

Recently he gave me some more self-organizing bits, like this blue Moleskine case, some color-coded cable ties and a smaller Micro-USB cable.

The Powermonkey Extreme

The last time I was in Jo’burg Toby casually handed me this solar kit. At first glance it seemed a bit big, but I stuck it in my bag and headed for the airport. A week later, I found myself camping with the family and broke out this thing with a funny name, the PowerMonkey Extreme ($200). Inside, there’s an inbuilt 3v solar panel, a 9000mAh battery and some cables for plugging it into the wall, computer or solar panel for charging.

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquacable

The PowerMonkey Extreme with Aquastrap

What’s cool about it:

  • The battery seems to charge pretty quickly using the solar or DC-in cable.
  • The battery is watertight, with a clip down cover over the ports. With the Aquastrap, it’s also IP65 rated for dust and water even when the ports are plugged in.
  • It has two power-out ports, so you can charge two things at once.
  • The case is well designed for packing it all in.
  • The digital readout is easy to see, and watertight controls
  • A velcro strap on the solar panels let you attach it to things in awkward places.
  • The folding mechanism for the solar panels means it can pack better, and this also helps for positioning it towards the sun.

What I wish were different:

  • The device has this strange touch-sensitive button that I didn’t know was a button until I hit it.
  • I couldn’t understand what the readout meant right away, I had to go look it up. The power charging vs the battery icon confused me.

Keep in mind that the pictures you’re seeing are of the PowerMonkey Extreme after being battle tested, not just on little camping trips with the family either. I took this device up into the northern deserts of Kenya on our BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana and back. On the last day, this was the only thing keeping people’s phones charged as it was the last thing standing, and it could fit in a Land Rover window to keep trickle charged. This is a serious device for real adventure.

Some more pictures:

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Power-out, you can charge two things at once

Watertight seals

Watertight seals

Power-in port

Power-in port

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Digital readout on the left, indentation on the right is a touch-sensitive button

Plugging it into the solar panel

Plugging it into the solar panel

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

Solar panel with velcro strap, plus the battery.

All packed up and ready to zip.

All packed up and ready to zip.

Zipped up.

Zipped up.

A Turkana Solar Eclipse Expedition

It’s been a few years since I was last up in the northern reaches of Kenya, and what an adventure that was! (blog posts 1, 2, 3 and 4)

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

This week finds me heading back, chasing the moon that will cover the sun. November 3rd at 5:30pm (East Africa Time) there is a hybrid solar eclipse. The lunar-like desert setting on the edge of Lake Turkana is said to be the best place in the world to watch it.

This also happens to be one of the most difficult places to get to, as fuel and supplies are a difficult thing to come by for the final 1000 kilometer loop. You have to bring it with you. It’s an unforgiving place, and yet one of the most hauntingly untouched and beautiful stretches of Africa that you can still find.

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Though one never needs an excuse to have an adventure, the BRCK team is using this trip to stress test the device. We have a number of things planned, covering ruggedness and heat to testing out an amplification antenna with it. With luck, we’ll even have a VSat connection in hand, and test out WiFi via satellite internet backhaul and stream the eclipse live. You’ll be able to watch that at BRCK.com/eclipse.

[update: Huge thanks to Indigo Telecom for loaning us a BGAN terminal and 50Mb of data!]

Seven of us are trekking up to this iron triangle; where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya meet. We’re taking three 650cc motorcycles and a Land Rover 110. Two happen to be professional photographers, two others are highly talented amateur photographers, and I’m going as the hack iPhonographer. :)

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Our destination is Sibiloi National Park (KWS site), possibly the least visited and most unknown park in Kenya. It’s a good few hours drive north of Loyangalani, which I’m curious to see after the past few years. As far as I can tell, there is really no reason to ever go there, well, except for an eclipse…

I’ll be blogging our adventures here, as well as with others on the BRCK Blog. You can follow the images and livestream at brck.com/eclipse.

[Note: It should go without saying, but I won’t be answering many emails…]

Low-Cost Solar Invades Kenya

Meredith watching the Brunton 52 Solar panels - a boring jobReliable electricity in Kenya is an oxymoron. Last year’s rationing was up to 4 days per week in some parts of Nairobi, and with the low levels of water in the dam, it’s looking like 2010 won’t be such a bright year (pun intended…).

This is why I’m writing a post about solar power, which incidentally isn’t something I’m overly-well versed in, I usually leave this up to people like Afromusing. I did take the FLAP bags around Ghana, Kenya and Uganda earlier, but hadn’t started to truly delve into this arena until now. Before moving back, I picked up a Brunton Solaris 52solar power kit for my laptop needs. It has already proved indispensable.

Solantern

Joseph Nganga, a Kenyan businessman who I’ve known for a couple of years, has come back to Kenya and is taking the clean energy position firmly. He’s working with the World Bank on a plan for a “Cleantech Innovation Centre” in East Africa, and knows his way around both small- and large-scale renewable energy systems.

Right now he’s marketing and finding distributors for his Solantern product. It’s a Green Planet Lantern that is sold locally for 2000 Ksh ($25). His goal is to replace the unclean, and sometimes hazardous, kerosene lanterns that everyone uses in Kenya.

[Note: the electricity is off right now, and my wife is using one of Joseph’s Solanterns below]

My wife with a Solantern tonight

An average Kenyan family spends 20 Ksh ($.25) on Kerosene every night, a total of $91 per year. There’s a real value buying a Solantern, and the light lasts for much longer than that 20 Ksh of Kerosene would (and it’s cleaner).

ToughStuff

Chance would have it, that on this power-challenged day, I would also meet up with Nick Sowden from ToughStuff. He’s here in Kenya to do for East Africa what they’ve already done for Madagascar: create an industry for entrepreneurs out of 1 watt solar panels.

ToughStuff ProductsToughStuff offers a large selection of accessories for their panel, with extensions like an LED lamp (530 Ksh/$7), phone connectors (75 Ksh/$1), a rechargeable powerpack (550 Ksh/$7.25) and fake D-cell batteries that take direct input from the panel – used to power radios. It’s a compelling mix, and you can tell why they’ve done so well in Madagascar, and which bodes well for them in East Africa as well.

They’ve already started selling them through Chloride Exide in Kenya, at two shops in the industrial area you can pick up the kits for yourself. One shop is on Dunga Road, the other is on Kampala Road.

ToughStuff has a focus on entrepreneurs, which is why they have the “Buy One: Fund One” program. To entrepreneurs they offer financing through local MFIs.

Final Thoughts

Besides Solantern and ToughStuff, there are other projects like Portable Light (and others) working on low-cost solar for East Africa. It’s like the stars have aligned and all the cleantech companies are starting to really look at Africa as a place to make money – which it is.

The AfriGadget-side of me is waiting for local fundis to get their hands on these and to start customizing them for local needs. I want to see 8 ToughStuff solar panels daisy-chained together and used to power something larger. I want to see the wall-of-panels that light up 10 lights across a large room for night classes. The sort of thing that takes local needs, local technical talent and local businessmen to make happen.

Another thought… People think that these low-cost solar light kits are only for the poor. They’re wrong. I use them, as do many middle-class Kenyans if they can get their hands on them. The market is bigger than just the “bottom of the pyramid”.

Finally, I’m greatly pleased to see legitimate businesses, not NGOs, leading this charge. The quickest way to ruin this fledgling industry is by false ceilings imposed by development/aid subsidies around these products.

The FLAP Bag Project at Pop!Tech

If you follow AfriGadget, you’ll know that this summer I spent some time testing some new bags made by combining flexible solar panels from the people at Portable Light with the top-notch bags made by Timbuk2 in Ghana and Kenya over the summer. The whole initiative was put together by Pop!Tech, and it’s called the FLAP (Flexible Light and Power) bag.

the FLAP bag project

The FLAP bag is still very much in its testing phase. What I was doing was alpha level, today more people are getting access to the bag and will help with beta testing in more places. This is good. It means that the team behind the project are not just rushing something to market to take advantage of the buzz, but are really trying to get it right.

Some of the suggestions from the African users can be found in the Fast Company article I wrote last week, but there are more coming in too, from South America and an Indian reservation in the US.

A few suggestions from African users

  • The American-style Timbuk2 bags were generally thought of as too large
  • Electronics need to be put into a more rugged case to survive the beatings that they’ll take in Africa
  • People wondered if there was a way to hide, or cover, the solar panels to disguise what the bag was – for security reasons
  • There was a general feeling that there was more use for portable light and power in rural settings rather than urban
  • The ability to remove the solar components from the bag was genius
  • The tailors wanted to make their own designs, and wanted access to cheap components to experiment with, and then sell

Testing, Local Relevancy & a Challenge

Hacking the FLAP bag project

One of the most compelling things that happened on the trip was my interaction with tailors. I would give them a bag, but also give them the raw components and challenge them to make a bag of their own design, using local materials that they thought would be right for them, or right to sell in their market.

The bag above is my favorite customized bag design, it’s a smallish backpack that was made by Stephen Omollo in Nairobi. There are others though (see them here), and these creations serve as an indicator of the desire to own the technology. To make the technology relevant to specific local needs.

What this left me with was a nagging thought – that I was the wrong person to do this testing project. Sure, AfriGadget connections make me and the other editors a likely vector to do this, but that It was Timbuk2 that needed to be out in Africa with us. (I’m letting Portable Light off the hook, because I know they already do this)

Luckily, I’m here at Pop!Tech with the team from Timbuk2 and the team from Portable Light. I’m inviting them out to Kenya to actually get on the ground with these tailors and people who understand the pulse and cultural usage norms of the clients that they serve locally. With a little luck, we’ll get even further with the project, seeing a true partnership across two continents.

A big thank you goes out to my colleague Henry Addo in Ghana and David Ngigi in Kenya for their help with both videography and the interviews.

Blogging this week

This is a courtesy post so that you know most of my blogging this week is taking place at AfriGadget due to being one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa coming up this weekend.

I’m also doing some work on the “FLAP Bag Project“, testing out modular, solar and light-equipped bags in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda with Timbuk2, Portable Light and Pop!Tech.

We’ve got a big release of Ushahidi coming up this week too, so keep an eye on the Ushahidi blog where I have another write-up coming.

Quick Hits Around African Tech

I’m thoroughly enjoying Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” book. Buy it, has great food for thought, and numbers to back it up.

The New York Times article on big web content companies lack of profitability in places like Africa.

We’re seeing a new trend of microblogging platforms emerge across Africa. Most recently in the Congo with Akouaba, but also in Nigeria with Naijapulse and South Africa’s Gatorpeeps.

Matt Berg writes about the “Off-grid solar calculator” in North Africa.

Mobility Nigeria points out that Nigeria displaces Germany in the Opera Mini top 10 list.

Bankelele breaks down some of mobile payment tool M-Pesa’s strengths and weaknesses in Kenya.

We’ve announced Ushahidi’s Beta stage, and another round of funding.

APC talks about the broadband rollout issues and a movement to change policy in South Africa.