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.

Chasing the Sun (Tanzania to Zambia)

Catching up on a few updates at once here, you can read about Day 2 of our trip here.

It’s 6am in Lusaka, Zambia as I write this. The last two days have been a blur as we covered over 1,700 kilometers from Dodoma to Lusaka in what can only be considered as marathon sessions from sunup to just after sundown. Fortunately, both Tanzania and Zambia have some of the best roads we’ve seen, and the motorcycles and car all behaved well with only one slow puncture the whole way. We took small breaks every 100-200km in order to rest and move around a bit, but we’re still quite sore and ready for this day to do no travel.

Some twisty's on the road to Iringa

IMG_3803

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Parking lot mechanics in Dodoma, Tanzania

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

Mark, Juliana and Joel setting up the GoPro

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

A dawn stop on the way out of Dodoma to Iringa, Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

Grabbing lunch somewhere in southern Tanzania

The border crossing from Tanzania into Zambia at Dunduma left a little something to be desired. What felt like it should have taken about 1.5 hours at most, ended up taking 3+ hours, which meant our last 50km into a campsite were done in the dark on the only section of bad road we’ve seen. People did warn us of this, so it wasn’t unexpected. However, the reason wasn’t because of long lines of trucks slowing us down, it was due to inefficiency in the process itself at both immigration and customs.

From here, our days get a little more sane, with a run down through Victoria Falls into Botswana and then finally Johannesburg. As an aside, it turns out that half-way between Nairobi and Jo’burg is almost exactly at a small town called Serenje, Zambia – 2,200km from each.

Time at Bongohive

We pushed so hard to get to Lusaka by now so that we would be here in time for the events at Bongohive, Lusaka’s tech hub, which were all scheduled for today.

1pm – Demo of BRCK (Philip Walton and Reg Orton of the BRCK team)
3pm – Meeting with Startups (Mark Kamauof the iHub UX Lab) – HCD, UX, DT
4:30pm – Meeting with Startups (Erik) – Investment readiness, experiences with Savannah Fund, getting into new markets etc
6pm – Keynote at Startup Weekend Lusaka (Erik and Juliana Rotich)

Lukongo Lindunda is the co-founder of the space, and we’ve known each other for years, since before they got it started back in 2011. I’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone here in the tech space for a while, and I’m interested in hearing what’s brewing in the startup scene.

Some of the startups that I’ve heard about from Zambia include: 

  • ShopZed.com
  • Bantu Babel 
  • Venivi
  • DotCom Zambia, BusTickets
  • TeleDoctor 
  • SCND Genesis

If you’re part of the tech community in Zambia, I hope you can swing by, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you as well.

Lessons From the Trip

Since we’ve started this trip I’ve been thinking a lot about communications, as one would expect with a BRCK expedition, and especially mobile comms. We outfitted the truck with a omni-directional Poynting antenna on the front bumper, hooked up into the car, where we can also connect it to an amplifier if needed. As we drive down the road, we have a pretty good mobile WiFi hotspot, as long as we’re in range of a tower.

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The mobile phone kiosk, a mainstay of rural Africa

The last few years have seen a number of countries implement a registration process to buy SIM cards (ostensibly this is for security though it’s not been proven to be useful for anything more than big brother activities by governments). Even buying a SIM card is then a process of identification (usually passport or drivers license), so you have to budget for that 30-60 minutes to get that done, since it’s usually filling out a form by hand.

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

Registering an MTN SIM card in Zambia

You then purchase credit for the SIM card and load it up – this is the easiest part.

Now you get into the “mystery meat” part of the process, which is how do you turn that airtime you just bought into internet credit? Each network in each country has a different way of doing this, some combination of USSD or SMS to get it going.

A couple things come to mind now when we look at the BRCK.

First, we need a terminal screen in the BRCK interface for us to do all of this from the device itself. Right now we find ourselves popping out the SIM card and using a phone (Mozilla’s 3-SIM phone is amazing for this purpose), and then inserting it back into the BRCK when done.

Second, there needs to be a database of this “airtime to internet data” information that we can all use. I’m not sure how best to get this going, but I know it would be immensely useful when you drop into a new country to have this at your fingertips.

We’re already working on the first issue, of USSD/SMS interface, but it’s complicated, so it’s taking longer than we’d like. This trip is about learning, and we’re already finding a lot of things to do better. Look for more posts on the BRCK blog from the others as well.

Lessons from the mLearning Summit in Zambia

There’s an excellent post up on MobileActive about the recent mLearning Summit held in Zambia, titled “Go Mobile: Using Mobile Learning to Teach 21st Century Skills”. Steve Vosloo is a South African who has spent a lot of time researching how mobile phones can be used in education, here’s a video put together by him from this event.

“Steve Vosloo noted that m-learning summits have two main goals: To introduce and popularize the mobile phone as a tool for engaging students, and secondly, to identify local content needs. Examples of this may include applications that support grade submissions and attendance in remote locations or projects that explore how texting can be used in literacy.”

Kazang: A Truly Mobile Prepaid Service Terminal for Africa

Psitek is a company that deeply understands the African market, I’m convinced that this is due to them having all of their work done on the continent. The last time I wrote about them was after I came across the nearly indestructible Streetwise mobile-accessible computer for children.

As Hannes notes:

“They are the inventors of that trusted voice access device that anyone that ever travelled to Africa would know about: the Adondo. Designed for Africa with anti-insect electronics, high temperature and humidity tolerance, their devices still ship with car-battery ready clamps.”

The Kazang service and terminal

Kazang - prepaid service terminals for Africa

This time it’s about Kazang, a prepaid terminal for merchants selling mobile phone services, such as prepaid airtime, paying of electricity bills or insurance. The service is a year and a half old now, and boasts nearly 5,000 vendors ranging from South Africa to Kenya to Zambia.

Kazang Terminal - Timpa

The newest device, the Timpa, comes with all of the necessary requirements for the challenges that a merchant running a business in a rural (or urban) setting in Africa would need. It has a built-in printer and rechargeable battery which makes it fully mobile, uses GPRS technology to communicate with the Content Ready (back-end) server (just plug in a data SIM card), and a large LCD with backlighting. They have also built in fail-safes for when the GPRS connection drops, or the electricity goes out, so that the merchant doesn’t get charged for a voucher that they didn’t receive.

Psitek claims that clearing $1000/month is a reasonable to expect by vendors, which would bring home about $80/month of profit (8% margin). This alone makes it a fairly good proposition for a lot of merchants, meaning they can add a Kazang terminal to their shop as an added draw for more customers and it acts as to supplement their other revenue streams.

Not written about much relative to their impact, Psitek is one of those tech firms offering devices that run behind the scenes of many businesses in the southern part of Africa.