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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Gadgets (page 2 of 9)

Maker Faire Africa 2010: Nairobi

We’re just a month away from one of my favorite events of the year: Maker Faire Africa! It’s where we bring inventors, innovators and ingenious designers and artists into one place. Last year we did it in Ghana, this year it’s in Kenya on August the 27th to 28th. Submit your project here!

“The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified and propagated.”

The aim is to identify, spur and support local innovation. At the same time, Maker Faire Africa would seek to imbue creative types in science and technology with an appreciation of fabrication and by default manufacturing. The long-term interest here is to cultivate an endogenous manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs.

Projects, Sponsors and Links

‘Match a Maker’ was started last year, and it was such a big success that we’re doing it again this year. It’s done in order to link people up who could help each other with technical advice, contacts and business advice.

There will be a business corner for entrepreneurs to get help from local experts, a time devoted to kids experimenting with technology, and talks by local and international experts on everything from manufacturing to scaling your business.

Workshops

  • ‘Think Solar’ : Solar technology for young people
  • ‘Crafting peace’ : Hand crafts for children
  • ‘Hack your mobile’ all ages

A BIG thanks to Freedom to Create, Butterflyworks and ASME for sponsoring this year’s event!

Keep up to date on the Maker Faire Africa:
Blog
Twitter: @makerfairafrica
Flickr Group

TED Thoughts: Where Gaming is Taking Us

TED is the type of conference where you’re drinking from the fire hose and, with the 18-minute talks marching onward every few minutes, you have little time to reflect on what you’ve heard before you’re onto the next. It’s been two days now, much of it spent in travel, reading and reflection and I’m starting to string a couple of thoughts together that I find at the very least interesting. At the most disturbing.

On the technology side, there were three talks that made me sit back and consider their repercussions, especially as I think of their tracks vectoring in on each other.

It’s a pretty interesting time that we live in; where giant databases are learning about us by applying Myers-Briggs testing to millions of people through a game, where both software and hardware can self-replicate, and where you can control virtual actions and physical items with your mind.

Gaming

I’ve been playing computer games since I was about 8 years old, when a friend in Nairobi got a Commodore-64 and I learned how to use those dastardly cassette tapes to bring fantastical new realities to life. What happens when a gaming generation looks at the tools and devices being built? I don’t think any of us know quite yet, but sometimes, in the minds of sci-fi writers that we see a future that could be.

On the flight back I read the book Daemon, by Daniel Suarez. It’s a mixture of hacker and gaming culture set in a fantasy world of techno-pessimism and a doomsday scenario that will get a geeks blood flowing. Well worth the read, a perfect airplane book.

Now I’m on to Fun, Inc, a book about “gaming being the 21st century’s most serious business”. It’s a $40+ billion dollar industry, and it’s not slowing down. Virtual worlds and currency are here to stay.

In Milo, I saw what looked like a fairly unimpressive game, but one with a very impressive gaming and AI-training engine. It’s next iteration will be significant indeed.

I talked to Tan Le about the Emotiv device and how I thought that her ideas of it being used for practical purposes like closing shades and turning on lights, though sounding less juvenile, would likely be overshadowed by its use in the gaming world. In fact, I can’t wait to see the first big gaming companies using the Emotiv SDK to create new user interactions, HUDs and options in popular games.

All of these vectors of technology are, at once, both exciting and scary. I don’t know where gaming is taking us. What I can’t help but think is that gaming, and possibly the culture behind it, will be the vehicle that drives mainstream technology use and growth of the talks and demos that I saw at TED.

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 (Small, Slow and Sufficient) $99 “Africa” Laptop

Just in time for Christmas, a new low-cost, low-power netbook is hitting the scenes that actually retails for only $99. Cherrypal, the company behind it, has dubbed it “Africa”, as they’re focusing the little computer on developing countries. As the company states, this is a “no thrills” laptop – it’s basic and won’t be attractive for most of the tech people reading this blog for their own heavy use.

The $99 Africa netbook

“At just $99, the new 7” Cherrypal Africa is one of the best buys in the world of electronics. Created with developing countries in mind, the Africa is our latest step toward closing the “digital divide”, and we’re extremely proud of this achievement. Whether you live in Ghana or Texas, the Cherrypal Africa is right for you! “

[Note the Texas bit? Yes, I thought that was funny too…]

The computer runs on a 400 MHz processor and features 256 MB RAM, 2 GB flash memory, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, two USB ports and can run either Linux or Windows CE operating systems. It has only a 7″ screen as well, so it’s not a monster that you’re going to be able to do a lot of heavy work on.

There’s always room for low-cost, yet usable, computers in Africa. I’m happy to see this operating as a real business, available to everyone.

The problem is distribution

It’s easy enough to buy one online if you’re from the US, but how does an unconnected, no-credit card (or PayPal) owning African buy one? Let’s be honest, here we need a store that you can walk into, cash in hand, and walk out with a computer. There is no payment mechanism that works beyond in-country mechanisms and delivery to any African nation will double the price of an individual “Africa” laptop.

What I’m trying to determine is the distribution model for getting these to actually be for sale in Africa for $99. Is it even possible?

UPDATE:
I just got in touch with Max Seybold, the founder of Cherrypal, saying the following:

“We can ship to Kenya for the same cost too, let us know.

We are looking into established distributors/resellers but also encourage schools and other organizations to sign up as distribution channel. This would be a win-win situation, since this organizations are in dire need to generate additional income and we could teach them how to promote and distribute the products. It’s a learning experience for all of us but we are willing to try unconventional approaches in order to help the cause.”

Any takers? I’d be interested, but not by myself.

3G Internet as Backup

One of the products of Seacom’s undersea cable reaching East Africa is that we’re now getting faster internet, and more of it, in Nairobi (note, I didn’t say cheaper). For many, it means coming up with a plan for backup internet is plausible and it’s actually quite easy. Though more expensive than an ethernet connection, the mobile carrier’s with 3G internet access work well for this. Plus, they have the added advantage that you can take the modem with you and have mobile connectivity anywhere.

This time, I wanted to get a router that I could connect my Safaricom (or other) 3G dongle into and provide internet for more than one device and backup for my other “main” connection. With this thought in mind, a couple weeks ago I picked up a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router due to it’s ability to accept 3G modems, whether USB, ExpressCard or phone.

Cradlepoint MBR1000 and Safaricom Huawei 3g modem

It’s interesting to note that Cradlepoint also have a battery operated version for those really on the go, making it a completely wireless hotspot in your pocket. You can read more about this in a case study [PDF} where some university students from Canada used this in conjunction with Safaricom 3G modems and the OLPC while upcountry.

The only tricky part is knowing what settings to put into the router’s setup area in order to activate the modem. Below is all you need to know to make a Cradlepoint MBR1000 work in Kenya with Safaricom:

Settings for a Safaricom 3G modem on a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router

Will this work with Zain and Orange? I’m not sure yet, but I’d tend to think that it should. I’m using the Huawei e160 modem for Safaricom, and Zain uses the Huawei e220, which is also listed under Cradlepoint’s generic UMTS/GSM devices.

Maker Faire Africa video compilation

The good folks at AfricaNews really helped us out a lot in Ghana by doing a lot of interviews and then putting together this video compilation of Maker Faire Africa.

We’ll be holding Maker Faire Africa again next year in August, this time in Nairobi, Kenya. Get ready for an even bigger and more festive event!

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.

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.

Maker Faire: Africa

Maker Faire Africa (MFA) is a new event celebrating the innovation, ingenuity and invention within Africa – happening August 13-15 of this year in Accra, Ghana.

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana

We came at this event from a specific angle – we mixed the types of individuals who show up on AfriGadget and Timbuktu Chronicles, and the ethos of the greater MAKE community, all with the blessings of the good folks at Maker Faire. The dates were chosen to coincide with Amy Smith’s and MIT’s International Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which will run for 3 weeks before MFA, also in Ghana.

As Emeka puts it:

The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc. Maker Faire Africa asks the question, “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?”

How You can Support MFA

get a Maker Faire Africa badge!First off, help spread the word! Let people know where and when it will be. Share the link to the site, grab a badge, blog it.

Second, help us find sponsors. If you know an organization or individual who would like to support this amazing event, put us in touch with them. It could be monetary, or it could be donating some cool gadgets, gear, tools or devices for people to hack on while there. (example idea: we’d love to get some LEGO Mindstorm kits for the local high schools).

Third, come. If you have the time and ability, we’d love to have you, your ideas and your gadgets at MFA.

The Team

In my role as founder of AfriGadget, I’m part of the organizing team to put together Maker Faire Africa, joined by my an excellent group of people including:

Want to get involved yourself? Get in touch!

Streetwise: A Simple Computer Terminal for Children

The Streetwise computer terminal is nearly indestructible. I saw first-hand a demonstration of a unit at the MobileActive conference in South Africa last year and was awed when the gent started jumping up and down on it. It’s made for students in developing countries by South African firm Psitek who fabricates the devices in Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town.

the streetwise computer terminal by Psitek in South Africa

What they are doing is creating tools that might not look like the internet that you’re used to in the West. It’s lean content and services (information and communication) delivered to a lean device. For instance, there is a whole software application working on the backend to pair down content so that it’s quick to send to these devices. (ex: take 100kb of Wikipedia and strip out all but the text content – the whole article, and skip out on the extraneous images and get that file size down to 2kb.)

Why is that important? The device works off of GPRS connection to connect to the broader internet. This means it can work wherever there is a mobile phone coverage, and it works with low signal strength and it’s not nearly as expensive.

  • SIM card holder within the battery space in the back.
  • 12 volt power input
  • 5 USB connections
  • FAX line – low cost options for printing and scanning
  • 64Mb of inbuilt flash memory – can extend via USB to a hard drive (and USB sticks)

Currently, the Streetwise comes in two types; the main terminal (with all the goodies) and then an extension terminal. You can connect 4 extensions to the main terminal. Cost was estimated to me at the time as $350 for the main terminal and $115 for each extension. The main cost for these devices are the GPRS module and fax interface.

If someone does a search on the device, they route all requests through Google on Wikipedia and return the first result. That’s in Beta of course, it will be more robust in the final version, and offer a few more options.

Final Thoughts

I can’t speak for it’s educational value, I’ll save that for the educators, but it is a very interesting device. The fact that they decided to go off of the widely available GPRS services and make it so light-weight and rugged is telling. It’s designed for a specific use, and doesn’t apologize for it. For me, it’s like the OLPC, I don’t know how useful it really is, but I do know that it gets computers into the hands of young children, which offers a huge return over time.

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