I was bumping along a waterlogged dirt road on the island of Pemba a couple weeks ago, trying to find my way to a lighthouse where the BRCK team was setting up a weather station. I stopped to check my map, and had a solid 3g signal I could use to check my map. Looking around I realized that all the houses in this section were wired up with electricity too. It turns out, though Pemba (a small island north of Zanzibar off of the Kenya/Tanzania coast) is a bit behind economically and it has that island slowness to it, that they meet the basic infrastructural requirements for a 21st century economy.
No matter where I’ve traveled, this holds true. Whether in the city edges in Nairobi or Lusaka, or the rural areas across Africa or Asia. If there is power, if there is connectivity, then people will find a way to further their lives in enterprising ways. And that word enterprising is important, because their ingenuity and drive are focused on finding a way to make money. For school fees, for food and living, for their future.
A Foundation of Power and Connectivity
Power and connectivity are the two foundational elements of a 21st century economy upon which all of the other pillars sit. Whether you’re talking about commerce or education, entertainment or logistics, you’re not going to play in the global economy unless you have access to reliable energy and internet.
It used to be that the way a country developed to a point where they could have nice roads and comfortable homes for the middle class came by building a low-cost manufacturing sector (witness the Asian tigers.)
Yet, today the world has turned.
Although manufacturing will always play a meaningful role in a country, you can now have far greater gains on the world’s economic stage for lower costs if you invest in digital communications and transactions.
McKinsey released a fascinating report on “digital globalization” where they show that increasing flows of data and information now generate more economic value than the global trade in goods.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
They’re saying that an industry that didn’t exist 15 years ago can now bring in more value to a country’s Gross Domestic Product than the centuries-old trade in goods.
And in Africa, here’s the reason this is a big problem. While the continent is moving forward, the internet is more available and devices for accessing it are getting less expensive, we’re still far behind. We’re simply not moving fast enough or staying close enough to the rest of the world. And that has profound consequences.
And there is only one investment needed: Digital infrastructure. This is the undersea cables, the terrestrial cables, the internet exchange points and locally stored content.
Regular commerce isn’t possible without physical infrastructure like roads, nor is ecommerce possible without digital infrastructure which gives us accessible internet.
In the energy space, smart friends of ours like Mkopa, SteamaCo and SolarNow (and many others) are working on ways to make power affordable. Truth be told, there has been a lot more money put to work in that space than on connecting people to the internet. What’s interesting is that there are now millions of Dollars spent each year on tech startups across Africa which rely on connectivity, but very few investment dollars being put to work on the connectivity frontier itself. There are some though, and that’s why companies like BRCK exist.
Whether in Pemba or Nairobi the face of Africa is changing, and power and connectivity are the reasons why. While I might ride on a bad dirt road to get somewhere, I know that if private and public organizations both focus on increased power and connectivity, we will get there.
This last week I was part of a BRCK Expedition team that traveled from Nairobi through the Chyulu Hills, and oversea to the small island of Pemba in the Northern part of Zanzibar. On the way, we installed some of our equipment, including:
One thing I’ve learned on BRCK Expeditions is that there is no “normal” experience from one to the next. This one we had to be used to water everywhere, we lost or broke 2 phones and severely damaged a third, all vehicles behaved themselves (miracle!), and we had the Good All Over team with us that made it feel like a reality TV show.
We do these expeditions for two primary reasons; to have a fun adventure as a team, and to test our products far out in the field.
We do have a lot of fun, you can see that in the Instagram, Twitter and blog posts. However, a requirement is that they also be challenging, providing a certain amount of physical and mental difficulty. We plan them this way for us to test ourselves, strengthen our internal team bonds, and stress out our equipment. It works, so we keep doing it year after year.
Creative solutions come from time with users
While we were out on this trip, there was a good Economist article published that references BRCK and what we’re doing. It’s important to remember that so few companies are actually out in the field trying to find solutions for people who aren’t financially wealthy. Logically this makes sense, unless you’re a development company or a charity organization, you have to make money and if the numbers don’t work, then they don’t work.
The ITU calculates that in poor countries the average cost in 2016 of the smallest mobile-internet package was equal to 14% of the average national income per person, putting it out of most people’s reach.
One of the benefits of the BRCK leadership team playing such a direct role in these expeditions is that we are installing, testing, fixing, and using the equipment right alongside the users of it. We’re doing the messy work, but also having to explain how our platform works to the people we’re leaving it with. This what leads us to creative solutions for both the technical and business problems that we find. It could be a better way to waterproof our gear, or it comes in a deeper understanding of how important it is to focus on our model of FREE public WiFi as we realize that these people will not be able to pay.
Just because the companies that came before us were unable to find a way to serve the needs of the people with small incomes doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way forward, it just means that we need to be more creative. Nothing builds creativity like sweating over a connection in rural Africa with your colleagues and the users breathing down your neck. 😉
A random seating assignment by a friend on an airplane leads to an email intro, which leads to a meeting in Nairobi. Two years later and I find out that that random person on the airplane, now one of my friends, a business partner, and someone I deeply respect has passed away unexpectedly.
Vanu Bose passed away on a peaceful Saturday morning while I was concurrently on a chaotic 11-hour motorcycle ride down one of East Africa’s most dangerous roads, praying that I would arrive home safely. That irony is not lost on me.
There are certain people in this world who have a special magnetic personality, a way that they connect and spend time with others that makes everyone feel appreciated and who leave with their spirits lifted. Vanu was one of these lodestones, he attracted amazing talent to his team, and great men and women of the world wanted to be near him and have him near them at their times of decision making. He was also a strong leader, a deep thinker, a clear communicator, had a tenacious will to see things through to the end, and maybe most importantly had an infectious laugh. In short, I respected him greatly.
Vanu’s vision was that everyone can and should have economically sustainable wireless coverage. He understood the impact that phones and connectivity have on all of us, and spent his years focusing on the hardest part of that problem, creating a service that could work even in the sparsely populated regions of the world. I was fortunate enough to work with him on this problem in Rwanda, but he was equally active in India, Alaska, and most recently in pouring his heart and company’s resources into getting the Puerto Rico population back on their phones after the hurricane devastated that island.
We shared a common goal, and he and I met at the beginning of BRCK’s road to solving free public WiFi, which would mean that there were many deep conversations held from Kigali to Nairobi, from Boston to Barcelona, and Cape Town to San Francisco. We were focused on solving a difficult problem, but we both brought that optimism unique to entrepreneurs who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
It always impressed me that he was so technical, with his Phd and could hold his own with anyone on that front, but at the same time had such a firm grasp on the business side of what he did and what the market was, that he could see past where so many others in the mobile industry got stuck. I joked with my co-founders at BRCK that it would take any two of us in a room to equal what he could do alone.
He sharpened what I understood about the mobile networks, what the gaps were, and what was important for us all to focus on. I’d like to think I brought some new ideas to him as well, coming from a completely different background in life. However, I have to admit that I took a lot more from Vanu than I gave him. And this, I think, is where a measure of a man should be held: Does he give more to the world than he takes? In Vanu’s case the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Vanu was generous and gracious, and a desire to see the world a better place. Many people desire this, but few act on it. Vanu acted and put a dent in the world while he still lived, one that those of us who worked with him will continue to pound on and make bigger.
In the end, our lives were made richer due to Vanu, and many across multiple continents had their lives improved by him without even realizing who he was.
Thank you Vanu. Go in peace.
It’s 1995. Computers are a rarity in Kenyan homes but common in commercial banks, government institutions and private companies and are mostly used to crunch numbers. But somehow my grandfather manages to acquire one for his household (true story!). From memory, it ran some text based Operating System with yellow fonts (which I came to discover much later in my adolescent years that it was MS-DOS) and for the first time I get to play a game (again, many years later, I find out its the original Prince of Persia). And my fascination for the computer begins. As we move into the late 90s, a better computer is bought running Windows 95 with access to digital media in the form of CDs. And with that I access Microsoft Encarta, a digital multimedia encyclopedia, filled with so much information that blows my young mind. The information is not only text-based but has colorful photos and low-def pixilated videos of moving animals and dividing animal cells. However, Internet is still an alien concept to me (and most Kenyans) at this time.
Back to the Future
Arrival at Kokota Eco Primary school
Fast forward to 2017 and we’re on Kokota Island to install a SupaBRCK running Moja and donate a Kiokit . Being an island, Kokota is some how isolated and is mainly accessible via the sea. However, a cellular network is available since its broadcasted from the neighbouring main island of Pemba and distributed by a local base station. With the existence of modern cloud computing technology, increased data storage and advanced connectivity technology (cellular & WiFi), the SupaBRCK has taken advantage of these technologies to provide access to almost unlimited knowledge, unlike the limited 650MB on the Encarta CD that was my treasure chest of digital information. Be it offline or online, the SupaBRCK can provide access to information via local storage or the Internet respectively.
A curious mind is a fertile mind
During the Kiokit training, I could see the same expression of wonder and curiosity that I had back in ’95 on the faces of the students of Kokota Eco Primary school. I was also encouraged to see the enthusiasm expressed by the teachers of the school as one teacher commented that free access to the information would improve performance of the school and make it the best on the island. The students and teachers now have the opportunity to access as much information as they want to improve their education standards and livelihood. Imagine the impactful socio-economic projects that could be implemented on the island by the community as a result of accessing the information: modern skills in growing crops & rearing livestock, improvement & protection of the island’s biodiversity etc. Or even better, the teachers could be endowed with DIY skills to fix the school’s water desalinisation plant that has stalled for the last eight months since help is not in sight to repair the much needed machine that can provide clean potable water.
Deep conversations with the Kio
The level of potential within Africa is enormous but is largely untapped due to low penetration of education & information and infrastructure unavailability. Modern computing technology and how its implemented with well defined & crafted policies can accelerate information access. At BRCK we have the map to access the hidden treasure that is information but we also aspire to open that one door that will lead to opening millions more for Africans.
How well do I know my Swahili language now that I have it as one of the languages that I speak fluently? Pemba expedition has helped me put this on the litmus paper and today’s challenge is purchasing Sim cards for PicoBRCK and SupaBRCK which are to be deployed at Kokota Eco Primary School in Kokota Island and the Zanzibar Weather station.
We seek the help of a local young man to purchase the cards and later came time to load bundles and learn the necessary USSD codes to navigate through the network. He starts giving “Nyota mia moja na sita reli kusajirisha nambari yako kwenye mtandao” I stare at him having only heard the monetary figures, of course, I can’t afford to miss out the monetary figures given my accounting background.
Ruth (L) and Elizabeth (R)
I request that he repeats the instructions and I understand that he means (*106# to register my new number to the mobile network) I giggle and accept the challenge. Before he leaves for the day we ensure that we are all set to have the data bundles loaded and that our mission for what brought the BRCK team here is accomplished to provide reach to content and internet to islands of Pemba that I never knew existed before this expedition.
The boat would take us 4 hours and another 45 minutes of waiting for a smaller boat to deliver the Kio Kit to the middle of the sea which now becomes our “parking bay”. The boat ride and the sceneries are amazing and the whole day you forget that dry land ever existed as the sea becomes your new home.
The crew is extremely jovial singing and humming all the way to Kokota Island. We soon arrive at Kokota Eco Primary school where Elizabeth and Mark get to train the teachers on how to use the Kio-kit. The teachers are extremely enthusiastic and amazed at the difference this brings to their school and from the look on their faces they can’t wait to teach the students with the Kio Kit.
An hour after the teachers training they get to use the skills learnt to teach the students with the Kio Kit and broadcast the lesson. Broadcast is a feature installed on the Kio Kit to ensure that all the students attending a lesson are on the same page with the teacher and not busy exploring other features.
Surprisingly they understand how to use the Kio Kit so quickly and are all motivated and looking forward to using the Kio Kit on a daily basis. They each get a printed photo to take home and remember this heavenly transition for the rest of their lives in their small island of Kokota. After a successful day, it’s time to get back to our camp and we have to walk a stretch to catch the boat with water up to our waist and our backpacks on our shoulders. The expedition is real for sure. We enjoy the sunset and the birds fishing and we land back to our camp at 7.30 pm eager to see what tomorrow has in store for us.
While I imagined it’s possible to have receipts for all the payments made, I get to experience lack of this all through this trip. I also had never had a training session of the Kio Kit before and am extremely honored to be part of the BRCK team and have a lot of respect for the management team who get to go through rough; strenuous and rugged terrain away from the comfort of Nairobi to make things happen where no one would consider possible….indeed they were right to have the writings on our BRCK office wall “You can do Hard Things”
Increasingly tech companies are moving to Shenzhen, Taipei and Seoul. At the same time, BRCK is getting itself further and further into the remotest parts of Africa. We are a unique company, and we have a unique perspective on tech that makes life mostly hard, but ultimately fulfilling. We talk a lot about ‘You can do hard things’, however now, we’ve come to the realization that ‘We make things hard’ is becoming just as true. But it’s our customers that do harder things.
Coming to Pemba has given the team here a glimpse of what island life and the challenges that come along with it.
The goal today was to install a small weather station at the lighthouse on Pemba. We’ve installed these weather stations before in various places, including on Mt. Kenya and this was a good excuse to test the new PicoBRCK V3. PicoBRCK is an IoT gateway and edge node. We’ve been working on this now for a few years, slowly perfecting what it means to connect sensors in some of the remotest parts of the globe.
The weather station we’ve used as the base is mostly unexciting, however, the PicoBRCK is. The V3 now includes remote OTA updates, onboard flash storage and even lower power usage than before. But what we learned was completely unrelated.
Arriving at the lighthouse Liz and Birir began to prepare the weather station, the team had shipped some new base firmware, so we needed to do a manual upgrade of the device before putting it online. First thing to do was to download all the tools to flash the firmware, so out came the SupaBRCK and within moments we’ve got the truck set up as a mobile hotspot, a quick skype call back to BRCK HQ and we are off again.
Lesson 1. Third party tools make life hard when you are alone.
We’re more privileged than most, travelling with SupaBRCK has meant that we’ve had pretty constant access to communication, something that isn’t a reality for most here. Without the SupaBRCK, we would have never gotten the firmware updated, and the weather station would never be up. We need to make our offline tools work for those who are offline. We’ve been building online tools for a while, and in building those out, sometimes its easy to forget that you’re a long way from online a lot of the time in remote areas, sometimes that little bit of information can help you get connected faster.
Once we had the system set up, it was about getting it up and reading real data. Mark, who’s spent a lot of time in Tanzania, we set to talk to the Yusef, the lighthouse keeper to get his blessing. Well it turns out we didn’t have the approvals we thought we did, and we had to improvise to make it work.
Lesson 2. Flexibility is critical when you are expecting the unexpected.
When we got permission to mount the weather station, we had to work out how to mount this. One of the great thing about PicoBRCK is its small size, but the weather station was bigger. How to mount this. We’ve been thinking a lot about different options for mounting the PicoBRCK and the SupaBRCK, however sometimes in the office its too easy to think about standardizing everything, and trying to force our installs into simple boxes. Mounting the weather station involved everything we had in the toolbox, every zip tie we had and scavenging U-bolts from every antenna. Deploying with all eventualities in mind, and the ability for the hardware to be flexible is critical.
We loaded up the daladala’s again with all the gear and people and set off to the new digs, Verani Beach, our home for the next 3 nights. Everyone got sorted out, went for a swim and chilled out for a bit. Brandon from the Good All Over team got out the drone and headed out over the ocean.
All of a sudden Brandon bolted up and ran at full speed towards the sea, a few people looked up, but no one connected his urgency with the splash of moments ago. Minutes passed and finally the penny dropped that Brandon was chasing the drone as it bubbled towards the ocean floor. 6 of us jumped up and chased Brandon down. ‘He’s got it… come the f#$k back!…’ repeated from the shore. We hauled the drone out, and Brandon, exhausted from 300m of race pace swimming and countless repeated dives needed hauling out as well.
Lesson 3. Keep it simple stupid
A DJI Inspire drone is an amazing piece of machinery, designed in Shenzhen, the greatest electronics and robotics community in the world. It wasn’t meant to be field stripped on the sandy coastline of Pemba, hundreds of miles from the nearest oscilloscope, but we knew we had only a few hours to strip it down and get all the salt water out of the complicated electronics, bearings and mechanisms.
We carry a lot of tools with us, but we did not anticipate the 300+ screws of 10 different types, from M8 hex bolts, to M2 pozi’s and M3 Torx drives. We were laughed at by the guys working on the Land Rover, with their 10mm spanners and a single screwdriver. Tonight we’ll attempt the recovery, without wrongly sized screwdrivers, and see if we can get this thing back in the sky for the trip home.
It’s been an interesting day, full of engineering, personal and team challenges. We’ve succeeded in getting our objectives done, but we’ve learned a lot today about how to make BRCK products world beating in our part of the world. Why do we use technology designed in New York and London Shenzhen for problems in Nairobi and New Delhi, and Shimoni?
This BRCK expedition to Pemba has been 2 years in the making, and in that time my mind has often considered what it would be like for me to come back to this place. When we left over three years ago, it truly was in a blaze of glory.
After accepting a new job in Nairobi, we took a final four weeks on the island to pack up and say goodbye, and somehow that last month seemed like a final Good Riddance from Pemba to us, and the same in return. The transformer in our village blew out, and spares from the Zanzibar electrical company were just not coming. Those hot and difficult weeks were spent running a small Honda generator day and night for power, dripping as we packed and planned. That time-frame saw me arrested by a colleague in order to settle a debt between him and hotelier, a deal which I had negotiated and left them to resolve.
That stressful dispute finally settled, just a few hours from our departure, and us still sweaty from the many trips to and from our house and the port to pack all of our belongings intro trucks, followed by boats, the brakes on my Land Rover seized on the road to my workshop where I was headed for one final goodbye, and I rolled in with the front hub in flames. With the car still on fire, I rushed into the workshop, and grabbed the fire extinguisher, which I hadn’t needed in our 5 years of life in Pemba, and extinguished our faithful Landy, realizing I’d have to abandon the car for good, still smoldering and to sweat it out – perhaps forever – in our wake.
I wished good friends farewell, but the island had sent me off in a bitter fashion. First to the seaport to send all our worldly goods to a new life and new adventure, I boarded a plane for the same, and with all the hassles behind me, I was glad to be leaving for sure.
At the port, I remember remarking that this was the last time I’d transport 4 truckloads of luggage between the port of Wete, Pemba and the port of Shimoni, Kenya. Last Sunday however, after nearly 11 hours on the road to get from Chyulu Hills to Simoni, I found myself packing up yet another jahazi, this time in reverse, heading from Shimoni to Wete. After 5 years of transporting furniture from Pemba to customers in Nairobi, the process of moving people and cargo through the port was well known. Three years later I knew the system hadn’t changed, but thought maybe some of the people had.
After introductions and declaring the intent of our journey to the immigration officials in Shimoni, we began the arduous process of stamping passports and collecting paperwork for the onward journey. We had to clear with the Kenya police, the marine police, the customs officials and the revenue authority. One clearance document seemed to be slipping from of our grasp. After waking the relevant officials in KRA, we were informed that the form C32, used for importing/ exporting vehicles over the border, had never been used in Shimoni before.
In a port that dealt with seagoing cargo, a registered Kenyan car or motorcycle had never been taken through the port. We were told they could order the forms from Lunga Lunga, about an hour’s drive to the Tanzanian border, but with it already being 10pm, it wouldn’t arrive until Monday. We weren’t to be dissuaded or disheartened. A long, winding journey to wake up the owner of the only cyber café/print shop in town allowed us to download the proper form from the internet, print off 4 copies; two for us and two in case some other foolhardy souls decide to follow in our footsteps in the future.
After finishing the passenger manifest and submitting it to the maritime police, the ship captain, Hamadi and I started the negotiations for the trip. After realizing that they hadn’t brought the size boat we had ordered (jahazis are slightly smaller, wooden sailboats than the much larger Mashua we had been hoping for) and after seeing how much space the kit of a film crew, 16 people and two motorcycles can take up, we both agreed we were going to need more room or a bigger boat.
The perpetual hassle of trips like these are not without a spot of luck from time to time. Another ship captain who was loading coconuts into his boat at the time was headed to another port on the northern tip of Pemba. After 20 minutes of haggling back and forth we came to an agreement and 2 motorcycles and 8 of our passengers would ride with them, and we would sail together to the port of Vumawimbi.
At 1:30 AM, only about 30 minutes behind schedule, all 16 people, 2 motorcycles and all the camera bags, tents, food and personal luggage were loaded, and we weighed anchor and set off for Pemba. After rounding Wasini island, the small landform off Shimoni, we headed out into the open ocean, navigating by the stars, south to Pemba. About 2 hours into the journey the dim, pulsating light of the Kigomasha lighthouse began to shine in the distance. Reassuringly beckoning us to our destination across the channel, from the top of a 120-year-old rickety steel structure, where two days from now we will put in a PicoBRCK weather station, to collect weather data from the area.
We pulled into Msuka Bay and into the calm waters and white sands of a quiet Vumawimbi Beach just before sunrise, to find our daladala waiting in the shade of an old muarobaini tree. At 6 am, the reunions began. Our driver was an old friend of mine that had driven ox carts and lorries to my shop many times during our time in Pemba, bringing trunks and logs to the sawmill, and hauling away finished product to ship to customers, wherever they may be.
After the boats were unloaded (no small feat!) we headed off to Wete by road to clear customs and immigration properly, and to make our ‘official’ arrival into Tanzania. After nearly 24 hours on the road from Chyulu to Wete, we finally dropped our bags at a friend’s house, and dropped the Good All Over crew at the guest house where they’d be staying. Having missed a whole night of sleep, everyone set about getting a little bit of rest – much needed for the saddle-sore motorcyclists and those with knots in their backs from 5 hours of shifting and straining to get comfortable on bags of coconuts.
A few hours of shut-eye/siesta and recharge, and then up again to tackle the next few days of testing BRCK product in another logistically challenging locale, this time with the waters of the Indian Ocean surrounding us on all sides.
Coming back to Pemba has been like coming home. This time, though, with new eyes, all that is challenging feels like an opportunity. All that is hard rings as worthwhile. My life has had its seasons. I have seen ease and difficulty as it ebbed and flowed. The tide, which inevitably goes out, also comes in again. This time, it brought me with it, and it’s wonderful to be back.
When you hear about breakfast at Mukururo base near Amboseli, what do you think it looks like? Some hyenas eating a lion’s leftovers? Well… I would also think the same but 4th Nov the view right outside the camp was breathtaking for the team and I bet even the hyenas would agree with me. The sunrise view is one of a kind that reveals the beauty of the African landscape.
This is the second day for us in Mukururo and we have the privilege of setting up a Moja for Big Life at the conservancy. Moja is a product of BRCK which allows users to access free internet through a SupaBRCK. The SupaBRCK is a rugged router, which is waterproof dustproof and so strong that you can drive a Land Rover over it several times without breaking it. Yet it is beautifully designed giving it a superior look with the metal casing making it stand out even in the wild. If the SupaBRCK was human, it would qualify to be a bodybuilder.
We start by preparing pancakes for breakfast right outside the camp using my own Mhogo Foods Cassava flour (a company I run) which is a gluten-free and grain-free flour and the best replacement for wheat. As Ruth and I cooked the pancakes, everyone in the team enjoyed every bite and I realized that their faces are brighter and hangovers are gone. There is something about cooking in the wild that makes you want to stay there and eat till you drop. The antelopes and zebras are just staring at us and I am sure they secretly wish that we could get them a tent and give them some of the pancakes.
After breakfast, we head out to the ranger’s base to set up a Moja with an antenna mounted on the roof top so as to make sure that the rangers and their visitor’s access free internet at a wide range. Even before we finish securing the antenna, some rangers are busy enjoying the cached content while other are enjoying free internet provided Moja Free Wifi. We train them on how to use the device (which most of them already know) and have lengthy chats with them.
Around 2PM and we head out for a game drive right after having our lunch. The rough and beautiful landscape makes you want to stop after every few meters and to take a photo or to even get out of the land rover and breathe. We finally get to this beautiful view of Kilimanjaro where we make toast and enjoy our sundowners. When we started the expedition, I thought that we were all going to die… But So far, I have enjoyed every bit of the expedition and I can’t wait to see what is in store for tomorrow.