It was 5 years ago that we created BRCK as a company, and I’ve had the great joy of being on a journey with some fantastic people, including the three here with me in this picture (Reg Orton, Emmanuel Kala, and Philip Walton).
We had an idea of what we were getting into back in October 2013, but none of us were sure where it would actually take us. All we knew then was that the barriers to creating hardware had dropped enough for us to get into it, that there was a problem in the internet connectivity space in Africa (and other frontier markets), and that we had the right mixture of skills, naiveté, and optimism to figure it out. Over the next 12 months we grew to a team of 10 that had this the desire to meet a big challenge and believed we could do hard things. As I write this, 8 of those 10 are still at BRCK.
In the intervening years we’ve built 3 full products and taken them to market (BRCK v1, Kio Kit, SupaBRCK), and a fourth (PicoBRCK) that is still in R&D. That alone is quite an accomplishment. I hadn’t known back in 2011 when the idea for creating a device was first hatched, just what the life cycle of building a hardware+software product would be. I do remember having a conversation with an old friend, Robert Fabricant, that I thought we should be done with the first one in about a year. He laughed and said it would be at least 2-3 years. He was mostly right.
I’ve since learned that it takes approximately 18 months for a product to go through the concept, design, testing, productization, and first samples stages. Then it typically takes us another 9 months for iterations and small fixes on hardware to happen, while that same time is spent concurrently hardening up the software side of things. For example, our most recent SupaBRCK took approximately almost two years from conception to product, and then another 6 months of continued fixes/changes to the low-level software and the hardware before it worked well consistently.
Asking the Right Question
You would often hear us saying, “Why do we use hardware designed for London or New York, when we live in Nairobi or New Delhi?” as a way to frame the problem we thought we were solving. It was only in late December 2014, after we had shipped the BRCK v1 to 50+ countries, that we realized we were only partially on the right track.
It turns out the problem isn’t in making the best hardware for connectivity in difficult environments. Sure, that’s part of the equation – making sure that you have the right tools for people to connect to the internet. But the bigger question involves people, who is connecting to the internet and who isn’t? If, after many years of building BRCK, we had built the best, most rugged and reliable solution for internet connectivity, that would be something we could pat each other on our backs for. However, if the problem instead was “How do we get the rest of Africa online?”, and we were able to solve that problem, then that was a legacy we’d be proud to tell our children about one day.
Sitting in our tiny office around Christmas 2014, we started thinking hard about this bigger issue and began doing deeper research into the problems of this loosely defined “connectivity” space. We started doing some user experience research, manon the street interviews, to figure out what the pain points were for people in Kenya.
Connectivity can generally be broken into two buckets:
First, accessibility – can I connect my device to a nearby signal?
Second, affordability – can I afford that connection?
The results were quite telling, it was definitely about affordability.
For everyone who’s not deep in African tech, let me lay out some interesting numbers for you. Accessibility in most of the emerging markets has been moving rapidly since the mid-2000s when we started to get the undersea cables coming into the continent. These cables then went inland and started a rapid increase in available internet connections and wholesale internet costs decreased rapidly. Since 2008 we’ve had more than one million kilometers of cable dug across the continent, and we have over 240,000 cell phone towers. Concurrently, the mobile device prices continued to drop globally, and by 2016 we started to have more smartphones imported into Africa than non-smartphones.
Reaching deeper into the market research, we started to study this affordability problem.
“A4AI found that the average price of 1GB prepaid mobile broadband, when expressed as a % of average per capita Gross National Income (GNI), varied between 0.84% in North America and 17.49% in Africa.”
It turns out that in almost every country in Africa, there is a consistent ratio among all the smartphone owners in a country: 20% could afford to pay for the internet regularly, and an incredible 80% couldn’t.
Interestingly, when we looked at who else was working in this connectivity space, almost everyone was focused on accessibility, not affordability. Those that were focused on affordability thought that just making the price cheaper was enough. What we’ve seen is that if you just make “less expensive” subscription WiFi (as most do), then you’ll capture another 10% of the market. And while that can make a profitable enterprise, it still leaves 70% of the market unaddressed.
This last blue ocean of internet users in Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America, is still largely ignored. Those who do have the resources go to after it tend to try with iterative approaches in both business models around affordability, and only marginal creativeness in solving for technology accessibility.
Moja Means ONE
It’s taken us five years, going through multiple iterations of new tech, building new hardware, and creating new software stacks that go from the firmware up to the cloud. We’ve been mostly quiet for the past year as we put our heads down and tried to take a new platform to market. Where are we now?
“Moja” means “one” in Swahili, and it was the brand name that we chose to call the software platform that we would build on top of the BRCK hardware. While Moja means one, “pamoja” means “together” or “oneness”, and that was the root we were looking for. To us, Moja is the internet for everyone.
We started by trying to make it work on the BRCK v1, but that was a bit like trying to make a sedan do a job built for a lorry (truck) – it wasn’t powerful enough. The SupaBRCK was envisioned as the hardware we could leverage that would allow us to not just have enough of a powerful and enterprise-level router, but a tool that was actually a highly ruggedized micro-data center. With this, we could host content on each device, as well as get people connected to the internet. Another way to think about the accessibility side of what we do is that we have a new model for how a distributed CDN works on a nation-scale, moving away from the centralized model that the rest of the world uses. In environments like Kenya, we can’t continue to just copy and paste models from more developed infrastructure markets, we have to think of new ways to deal with how the undergirding system actually works and operates.
We give the internet away for free to consumers. How does that work if we all know that the internet isn’t free? After all, someone always pays.
The business model is an indirect one. We charge businesses for some form of digital engagement on our Moja platform (app downloads, surveys, or content caching), and the free internet to our consumers is a by-product of this b2b business model. Like everyone else, we thought we could do it with advertising at first. But we realized that our unique hardware capabilities allowed us some other options, since advertising is a poor option for all but a few of the biggest global tech platforms.
Today we’ve deployed 850 of the SupaBRCK’s running our Moja software into public transportation (buses and matatus) in Kenya and Rwanda. They’ve been quite successful with almost 1/4 million unique users monthly in just the first 3 months. We have both a tested and working technology platform, as well as product market fit. With unit economics that make sense, a growing user base, and a business model that works, we’re excited for the growth phase of the business. This next step means going nation-scale in each of these countries, and also determining our next market to enter.
It’s important that ordinary people across Africa and other frontier markets can stop thinking about the costs of the internet and don’t have to turn off their mobile internet on the smartphones that they already have in their pockets.
Once they know they can afford it, the way they used the internet changes dramatically. An Internet like this is feasible today, and it’s a cheaper, faster, more distributed and resilient one. It’s also being built from the ground up in Africa, where we’re close to both the technology and human problems, and have a better chance of building a the right thing.
Thoughts and Lessons Over 5 Years
First, make sure it’s a big enough problem.
If you’re going to spend 5+ years of your life on something, make sure it’s something that matters. At BRCK we are creating the onramp to the internet for anyone to connect to the internet, and a distribution platform for organizations trying to reach them. If we succeed we only succeed at scale, which by its nature means that we’ve done something big and that it has made a large impact on people.
Second, figure out what to focus on.
When you start out it’s difficult to determine product market fit. We started with a wide funnel of possibilities for our technology, industries that we could target and consumer plays. Over time, we were able to narrow down what could work, and what we could actually do, to the point where we focused on this big “connecting people” problem. We did detour into education with our Kio Kit, which we still think is one of the best (if not the best) holistic solutions for emerging market schools – after all, it’s in places across Africa, as well as the Pacific Islands and as far as Mexico. However, it proved to be too costly for our bottom line to hold inventory, sales cycles are too long, and it was largely a product sale. When we realized that, we started to focus most of our efforts on the bigger underlying issue across all of the markets, which was affordable connectivity and our Moja platform.
Third, persistence trumps skill.
building hardware is hard. It’s even harder doing it in Africa. The upside however is that you’re both closer to the problem, and that if you succeed in figuring it out, you have a good head start on everyone else. The process takes time, costs money, and there are people and organizations who don’t want you to succeed. It always takes longer than you want to get software working properly, or hardware built and reliable. We’ve often been faced by that same problem that plagues all venture backed companies in Africa, in that you have to do a lot of education to investors to even raise the capital, and then when you do you get charged a premium for perceived risk. Partner organizations take resources and time to work with, and they don’t always come through on their promises. All of these things (and more) mean that the best ideas don’t always win in the market, because it’s those that push the hardest and longest that win.
Fourth, it’s the people you do it with.
If you’re going to be on a journey that takes a great deal of time, with intense pressure, and where success is not guaranteed, then you had better do it with people that you can trust, who you can work with, and it helps if you like them too. Throughout my work career I’ve been more fortunate than most (whether at Ushahidi, iHub or BRCK), and this time is no exception. I get to work with a host of wonderful people; not just smart and talented, but also genuinely good human beings. It makes work a joyful challenge, not an exhausting chore.
So, to those back in the day who believed we could do this when it was just a sketch in my notebook, thank you Shuler, Kobia, Nat and Juliana (and the rest of the team at Ushahidi). To our investors who have joined us in this dream of connecting and doing hard things, you’ve continued to step up and that has made this possible. Thank you.
To Jeff, Janet, Birir, Kurt, Barre, and Oira, thank you for sticking it out for all these years and stepping up to more leadership challenges as we’ve evolved. To Philip, Reg, and Kala, I want to thank you for making the impossible happen, time and again, each for more than 5+ years.
This is a guest post by Philip Smart, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from the US, sharing his takeaways from a summer in Africa interning for BRCK.
BRCK is a disruptive Kenyan startup with a mission to connect Africa to the Internet. Central to the company’s mission is building technology for Africans by Africans—this poster hangs in the office entrance.
Sure, tear gas in the city centre can make UX research difficult. Sometimes a 30-minute commute triples when your Matatu runs out of gas. And every now and then your phone calls will drop mid-sentence.
These are the occasional roadblocks I saw this summer while interning at BRCK, but these problems are not insurmountable (unlike a Matatu out of gas in Nairobi traffic).
Matatus are the public transport used in Kenya, usually adorned with spray paint and blaring Kenyan hip hop music videos inside. Some are reminiscent of Mad Max Fury Road.
At BRCK, Kenyans solve these difficult problems. In fact, the company’s motto is “You can do hard things.” And it happens every day there—BRCK is currently tackling the problem of connectivity in Africa, starting in Nairobi. They are installing their SupaBRCK in Matatus, providing free WiFi to Kenyans through a platform called Moja. Moja lets Kenyans connect to the internet without using data bundles, placing the cost burden on advertisers instead of consumers.
The SupaBRCK is a rugged, off-grid connectivity device and microserver giving Kenyans a chance to be a part of the digital economy.
Business models like this and the contextual knowledge from being African are what makes companies like BRCK successful. They have a full-stack Kenyan development team who have built products that change the way Africa connects.
And this innovation doesn’t just happen at BRCK. Just down Ngong road is Nairobi Garage, and a few blocks away is the iHub, both filled with entrepreneurs and energy. All doing hard things.
Adam Reineck, Ideo.org’s Global Design Director, giving a talk to a packed crowd at Nairobi’s incubator space iHub. Ideo.org has three offices: New York, San Francisco, and, now, Nairobi.
Doing hard things seems almost central to Kenyan culture. Any Kenyan will tell you about “The Hustle”—finding ways to get by. Just ask Mark Kamau, whose self-taught design principles helped him move out of Mathare, a slum in Nairobi. Something he said soccer couldn’t do.
But for many of the startups in Kenya and Africa, the hustle isn’t just to make a quick buck. Many solve fundamental issues that further their communities in meaningful ways. They have an important why to their work and aren’t just looking for a unicorn exit.
Mark Kamau doing what he does best.
There’s plenty of inspiring work like this happening in Africa, but it’s often difficult to attract foreign investment there. The infrastructure challenges combined with the homogenous VC market make it an unlikely destination for VC money.
So maybe next time a VC dips into the piggy bank, they should consider investing in Africa. If VCs really want to make a world of difference, they should invest outside of where they’re most comfortable.
Thank you to the BRCK team for an incredible summer! I learned a lot about tech, and even more about life. Credit to them for being such an inspiring, fun crew.
I recently had an opportunity to represent BRCK in the largest design conference in the world, Design Indaba. In the conference I had a chance to represent BRCK’s work, but perharps more importantly, what the work represents in relation to a wider African perspective.
Africa has for the longest time endured a perspective and narratives that belie the potential, ingenuity and drive within its borders. The structures of media messaging that still portray Africa in a certain light don’t help.
From a practical perspective, people living in Africa have for the longest time seen western multinational companies that control global resources concern themselves with the huge challenges that face the world, specifically Africa.
Internet connectivity is a case in point. Over 3 billion people in the world don’t have adequate connectivity to one of the most important socio-economic resource, over 800 million of those are in Africa. In Kenya, over 35 million of the 45 million people don’t have adequate access to the internet. A majority lack connectivity because they live in places with poor on no internet infrastructure. Many of those who do simply cannot afford it. Studies show the average low income Kenyan can only spend an average of 20Kshs on internet bundles (approximately 20USD cents).
If you think of the challenge of connecting the next 3 billion people to the internet, I wager the first people who come to mind are the large companies like Google and Facebook. We have an invisible ceiling of what scale Africans and African companies can think of solutions for Africa.
Why cant African companies think of these Lion sized challenges for Africa?
Due to lack of resources and other reasons, we relegate ourselves to scratch the surface on issues affecting Africa and Africans, while we surrender the solutions for Lion sized challenges to the west.
BRCK and BRCK products challenge this ceiling and with good reason. With SupaBRCK and Moja, we have been working tirelessly to establish an infrastructure that does not rely on traditional infrastructure to connect people to the internet. Imagine getting into a matatu and getting free internet connectivity. BRCK is taking ownership of the connectivity challenge and thinking big. We are connecting the unconnected 3 billion one user at a time.
The same to education. The Kio Kit stands on the shoulders of the predecessors who have come to Africa and try to solve the challenge of providing digital solutions for education in African classrooms. They include one laptop per child from MIT media lab and others. We have taken learnings from challenges these deployments have and built a solution that relies on deep contextual research and design to develop a solution that is pushing digital education even further.
Presenting real examples of how BRCK is taking on Lion sized challenges for Africa resonated with the well informed crowd at design Indaba, and was in line with like minded speakers who embrace a proactive, afrofuturist perspective that is pushing Africa forward in various fields of media, the arts among others.
It also is quite something that the largest design conference is In Africa. Way to go design Indaba, Way to go Africa.
There is never a dull moment when the BRCK engineering team goes out for a field trip to test out new tech. The experience and victories gained are always priceless. This time the team set out to the world’s largest refugee complexabout 90km back from the Kenya-Somalia border. The mission, as we had chosen to accept: To pilot the PicoBRCK for the UNHCR WASH project at one borehole location.
The Dadaab refugee complex hosts almost a quarter million people people which requires UNHCR WASH to treat and pump a total of 10 million litres of water per day from 28 boreholes scattered around the complex. This is a pretty amazing feat to accomplish and it is stunning to see how the WASH team in Dadaab meticulously pulls it off, considering the sheer size of the area the complex occupies. To improve this process, BRCK and UNHCR teamed up to provide a solution that would enable remote monitoring of water generation and water treatment using the PicoBRCK as an IoT platform.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Dadaab is the glaring sun that makes you sweat enough water to make some cloud cover later in the day. More importantly, we were interested in how the lithium batteries in the PicoBRCKs would cope with the high temperatures. The PicoBRCKs run off Lithium Polymer batteries which are generally designed to charge best between 0 and 45 degrees Celsius;the high temperatures might cause some power related issues later on during the pilot period.
Every project has its hiccups and this one was no different. Airtel, the original network carrier we chose for the installs was down during the time we were in Dadaab. We had specifically confirmed coverage and operability of the Airtel network on our first trip to Dadaab but it was not to be. Luckily, we were able to find sim cards from a different network provider and replace the ones we had.
The PicoBRCK can integrate to any sensor through a daughter board and supports sensors via SPI, I2C, UART and General Purpose IO. For the UNHCR WASH project, we integrated one PicoBRCK to a chlorine and temperature sensor to monitor the amount of chlorine dosed per litre of water. We installed the second PicoBRCK to a hall effect sensor over the water flow meter as a non intrusive way to digitally measure the rate of flow of water. For this pilot deployment we tapped into the power being supplied to the chlorine doser. We ran cables from the generator room to the PicoBRCK and installed a 240V AC socket where we plugged in a 12V adaptor to keep the PicoBRCK power topped up. The waterproof PicoBRCK case made it much easier and convenient for the installs. We could have it mounted practically anywhere we needed to. For one of the units, we had to use a tree that stood close to the water meter! Future installs will take advantage of the PicoBRCK’s solar charging capability which will make the installation procedure even more straightforward.
On the third day of the install process, we successfully got both PicoBRCKs up and reporting to the cloud with viable data for the two week pilot period. After the pilot period, we will install PicoBRCKs at nine other boreholes and hopefully have a positive impact on water consumption data at the complex.
If you ask me, Furahiday is one of the best days for me here at BRCK. It is a day where everyone gets a hands-on experience with users of the Moja Free WiFi out in the field. This is a learning experience for many of us. This quarter’s aim was to interact with users, commuters, drivers and touts, know their frustrations, and tell new users about Moja Free WiFi
Each team comprised two individuals whose job was to interview commuters, drivers and touts and also ensure that the devices in the matatus were online.
Conducting user interviews is no easy task; it requires patience and discipline. Seeing people from BRCK interviewing users is a humbling experience.
I have previously learnt that the key to getting good user feedback is approaching the interview in a relaxed manner. This makes the interviewee feel more comfortable relating with you. Creating that rapport allows an easier communication flow with the interviewee.
This particular Furahiday I partnered up with Jimmy. We had some engaging conversations with the drivers in “Sheng” (Kenyan urban language). Their feedback was enlightening – they shared their pain points and expectations.The experience was eye-opening in a way that I really got to relate to how some people live, appreciate their thoughts and how they can be so efficient in their daily endeavours.
I met Simon, a driver with a 16 year old son who is still in high school. Simon was frustrated, he felt like he was not living up to his expectations, in terms of providing for his family. He earns a meager salary as a driver and has to work two jobs in order to provide for his family. He knows his son would benefit immensely from being able to research on school projects if he had internet access, but he is not able to afford that. I couldn’t help but try to figure out ways in which free access of internet, even in public spaces, can help optimize their lives. At the end of the day the question that kept ringing in my head was “What is lacking? ”.. I think that’s a good starting point!
The Big Takeaway
I must admit that I previously did not understand what empathy really was until I got to interact with real users. Sometimes we build services forgetting that the end user is that “mama mboga” who feels left out by the global economy or that “matatu driver” who feels alienated in the digital world. In other words, we forget about empathy, and that is why as BRCK it is our role to make sure that such people are not left out. What better way to do this than have the team out in the field so that they too can understand and know who we are designing for.
And who said just because we are working we can’t have fun! Erik our (CEO) whose known to be a pro when it comes to taking great photos was spotted at a shoe market and he didn’t have a choice but to smile for the camera.
I struggle to be like Erik and get my images edited and up on Instagram in the middle of chaos. I come from the days of big cameras, film, darkroom, and long periods between clicking the shutter and realising a final image. I like to think about my pictures. I’m never happy with them and I often return to Lightroom and edit them again and again until I at least don’t not like them. This process does not lend itself to the instant forms of social media that we enjoy today. While I continue to work on my publishing speed, I figured I might as well try my hand at a more contemplative photo essay following our journey on Expedition Pemba.
A few weeks back BRCK was in Germany attending Afro-Tech Fest where we presented our core product, the SupaBRCK as part of the art exhibition.
From 20 to 28 October 2017 the Afro-Tech Fest hosted a week-long festival with talks, lectures, film screenings, performances, DJ sets, concerts and workshops in various locations in Dortmund. The programme of events, which coincided with the exhibition Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention by HMKV (Hartware MedienKunstVerein) at Dortmunder U – Centre for Art and Creativity, provided numerous occasions to further explore and discuss the themes and motifs of the exhibition. The event featured works from the realms of media art, fine art, film and photography as well as contributions from popular and digital culture.
Afro-Tech presented speculative projections of the future and current developments in the field of digital technologies by artists and inventors from different countries in Africa, the African diaspora and many other actors in the USA and Europe.
SupaBRCK was on the spotlight as a device built for the future of Africa. It is a rugged micro server that can be used when you’re off grid and you need a reliable connectivity solution that stands up to the challenges of power, connectivity type, and tough environments. With our core solution Moja, a free public WiFi network powered by the SupaBRCK, we are able to push the limits of technology by providing users with affordable connectivity at all times. Information is power and at BRCK our mission is to connect African to the internet giving people access to information that could create a brighter future for them.
The exhibition ends on the 22nd of April 2018. If you are in Dortmund, Germany just pass by DORTMUNDER U, EBENE 3/LEVEL 3 and have a look.
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.