Camping, outdoor fun, and keeping fit are part of an undocumented culture within BRCK. You see, more than half our team is always very excited when there is an outdoor activity. The Lewa Marathon is a significant activity on our calendar and BRCK has taken part for the past four years. This experience is purely about spending time in the wild. From running the 21km marathon to spectating, it’s a wonderful three-day period. We got to bond with workmates, kids, partners, and friends, all with the goal of conserving our wildlife.
I have been to Lewa twice, the first time in 2018 as a spectator, cheering on my teammates. Little did I know that it would be me the next year. In 2019, I went as a runner, determined to race in the marathon. Yes, you read that right; I did 21km, and I survived!
The trip to Lewa involves several stops, but as Izaak Walton once said, “Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” After a long drive, our team gathers at the campsite to set up camp. When we arrive, some members prefer going for game drives to enjoy seeing the beautiful wildlife. The Big 5 tend to come out in the evening so we had to take advantage. We saw a lion, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinos, among others. We were lucky to have our colleague Cyrus capture the amazing scenes and moments. The first night is usually relaxed and quiet compared to Saturday evening. This is because the runners need a good rest in readiness for the morning task. We usually have a bonfire set up as it gets dark.
Doing 21km is not an easy task and takes a lot of preparation. We started practicing in March, with monthly runs in Karura as a team. We encouraged each other on how to go the extra mile each time we ran. The first time we did a 10km run was my wake up call. I ended up walking for 9kms… Things had to change, so I started exercising three times a week. I would also run 10kms every two weeks to keep fit. It got easier with time and by June I was somewhat ready for the task that lay ahead.
My main goal was to finish, because those who had done it before told scary stories about the experience. We were up early on the chilly Saturday morning. I was super excited and nervous at the same time. We got to the starting point as a team and, of course, we had to capture the moment, which in the true sense turned into a mini photoshoot. Those who know me know my love for pictures runs deep. The warm-up dance at the starting line was so exciting and I had to keep reminding myself that I could do it.
Our motto at BRCK is “You Can Do Hard Things.” This was an arduous task, but I was determined to crush this milestone. I love project management, so I always end up dividing my tasks into smaller bits. The gun to start the race went off and I remember having a meeting with myself to affirm that I was competing with no one. I was running for a cause and all I had to do was to get a medal at the finish line. I didn’t start in a rush, I kept my pace for the first 12km and it was amazing. The hills from 14km were not easy, but I was determined to finish, so I kept going.
The organizers took great care of the runners. We had water points every 2km that also had energy drinks, fruits, and a cheering squad and, to be honest, this made the pain a little more bearable. I expected our team to be at every water point, but I was being too ambitious. But when I got to 10km, there they were. When I saw them, I think my energy levels tripled.
My legs decided to take a break when we got to 18km. 3km at Lewa is like 10km in Karura. I struggled to get to the finish line, it was the longest stretch I’ve ever run. I was tired and drained. The water and the fruits helped, but could only do so much. I did all I could to keep encouraging myself in the last phase, and I walked and jogged concurrently. I kept reminding myself that it would get better and before I knew it… I was at the FINISH LINE, having finished on my two feet and without dying in the process. The most exciting thing at the finish line is that you get a medal, a Safaricom gift hamper, a deep tissue massage and the pride of knowing you finished the race.
When it was all over, I felt extremely accomplished. I set a goal and I accomplished it, finishing the race in under three hours. Although I would have been happy to just finish, I also had a secondary motivation during the race… to finish before Paul Obwaka. You see, Paul is one of my colleagues and he made fun of me, saying how he could finish before me even if he ran in reverse. But as the saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” I ended up finishing two minutes before him and best believe I am enjoying the feeling of this moment.
If someone had told me in January 2019 that I would train and run a half marathon, I would have thought they were crazy. But now, a few weeks later, I know I am addicted to that feeling of accomplishment.
The hardest part is signing up, but BRCK made that process easy for us. So at BRCK, the thing that can keep you from succeeding is if you don’t show up and put in the hard work. Running and competing in the marathon offers so many benefits, so I will definitely do it again next year. It’s a habit I have added to my list. And if I can run a half-marathon, anyone can.
Personas are fictional, generalized characters that encompass the various needs, goals, and observed behavior patterns among your real and potential customers. Personas should be informed by research, ideally qualitative and quantitative.Personas should be used as a tool to summarize and communicate research results, building personas can help improve the way you solve problems and speak to your customers. Understanding your customer and the pain you’re solving will allow you to create a better user journey and product for them.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PERSONAS?
The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference. These representations should be based on qualitative and some quantitative studies
Your personas are only as good as the research behind them. Effective personas:
WHAT DO PERSONAS DO?
Represent a major user group for your product/service
Expresses and focuses on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
help put you in the mind of the customer you want to attract.
Give a clear picture of the user’s expectations and how they’re likely to use the product/service
Clearly articulate your customer’s challenges and pain points
Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values
BENEFITS OF PERSONAS
They help add a real world layer to conversations and decision making
They offer a quick and inexpensive way to prioritize feature decisions
They help stakeholders and leadership evaluate feature ideas
Focus information architecture and interaction design
Visual designers can focus their initial design rationale on the personas
Based on user behavior, the system development/engineers team can begin how to approach the challenge
Copy writers can also tailor their content to the appropriate audience
They can help uncover gaps and misalignments between a solution and user needs
Synchronize your team’s efforts and get everyone on the same page.
It is good to focus on only the main audiences you are targeting
The aim of personas is to highlight major needs and give enough insight for action
3-4 key personas are enough per project.
CONDUCT USER RESEARCH
This should help you answer the following questions as a bare minimum
Who are your users
Why would they use the system?
How are they solving that problem now?
What behavior, assumptions and expectations would influence their view of the product/service?
ANALYZE THE RESEARCH
Identify themes and characteristic that are specific to the, relevant and universal to the system
Organize elements into persona groups that represent your target users
See if any of the rough personas can merge. Organize the personas into primary and secondary personas. Aim to have 3-4 personas and their identified characteristics.
MAKE THEM REALISTIC
Describe background, expectations, motivations. Avoid making it too personal. Include only relevant information.
Defining purpose of use
· What do they want to do with the (product/service)?
· Why do they need to do it?
Defining the user
Highest level of education?
How long have they been working?
Why will they interact with the product/service.
(Ask follow up questions if necessary to capture user needs, interests and goals)
How have you been solving this previously (gives some idea where they are getting information and solutions)
When and where will they use the product/service (help narrow environment and context)
What devices do they use on a regular basis? How often?
What software do they use regularly? How often?
Which is their primary device for web information access?
How often are they on the web?
For how long?
What motivates you the most personally?
What are you looking for with the product/service?
What are you looking to do in the end after using the system?
What are your needs to accomplish this?
ELEMENTS OF A PERSONA
A persona should generally have the following information;
Persona group (e.g. System engineer)
Demographic info (Age, education, family status)
Main responsibilities for the job
They social environment
Their physical environment
Their technological environment
A quote that sums up what matters most to this persona
Casual photo representative of this persona group
This is suitable for stakeholders who are not particularly interested in the technical details of the user needs
This is particularly useful for designers who want an easy way to compare user needs with their design work.
Hustler Quick and dirty
This is normally when there isn’t enough research to create a persona.
There are many ways to approach personas. It will normally depend on the context. Personas are living documents and should be reviewed occasionally to respond to the changes to the organization and its target population. With continuous engagement, the value proposition should be refined based on experience and engagement with users.
This week at Mobile World Congress Barcelona, Facebook and BRCK are announcing the open sourcing of Magma, a software platform that contains the tools needed to deploy and extend LTE mobile networks in under connected and unconnected areas of the world. This includes software powering the mobile packet core and network automation and management tools. The reason this is important is that it allows rapid deployment and software development on a technology assumed to be available only to the incumbent MNO’s, and only with software and networks provided by a few behemoth suppliers (Huawei, ZTE, Nokia, etc.).
BRCK’s 2,700 WiFi hotspots in Kenya and Rwanda confine Moja users to a radius of 50-100m, a fundamental limitation of WiFi networks. To give users wider coverage, BRCK has been piloting a low cost, solar-powered data-only LTE deployment that extends the Moja network with blanket coverage across kilometers with the potential to cover thousands of people per tower.
Our Moja platform is the answer for affordable internet where people can’t pay to get online. The business model allows consumers to connect to the internet for free, leveraging their digital engagement to ensure that the bandwidth is paid for. LTE allows that signal to not just work when you are within range of a Moja WiFi hotspot in a restaurant, shop or bus, but works to keep you connected wherever you are – at home, as you hustle, or on the go.
As we continue to expand the Moja network WiFi continues to be the tip of the spear. It’s a great technology with lots of bandwidth, an easy connection model and a very low cost of entry. We are continuing to invest in our work providing WiFI in public transit and have recently invested in fixed access, having recently acquired the Surf network with over 1200 existing sites.. However, LTE has one great advantage: a larger footprint of coverage. LTE operates on licenced frequencies (although there is work being done to change this) and this allows us to use high power LTE radios to transmit a continuous Moja signal over kilometers, not meters, direct to a users device and connect many thousands of people who otherwise don’t have access to affordable internet.
BRCK has embraced Magma as the backbone of our LTE network. The technology is similar to a lot of the work done in the early days of BRCK building high reliability networks in resource poor settings. It distributes the compute load to the edge, allowing for better performance in resource limited settings. It uses modern web compatible APIs and communication protocols that allow us to integrate seamlessly into our existing platforms, and most importantly it breaks the reliance on legacy systems that have put scaleable LTE out of the reach of most. And it’s built on software defined networking, so our upgrade path to 5G isn’t limited by hardware or vendor lock in, just a small matter of programming.
We’ve done a lot of work internally to Magma and shared this back into the open source effort. We’ve built out a MEC (Mobile Edge Compute) platform, localising the Moja platform and increasing the speed to the consumer. We’ve built a network monitoring stack for our wireless backhaul links, and we’ve integrated the platform seamlessly into our WiFi offerings and mesh networks that we run. We’ve also been integrating radios from multiple vendors for different deployment scenarios as well as making Magma work with our own SupaBRCK microserver.
BRCK’s LTE stack is built using the SupaBRCK at its core. SupaBRCK is a rugged outdoor ready. microserver powered by an Intel x86 processor, 8GB of RAM and up to 5TB of storage. Using SupaBRCK and the Magma gateway on the tower lowers the capex and opex of the site significantly by providing a managed all in one hardware solution, and by moving all the critical control traffic off the backhaul network. Innovations like this allow for reliable connectivity even in last mile situations with a lower cost of backhaul than achievable with other solutions.
Moving forward, we are actively piloting more sites with LTE. Deploying Moja on a low-cost solar LTE platform allows us to increase our coverage into underserved areas that traditional operators typically don’t see financial viability in. We are excited about solving the Last Mile Connectivity challenge for Africa and other emerging markets.
BRCK has long been on a mission to create an onramp to the internet for people who can’t afford it regularly. To this end, we built the SupaBRCK that runs the Moja Network, and then started expanding that service in Kenya and Rwanda. Moja is about getting everyone online, even if you can’t afford it, by having businesses buy services from us (content caching, app downloads, surveys, ads) and subsidizing that usage.
The Moja Network has been growing quickly. In January, we passed 300,000 unique monthly users and 3.7m sessions per month. This means we’re not only increasing traction with more users, but that our users are returning to the platform 12x per month. With 1,500 mobile nodes in buses in matatus across Nairobi and Kigali, the Moja Network is one of the largest public WiFi providers in the region.
With this rapid growth in the transportation space, we’ve been getting a lot of demand from our users to expand into fixed locations as well. Near the end of the year we entered into discussions with the leadership team of Surf, the largest fixed public WiFi network in Kenya by number of locations (1,200). The conversations about doing an acquisition of their network and IP went well, and we were able to find a way to put those assets under the BRCK umbrella.
This acquisition continues the velocity of BRCK’s public WiFi user growth, bringing us close to 500k monthly active unique users, and putting us over 5m sessions per month. This makes the Moja Network the largest public WiFi network in East Africa, and second largest on the continent.
One of the great advantages that we were looking for was an ability to have a fixed WiFi strategy to add to our transportation and edge compute model. With the Surf acquisition, BRCK is now able to take off-the-shelf routers, partner with local ISPs, and roll out network faster into fiber-connected locations. All of this will run the Moja platform, so there is a seamless user experience between public locations and public transportation.
From the 15th to 17th of January 2019, four students from the ALX Launchpad (a leadership accelerator program) joined BRCK to get a feel of how the company operates.
Each of the students shadowed an employee of BRCK based on their career preferences and they had the following to say during their short stint at the company:
I have always been fascinated with Data. I love numbers. For the 3 days that I shadowed at BRCK, I got an opportunity to meet really awesome people who not only inspired me but also were willing to share they knowledge in technology. I was placed in the operations department under Brian Birir, the operations data & network supervisor and he taught me a lot. From data extraction, transformation and visualization to programming, BRCK is a really cool organization and hopefully after I finish my studies in software development/programming I can come back to work for them.
I had always admired BRCK from afar, so this week was a true opportunity for me to see the inner workings and how everyone came together to achieve the company’s goal, especially from the design angle. I was lucky enough to be placed with the design team and I was extremely excited! I learned a lot from the brilliant minds at the table and would hope to interact with them more.
Each person that I spoke to was willing to fill me in on what they were doing and how they were going about it, which I really appreciated. From UX to UI and front-end, everyone in the team played their part in making the BRCK brand what it is today. I also really appreciate how everyone in the company made us feel at home and warm. The culture was very tangible unlike other companies I’ve interacted with. Thank you for making that week what it was.
Stacy 1.0 & Stacy 2.0
Our first day at BRCK was all levels of awkward at first, now that I have a superpower of getting comfortable even with awkward silence, and Stacy 1.0 is a typical people person. I took the first hour to just settle in and breathe, not knowing what to expect from the world of technology (that we thought didn’t match our preferences). And that beautiful motto “You can do hard things” made us feel at home instantly because it is the same as our ALX motto.
Before it could all escalate, we had a sit down with the Project Manager. Literally 2 minutes into the conversation, we learnt so much about what her job entails. We love our project management class so seeing actual Gantt Charts and weekly reports made us light up. This experience gave us the confidence to explore what other people in the commercialization team do. We had eye opening conversations about the world of digital marketing and got tips about how to leverage our degrees in the field of marketing and got to understand the vision behind BRCK.
We loved the seamless connection of the different departments to create mind blowing final products. Shadowing BRCK was a blast and a definite turning point for us. We have been motivated to work in a startup environment and in many ways confident to pursue a career in marketing and communications (or us y’all call it … Commercialization). So thank you, a lot for this opportunity. And as we continue to ‘Do Hard Things‘, we only hope and pray our paths cross again.
I’ve argued before, alongside others, that the main inhibitor of ubiquitous and perpetual internet connectivity at a global level isn’t a technology problem, it’s a business model problem. Mostly the tech exists to put the signal everywhere. What we overlook when we say this is, that while that is true, it’s unsavory to point out that many of “those users” are not valuable – that the population covered won’t make a good return on business investment. So, even if you covered the initial cost of the equipment outlay in those areas with a subsidized government funds, without a proper business model to support the ongoing operations of running the network, then the ROI would be weak and maybe even negative.
A low cost tower set up in rural Africa
The unspoken technology issue
Many of the incumbent ISPs and mobile operators have sunk too many resources into legacy technology, and then subsequently, outsourced their technical capacity and platform knowledge to foreign firms. This leaves them in an unfavorable position when it comes to new technology that would decrease the cost of rollout by up to 90%, or of taking advantage of how software is changing the way networks work. Due to heavy GSM investment, the industry thinks it best to switch those from 2G/EGDE to 3G. This misses the mark though, it’s iterative change driven by sunk costs, ignoring the fact that we’re moving to a data-only network world. GSM is a dead man walking. IP networks are the future.
It’s not just me saying this, two years ago Deloitte was saying,
“African MNOs should create business models around smartphone users and brace for the rise of the data exclusives and data centric phone users.”
This then provides the opportunity. This is the time to bring new networks without legacy business or technology paradigms, and the ability to apply web-scale economics to the network itself, backstopped by new open software stacks and business models that don’t rely solely on end-user payment.
Fortunately at BRCK we’ve been able to find great investors and strategic partners who see this bigger picture and understand the investments needed to make change happen in this connectivity industry of ours. BRCK, alongside some other firms, are on the forefront of changes happening across all types of data pipes, at the infrastructure level all the way through to the retail side – for both people and things. And as we start running the numbers it becomes increasingly clear just how big of an opportunity this actually represents. It only helps that many incumbents are stuck in aged technology stacks and legacy business models, so the window for positive change is here and profits are substantial.
East Africa Railways train
A new railroad
I tend to think of what we do in the connectivity space as similar to our forebears building railroads, making it easier, faster and more efficient to move data and connect far-flung parts of the world. The 1990’s brought us the rebels in the form of scrappy upstart mobile operators and ISPs, they were real cowboys and renegades then! Inspiring leaders, courageously trying everything from pre-paid credit models in Africa, to thinking of mobile credit as cash, to digging the first fibre cables into the hard parts of the continent. Regrettably, these cowboys have handed the reins over to our modern day robber barons, sitting fat and happy on their oligopolies (or monopolies), and making damn sure that no one else has a chance to build something better if they can help it.
I like to think that at BRCK we are building the new connectivity railroads. The tip of the spear for us is unlicensed spectrum, where we take advantage of the ability to roll out public WiFi hotspots without much in the way of regulatory or political hurdles. We layer this with a free consumer business model, so that anyone who can get that signal can connect and take advantage of the whole internet. The underlying economics of the Moja platform are built around the idea of a digital economy. Businesses create engagement tasks that users can complete to earn value within the system. Users then spend their value on faster connectivity, premium content, or additional services. The flow of value into and out of the Moja platform creates the monetary value necessary to profitably run the network.
This is just the BRCK model though, and as I sit on some global boards and in meetings I hear of the others trying their new models as well. New technology stacks, driven primarily by open source software (and some key open source hardware plays), are a big part of the significant decrease in the cost profile (both CapEx and OpEx). But again, the business models… this is where we see the real changes coming and I’m excited to have a front row seat.
As these new railroads are built, by us and others, there lies such great opportunity for economic growth, social development, and business profit.
As with most CEOs of younger companies, I find myself on the investment raising treadmill. Doing so for a company focused on internet connectivity in frontier markets provides an extra layer of complexity, since it’s not a sexy of a proposition as a new app for ecommerce, agtech, fintech, etc might be. Those are easier to invest in since you’re playing with a world of software, not any hardware or infrastructure to muddy your hands with. Unfortunately, in my BRCK world, we have to deal with atoms, not just bits and bytes (though we do those too). Which is why many of my conversations find me explaining why connectivity is critical – thus this post.
What I find interesting is that everyone wants to benefit from a basic underlying availability of connectivity, but few understand what it is or why it is so important. If you’re with me at a public event, I’ll eventually spout off something along the lines of, “you can’t have a 21st century economy without power and connectivity.” This is my simplified way of stating that for any industry to be meaningful on the world stage (or even their own country stage), they need the ability to move data. If power and connectivity are the foundation, then the aforementioned ecommerce, agtech, fintech, and others are all pillars that stand on that foundation.
I’ve written before on how smartphone penetration has reached critical mass and proceeds on a noteworthy trajectory across Africa and other frontier markets. Africa, coming from a largely 2g/Edge based on old legacy GSM technology will have some of the highest growth rates in mobile data subscriptions globally, driven by chat apps and mobile video, as we transition to data-only networks. In 2022, there will be eleven times more mobile data traffic in Central and Eastern Europe and Middle East and Africa (Ericsson 2017).
Mobile subscriptions (global)
250M smartphone subscribers in 2016
770M by 2022 (Y-o-Y growth of 30%) (Ericsson 2017)
Over half of mobile phone shipments into Africa in 2016 were smartphones (Deloitte 2017)
All of this means that there are millions of new customers available for new, smart, and data-intensive financial products, agricultural services, marketplaces, logistics, and the list goes on. This is why we’re seeing the rise and rise of startups in these spaces, as well there should be.
What we’re not paying attention to is this: the market is still smaller than it could be.
Imagine that you’re finding amazing market traction with your new mobile lending app, or with your logistics system, or with your online goods marketplace. Imagine that you’re doing well, however did you know that you’re only reaching 20% of the people who own smartphones in the country…. Oh, right, that’s the piece that’s surprising! You could be doing even more, growing faster and capturing more market share if only the other 80% of smartphone owners in your market could afford the costs of getting online regularly to use your service.
This is where BRCK is stepping in with our Moja platform (free to consumer internet). You’ll benefit greatly from our growth. We’ll benefit greatly from your growth.
Even though I’m largely driven by the economic reasoning for connectivity alone, since I believe that the best way for us to make significant change in Africa is to grow wealth for everyday Africans, there is a strong social argument for widespread and affordable connectivity as well.
Connecting an additional 2.5 billion people to the internet would add 2 trillion dollars per year to global GDP and create 140 million jobs
It enables improvements in health (Deloitte 2014)
Unlocks universal education (Deloitte 2014)
Strengthens civil society through public services, social cohesion, and digital inclusion (Deloitte 2014)
It turns out that if we connect people to the largest, greatest network of knowledge and information in the the world, then a lot of great social benefits are realized across a number of important areas. It’s hard to argue against more jobs, better education, better healthcare, more informed citizens, and a stronger civil society in any country.
Connectivity is the foundation
Like everyone else not involved in the plumbing and distribution of the internet, I used to think of this only academically. It’s easy enough to understand and think through intellectually. However, I found that in living it, in dealing with the practicalities of the internet, in coming to know the end-user I began to appreciate just how important connectivity is. Building a new app or service can have big effects, changing the affordability equation for connectivity and you send a shockwave reaching everyone, everywhere.
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.