The Aegis Graham Bell awards was established by the Aegis school of Telecom Data and Science as a tribute to the late father of Telephony, Sir Alexander Graham Bell.
The award’s mission is to recognize outstanding innovations and entrepreneurship in the fields of Telecom, Social, Mobility, Analytics, Cloud, and Security.
This year’s awards ceremony was held on Thursday 9th February 2017 at the NDMC convention centre in New Delhi.
While the rest of the winners were countries with operations in India, BRCK is the only company outside of India that won an award. BRCK’s education solution, the Kio Kit, won the top honours in the mEducation category.
Alex Masika, BRCK Biz Dev Manager, receiving the award
BRCK’s game-changing products and solutions continue to receive international acclaim for use of technologies that are literally revitalizing businesses and communities around the world.
The year has started on quite a high note here at Brck. Our vision still driving us forward; to connect Africa to the internet. That’s exactly what we were doing on Tuesday the 10th of January. Duncan Mochama, Madhav Gajjar, Robert Karume and I were deploying a Kio Kit to one of the most rural parts of Kenya, Ungatani Primary School in the heart of Makindu in Makueni county.
The whole trip was going to be quite a journey (approximately more than 130 km from Nairobi) we therefore had to leave early to reach and arrive back on time. By nine am we’d hit the road and were on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.
We arrived at the local market, Kathonzweni Market in Kathonzweni, at around 12:30 pm, to pick the headteacher, Mr Pascal Kieti, to lead us, as the road to the school would be quite tricky for first-time visitors to navigate through. It was also to be a 20 km journey from the said market to the school.
After a much bumpy all-weather-road drive, we finally arrived at the school. It is a beautiful school enveloped in trees and bushes in a quiet and serene environment perfect for learning. The school has children of all levels, from class one to eight. We immediately set to start the training; to the seven teachers first (four had left for a Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development training), then an introduction of the Kio Kit to the kids afterwards.
The training is usually an enjoyable and interesting session. The teachers listened intently throughout the process and were eager to learn and experiment on all the available content and tech techniques as applied on the Kit. They were especially intrigued by the broadcast feature, which basically helps the teacher broadcast whatever they are seeing on their tablet, to the children at the same time. Once they felt confident enough, we got one of them to teach a class while using the Kio Kit.
The Children were just beautiful, expectant and ready as always. We got them introduced to the Kio Kit, what it is, how it functions and what it is supposed to help them achieve.
Afterwards, the teacher gave them a class on the breathing system from eKitabu content on the Kit. The lesson flowed smoothly and was a success not only on the part of the teacher, but also for us as Brck.
It was a learning experience to know where and how to work on the Kio Kit to make it better and simpler with time. It’s always a worth while trip once you see the smiles on the children’s faces and receive endless amounts of gratitude from the teachers and kids. Once again a generation has been touched.
We board flight UNO 405H at 0730 hrs from Wilson Airport and 1hr 45 mins later, we are at Kakuma Town in Turkana County. Have you ever seen photos of Turkana people? Most of the photos show a bunch of men and women, boys and girls, young and old Turkana people with short, thick and kinky hair smelling of sun. Do you know how the sun smells? Neither do I. They are usually in their best clothes which are ironically their everyday clothes.
This is not the case in Kakuma Refugee Camp. The Kakuma refugee camp is in Kakuma Town and is buzzing with activity. The camp was established in 1992 to accommodate refugees from Sudan but was later expanded to accommodate refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. According to the latest UNHCR statistics, the Kakuma Refugee camp hosts more than 100,000 refugees.
Janet and I are here to deploy the Kio Kit at the Amani Boys’ Centre, a boys’ rescue centre which is run by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). The temperatures are high. Francis, our contact in Kakuma hands us a bottle of water when we arrive and advises us to stay hydrated.
The camps where we will be spending the next two days is a fenced and secure area with nice concrete rooms and a kitchen. Soon after breakfast we leave for the Jesuit ICT centre where refugees are enrolled for ICT classes. It is an organised institution with two computer labs each with close to 20 computers. This is where we are going to train Paul, the systems administrator at the centre, and his team of 5 including Greg St. Arnold, the Regional Education Coordinator Eastern/Southern Africa.
On day two and we drive to Amani Boys’ Centre, which is 10Kms from Kakuma Town, for training. Janet introduces the Kio Kit to the boys who are between the ages of 6 years and 19. Having grown up in harsh conditions both from their home country and in the refugee camp, 70% of the boys in the centre had not interacted with a smartphone or a tablet before.
They were curious to learn and interact with the Kio Tablets which made the training easy and enjoyable and in less than an hour, the boys had learnt how to navigate on the Kio Tablet. The trainer- Felix Otieno- starts training the boys with the choice of content like Mr. Nussbaum Games.
The best thing about the sessions for the boys was that they thought they were just playing, not learning. Yet over the few days we were with them, we noticed how much more confident they became in class and also with using the device.
The real work we do is focused on what our customers need, and we figure that out in two ways. First, we spend a lot of time with them. Second, is we do quite a bit of internal testing, as can be seen from the expedition to Mt. Kenya, testing out some new sensor connectivity products.
Some of this work is done just because it’s good to do, as Juliana and Rufus continued to support the Africa Cancer Foundation work, going all over the country to bring connectivity in their efforts to help with cancer screening.
We get very close and spend a lot of time with the people using our products. The Kio Kit, our education solution has been doing well, but we always strive to make it better. Mark, Alex and Nivi lead much of this work as they visited schools, spending time with teachers and students from Malawi to Tanzania, as well as here in Kenya with our trip to Samburu, spending 7 days with Kiltamany Primary School and working with one of our partners, Liquid Telecom to speed up their overall network (see video below).
Other partnerships have continued to grow. Intel has become a great partner, where we work with both their chip and education teams on multiple products and projects. The same applies to our local partners in Upande, who we’ve teamed up to do quite a bit of intense water sensor work in a county in Kenya. New partners this year include; Swissport, Illuminum Greenhouses, Norwegian Refugee Council, Close the Gap International, BookAid, and Paygo Energy.
Stuff we make
Kio Kit now in 11 countries
We started shipping the Kio Kit in the beginning of the year. After getting the kits out to a few customers in some pretty hard to reach areas, we realized we needed to harden the case to manage the rough transport that is required to get it to its destination. The hardware and software teams continued to improve both, culminating in what we feel is the best holistic education solution on the market.
Kio Kit to be used to scale up a rapid response to educational needs in emergencies. In partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council, youth and out of school children in Dadaab refugee camp will use the Kio Kit to improve their literacy and reading skills in English and Somali.
Our customers agree. Not only have they been back for repeat orders, but we’ve shipped Kio Kits to 11 countries around the world – stretching from the Solomon Islands to Mexico, and of course here in East and Southern Africa.
BRCK v1 goes end of life
As we get ready for the next generation of BRCK hardware, we decided to stop orders on the old BRCK hardware. Since the end of 2015 the team has been pushing hard on the next generation core device, using all of the lessons we’ve learned from both the original BRCK and the Kio Kit. The new BRCK will be an enterprise-grade device, more details in the new year.
R&D – continuing the innovation cycle
It turns out that there are a number of companies across Africa who badly need an IoT solution that works in our environment. Something reliable and inexpensive that can connect information from their valuable equipment and assets to the people who make decisions.
The original BRCK box states, “connectivity for people and things”, and what we found out is that the BRCK v1 might technically be able to do some IoT work, but it wasn’t the right device for it. 2016 has seen us go through the early stages of our new PicoBRCK device, an answer to the rugged IoT needs across Africa’s enterprises. While still in development, we expect a final product in 2017.
2017: The Year Ahead
Expect two new products this year from BRCK, as mentioned above. A lot of the hard work put in by the hardware, software, and design teams in 2016 will bear fruit this year as we get to final productization and are able to scale out for customer orders. Much of the effort from the BRCK team will be spent on finalizing and shipping these products, while also supporting and growing the base for Kio Kit.
On the business side of the house, we’re ramping up our supply chain to manage the increasing demand for all products. We’ll continue to extend beyond Kenya into other interesting markets, which always includes East African countries, and many Southern African ones as well. We also have a few surprises up our sleeves which we can’t talk about in public quite yet. 🙂
A huge thank you to our partners who we’re doing so much work with, and of course our families who are such a great support in the ups-and-downs of a young company’s life. A big thanks to our friends at Ushahidi, the iHub, Gearbox and Akirachix who make life in the Nairobi tech ecosystem such a wonderful experience. My biggest thank you goes out to the BRCK team, the ones who you don’t see on stage and who sometimes clock crazy hours to solve problems, run spreadsheets, create new designs, think up new ideas, and who code, solder and respond to our customers day in and day out.
ITU world is the global platform for high level debate, networking, innovative showcasing and knowledge sharing across the ICT. It is the UN specialized agency for ICT’s with 193 member states and over 700 private sector members.
This year, the ITU world gathering was held in the vibrant city of Bangkok in the Kingdom of Thailand. Although the country was in mourning following the death of their revered King His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the government decided that the event should still go on as planned. Very noticeable during the week was the black and white clothing worn by the people of Thailand in honour of their fallen hero. Also conspicuous was the Late King’s portrait all over the city adorned with beautiful flowers and memorabilia. It was evident that the people of Thailand really loved their King.
The event was held at the Impact Exhibition Centre in Bangkok. The opening ceremony was graced by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri SIridhorn. There was also an exhibition hall showcasing innovations from various countries around the world. BRCK was in the colourful Kenya pavilion designed and created by the Communication Authority of Kenya which also showcased the Communication Authority’s products and another Kenyan company also shortlisted for the awards – Africartrack.
The Kenya Pavillion
The highlight of the event was the award ceremony held in the afternoon of 17th November. The ceremony aimed to recognize companies that are effectively using ICTs innovatively for social good, highlighting best practices and the cross fertilization of ideas for innovative socio-economic development and provide a platform to network, mobilise investment and create new business opportunities for ICT solutions with Social Impact.
Companies selected for the awards underwent a rigorous selection process. They had to send in applications and for those that scored 70% and above had to pitch to a panel of judges so as to qualify for the awards.
Alex Masika pitching to a panel of judges
The award categories were as follows;
GLOBAL SME AWARD – Top award for the most promising innovative solution for an SME
THEMATIC AWARD – award for most promising innovative solution with a social impact in vertical sectors
RECOGNITION OF EXCELLENCE AWARD – For the best innovative exhibitor within each pavilion
HOST COUNTRY AWARD – for best innovative SME from host country
The host country award and the recognition of excellence awards were presented first and all winners were issued with certificates of excellence.
Then came the coveted Global SME award. Three companies were shortlisted for this award and BRCK emerged the overall winner!!
Alex Masika giving his acceptance speech
Team BRCK is greatly honoured to be the recipient of this award and we are humbled by the fact that the world is recognizing that we are not only creating technology but we are also positively impacting the world we live in. Thank you ITU!
Kenyan delegation led by PS Sammy Itemere, Ambassador Patrick Wamoto, MPs, board members and staff of the Communication Authority of Kenya pose with Thailand’s Prime Minister
AfricaCom: Best Pan-African Initiative Award
BRCK was also in South Africa for the annual AfricaCom event. This is the largest gathering of technology companies in Africa, and it happens in one of the best cities in the world: Cape Town. In this year’s AfricaCom Awards, BRCK also came away with top honors as the “Best Pan-African Initiative. Erik Hersman, BRCK CEO, was there to collect.
Last year when we launched our ruggedised Kio Kit, what followed was a ton of interested buyers. It gave us both huge hope and nerves that our product was going to schools. Prior to launch, we had piloted the Kio Kit in some schools and that gave us a lot of user experience feedback. Now however, it was time to find buyers and ship them off to new users.
Our first customers unexpectedly turned out to be students. International school of Kenya’s students huddled together and made the first purchase as a donation to a primary school in Nanyuki – Irura Primary School through their inter-cultural program. Irura Primary School is about 20Km from Nanyuki town and about 6Km from Ol Pejeta’s Rongai Gate. The students come from the nearby community, beyond being surrounded by an expansive wildlife conservancy, they are nested away in rural like settings.
Since our first Kio Kit deployment, we have learnt and improved many times over. From teacher training to content preparation, over time this experience gave us many learning lessons that we have certainly benefited from. Our first customers and school feel special to us, in a way we have only learnt what that means almost 1 year later.
Improvements to the Kio Kit.
Irura Primary being the first to deploy the Kio Kit has been a long process of learnt improvements. We began to learn key things such as how to better manage the content, to supporting hardware issues. There were hurdles that since then over 9 months has been significant to making improvements that are now applied on the Kio Kit.
When we launched the Kio Kit we had some ideas of what impact it would have on both the students and the teachers, however our calculation was theoretical. We imagined it. It has been revolutionary to see how teachers benefit from using the Kio Kit. They have taught us how to make improvements, not just by making it easier for them to find content for their classes but also aiding them with lesson plans and giving them additional teaching tools to support them. Teachers love using the Kio Kit in class because it’s a helpful teaching tool. The students are able to focus better in class, they pay attention to what they are learning with ease and they don’t get distracted easily during their lesson.
Schools like Irura that are away from cities and in rural towns are usually lacking in facilities and learning materials. Most students don’t have textbooks or enough of them and even finding writing materials is difficult. Without some form of technology, learning for these children would be difficult. The Kio Kit provides a great alternative to learning and beyond that gives the child a grasp of what technology looks like in this century. ISK also provides content which they share with Irura students. This content, created by ISK students helps their peers not just watch, but also understand what their peers have made in this cultural exchange.
Kids by Kids
Learning through peers is a great way to gain greater understanding of educational material. ISK students took this in an interesting approach. Their cultural exchange program got them interested in learning about the folk tales and traditional stores the students in Irura had learnt through generations. These stories were then translated, drawings and narration added to make small animations. Today the content is available on the Kio Kit.
Our trips to Irura Primary were coordinated with the help of Rift Valley Adventures. They played a big role in setting up a computer lab at Irura as well as hosting us many times when we would take the trip to Nanyuki. Endless thanks to Dipesh Pabari who didn’t tire in getting our team together with both ISK and Irura Primary.
A year on and full of hard work, looking back we learn a lot from our first deployment. These lessons and many more fuel incessant changes to move our product in the right direction.
The African adage it takes a village is poignant. The idea of community and doing things together places African communities in a unique position for effective human centered participatory design. It also places a special emphasis on context. Our various contextual deep dives into different communities have illuminated just how diverse the context in Africa are, and how these can influence the effectiveness of design.
The theory of change (in a nutshell) maps expected outcomes and the elements that need to be in place for these outcomes to be realized. Recently, we did a user experience deep dive in Kiltamani primary school, a school on the edge of the grid in Samburu county. We donated a Kio Kit to this school some months ago. Other that provide updates on new features we have since developed as a result of user experience research, we also wanted to reconnect with the community within which the Kio Kit was being used.
For this 5-night visit, I cast my user experience net wider than the Kio Kit classroom situation. We needed to understand what makes the ecosystem work or fail. What the perspective and attitudes of the community were towards education, what the socio-economic factors were at play and the key factors towards improving the education level of these students. I also was keen to learn how design and the Kio Kit fits into this equation.
To realize this, the details were important. From where we pitched our tents, how we interacted with community members, teachers and students.
The change agents that complement the technology we deploy included the following;
The community leadership
The community (parents, neighbors)
The Pastoralist Context
The Samburu people are nomadic; this means they move from place to place looking for pasture for their animals. The children are the main labor force when it comes to taking care of their livestock, primarily goats. This means for a boy or a girl to go to school, their parent has to really believe in education, because they have to take over and walk for kilometers into the mountainous terrain replacing their children in taking care of the animals.
It is not easy work, taking livestock far into the dry area seeking pasture. A case in point is when elders were suddenly called for an emergency meeting because Hyena had killed 30 goats. One day a child was fighting for their lives after being attacked by and elephant. It is a tough grind, especially in the desert landscape where the school exists. Going to school is a serious commitment both on the parent and the students, often walking 20-30 Kilometers just to get to school.
The school has been performing very poorly in national examinations, with hardly any students from the school qualifying for secondary education. We set up a meeting between the community leadership and teachers to discuss school performance and how to improve the education of their children.
There is a board of management for the school (formally school committee), that comprised elders from the community, primarily parents with their sons and daughters going to this school. Interestingly, for a patriarchal community, the leadership was mostly comprised of women, especially because they had their children in the school.
The community leadership’s role is to make sure the school is well run, the teachers are doing their work and any support that the school needs from the community is provided. The leadership is essentially the link between the community and the school.
The biggest challenge for the leadership is the fact that they are mostly illiterate. Therefore, it is hard for them to ascertain information coming from the school. Their biggest complaint is that the teachers often would say they children were doing well, only to realize they were not when national exams are held and their children don’t qualify for secondary education. This has greatly undermined the confidence in the teaching staff, with the community feeling that they are sacrificing their children’s time away from the livestock only to be let down by the teachers.
The school has 8 classrooms and only 7 teachers, some of whom suffer from alcoholism. This means absenteeism from class by the teachers and sometimes ill prepared delivery of content to the students. This is exacerbated by the fact that one class is always without a teacher since there is only 7 of them.
Teachers also feel demotivated by severe absenteeism by students. When it is dry, the family moves further from the school to find pasture, therefore an even longer walk to school or absenteeism to find pasture.
The Samburu also marry their girls off very young. There was only one girl in standard seven, with none in standard 8. This is a huge source of frustration for the teachers because sometimes their best students are girls.
Students who perform well are also often transferred to other schools for upper primary studies, meaning they are left with few well preforming students.
The school is also far away from social interaction, meaning the teachers are confined to a non existent social environment for months on end.
Teacher training, materials and compensation is also an issue, meaning they are often ill equipped and poorly prepared to deliver quality education to the students.
Parents are frustrated by the lack of good results from the school. Their lack of literacy and education means they also have limited commitment to education vis-à-vis their socio cultural practices of marrying their girls young. Some parents however demonstrate a real passion for education for their children, some even taking adult classes themselves to be able to cope.
Without education, we are blind. We are only seeing out of one eye, we want our children to go to school in order to lead us out of poverty and ignorance.
The community leadership passionately appealed for the teachers to work harder and produce results that made the future of their children brighter and the community proud of the school.
The teachers asked for more support in ensuring that students are available for class consistently including girls in upper primary. There was a memorandum of understanding signed between each stakeholder with specific commitments towards the success of the school. This was an incredible contextual journey that gave us amazing insights into how the Kio Kit and design can fit even better into this context. For example;
Designing automated attendance registers that send an SMS to the community leadership and the specific parent when a child is absent means the community is aware and is able to respond in a timely manner. This can be built into the Kio Kit.
In a context where there is shortage of teachers, more self-learning content for students in the class where there is not teacher would be helpful instead of leaving students completely on their own.
Materials to support the continuous education of teachers in their skill and practice in order to keep them motivated and progress in their own careers can help counteract the feeling of stagnation and perpetual routine methods.
Many have the mindset that illiterate communities would care less if their children performed poorly because the value of education is nascent. The contrary proved to be true.
I sacrifice the labour my child provides for him to go to school. I am 50 and have to go up the mountains in the heat to take care of our goats so that he gets an education. I have no other investments but my son. All my hope is in him. That he may do well and take us out of this extreme poverty we endure. With him, all my hope lies Samburu parent.
The stakes are in fact higher, and confirm what I have always said and used as my guiding ethos.
Africa cannot afford un-contextualized design; the stakes are simply too high. Mark Kamau
As we design for African context, I am glad a work with a company that understands this and is willing to invest in this kind of deep dive to better understand and design with people in their contexts.
A question we get asked often at BRCK Education is about data supporting the effectiveness of our work. Potential customers, donors and investors want to know what metrics we use and have to verify that the Kio Kit improves learning outcomes.
The truth is that the Kio Kit doesn’t have any impact on learning. The Kio Kit without education content is just really cool hardware. The metrics buck really stops with our digital content partners and teachers. Whether a school/teacher decides to use the Kio Kit to teach literacy using the Tusome, eLimu or Jolly Phonics content is what might determine the learning outcomes at that school.
The Kio Kit is not at all prescriptive in how we expect all teachers to use it in class. We believe that the Kio Kit is a toolbox with several tools inside it. Which tool is used, when it is used and how it is used should remain the decision of the person who knows the students best: their teacher. In some cases, we have curated a collection of standard content, but when we deploy Kio Kits to the Solomon Islands or Mexico, we have no say in what content the kids there will consume and interact with.
But metrics are important. It is important Kenyan primary schools talk about the KCPE results. It is important that we know literacy levels of students. They say numbers don’t lie, but we all know people who lie have used numbers. If there’s a measurable school reform intervention that worked in inner-city DC, it does not mean it will work in Samburu. This is where metis plays an important role.
It is not just children who go to the school
In Greek mythology, Metis was the personification of deep thinking, knowledge and wisdom. The Kiltamany expedition was 7 days without running water or electricity; a school in the middle of nowhere, forgotten by the government, politicians and most.
Some of the challenges we observed while we were there:
4 teachers and 1 headteacher were allocated by the Teacher Service Commission to this school with 8 classes.
Teachers were from Meru, Archer’s Post, Nairobi. Most were not happy about being posted to such a remote school, far from friends, family, amenities and a social life.
Teachers were not tied to the local people in any way.
Teachers were often absent and sometimes drunk during class.
Most classes we observed during our time there did not have a teacher present
Students were also often absent. Parents viewed school (especially with such teacher absenteeism) as a waste of time – taking care of the goats was a better alternative.
Teachers were demoralized by the absenteeism of students, especially the smart girls who were married early.
Teachers were demoralized by their low pay and were often seen taking calls during class to “side hustle.”
By 11am, it becomes unbearably hot, effective learning and concentration become near impossible.
If the borehole of the village dries up, children are sent to get water for lunch from elsewhere. One day, the children waited till 4pm for lunch – for many it was the only meal they would eat.
Some of the challenges were surprising, others are pervasive everywhere in Kenya. What learning from metrics can we apply in a school like this? What we saw working in the school were some excellent instances of local knowledge and community leadership: metis.
Meet Sylvester Lengamunyak, an amazing example of metis. If anyone knows what is needed to transform Kiltamany Primary School, Sylvester does. If anyone is able to connect the dots and make those things happen, he is. If anyone is able to bring all the right stakeholders together, he is.
Sylvester (L) is also a teacher!
While were there, we saw Sylvester:
Call a meeting of village elders, the school Board of Management and the teachers to agree on the way forward. Each group stood up and owned responsibility of what they needed to do. These agreements were written and signed by all.
Organize for water to be fetched from Intrepids Tented Camp when the borehole was dry. He had a good relationship with the kind manager there, they also sold us some diesel and checked our tires.
Organize for boda rides for teachers, volunteers, patients and visitors.
Organize for 40 women to have literacy and numeracy classes 3 times a week. This involved approval of the elders, their husbands and the school for the facilities.
Deep local knowledge, empathy, passion and purpose are the things that bring people like Sylvester, content like eLimu’s and hardware like the Kio Kit together. It takes a village to gather their collective strengths and knowledge, to strategize and work together to build a culture of genuine teaching and learning.
L-R: Sylvester, Nivi, Edoardo. An important lesson from Samburu: the best herders are at the rear of their flock.