On a chilly but warm Monday morning of June 20th 2016, Rene John Dierkx and I embarked on a 4 hour road trip from Lilongwe to Blantyre to deploy a Kio Kit purchased for Noacha Full Primary school by UNICEF.
Rene is an Education specialist and Architect at UNICEF who has worked in Africa for many years. As we chatted away during our journey I was amazed by the well maintained tarmacked roads, the warmness of the country and the lack of crazy traffic on a Monday morning! To me, Malawi was living up to its nickname – the warm heart of Africa.
Malawi is a landlocked country in the Southern African region and is among the world’s least developed countries. About 85% of the population lives in rural areas and the economy is driven by agriculture.
At around noon, we arrived at Noacha Primary School which is located in the outskirts of Blantyre. The school has over 5000 primary school pupils. Although the school has about 90 teachers, it does not have enough classrooms and learning resources. Each class has an average of about 100 students and there is a severe shortage of textbooks, exercise books, and even furniture leading to some classes being held out in the open.
Rene, being an architect, is monitoring a pavilion for the school which will serve as a learning and social resource centre. He has initiated a project called Living Schools that seeks to empower children to become thinkers, designers, and makers. Through this initiative, the school has implemented some fantastic projects such as tree planting and helping out in the construction of the pavilion. These activities will enable the children to reach their full potential, and I’m proud that the Kio Kit is a part of the project as a learning resource.
When we arrived at the school, we found the morning teachers winding up their shifts. About 10 teachers agreed to remain behind so that we can train them on the Kio Kit – our fully integrated education solution that turns every classroom into a digital classroom.
The reaction was amazing! The teachers were all excited. All the hunger pangs were gone and we ended up having a full afternoon training session. Due to time, we agreed that we’d continue the training the next day to include the other teachers as well as utilize the Kio Kit to teach a class.
On day two, teacher Gertrude was well prepared to teach her class 6 class science. Her topic for the day was living plants and with my help we selected appropriate topics from the Kio Kit. She selected a topic on plants from eLimu and was very excited that it had the exact illustrations and explanations that she had in mind.
In class she introduced the topic using chalk and a blackboard and then gave step by step instructions to the class on how to find the topic in the tablets. Due to the large number of students, they had to sit in groups of 4.
After about 10 minutes of working in groups, the picture below speaks a thousand words on what happened when she asked questions. Everyone raised their hands ready to answer questions. The only other resource that she had apart from the chalk and blackboard was the Kio Kit.
After class, some of the feedback I got from the students were, “it makes learning fun, I understood the subject more” etc.
Feedback from the teachers were, “it made teaching easy and fun, they were happy that they were the first school in the region to access digital technology, it helped them solve the issue of lack of textbooks” etc.
At BRCK, we do not just create technology but we design and engineer solutions that make a positive impact in the society we live in. Over 400 million children around the world do not have access to basic education. Our vision is to enable millions of children in schools across emerging markets to access digital education tools for better learning. Schools like Noacha and partners like UNICEF only help us reiterate our mission of providing quality education to all children around the world.
By Alex Masika
Head of Business Development
Last Friday we were in Mlango Kubwa in Mathare to give a demo on the Kio Kit at the Mathare Environmental Conservation Group (Facebook page), a UN Habitat and Samsung C&T-funded youth self-help organisation. Doug Regan, one of the directors of the program, invited us and the reception was warm. Mathare is an informal settlement located on the eastern side of Nairobi and has a population of at least 500,000 people.
The Kio Kit is designed to be intuitive and easy to use, a fact that was proven again when the youth at the centre took to it fast. It is a wonderful tool for learning and outreach programs. Isaac Mwasa, the chairman of the centre, was especially excited about its potential for civic education. There are plenty of pre-loaded materials about this and other subjects on the Kit.
In addition to being a place where young women and men can learn marketable skills, the centre runs a National Youth Service (NYS) feeding program, which is an important aspect of community outreach programs, and has a program for recycling plastic, which generates income and keeps the neighbourhood clean.
Everyone in the technology sector has done field work. Visits to customers homes or offices to fix loose cables, mount antennas, install kitchen equipment, and to carry out regular maintenance are part of it. Sometimes, it is to touch base and find out how clients are doing and how you could make their lives easier. Others, to dismantle an installation and end a service, or check for the viability of a product or service.
We do field work all the time here, with The BRCK Expedition being the clearest example. One of our (less-enforced) rules is that whenever you go out of the office on BRCK work, go on leave or travel somewhere new you have to carry a BRCK to test and take photos; otherwise, you did not go.
It is exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. You meet new people, and see how your gadgets perform in the wild. In some cases, you climb tall buildings and experience the panoramic view of a town that those heights afford (anyone who has worked with antennas has done this). Most importantly, you learn how to troubleshoot and configure devices on the fly and think on your feet.
The feeling of accomplishment at getting people connected or making their lives a bit simpler and seeing the satisfied smiles on their faces is unlike anything you could ever feel. It is the warm glow of doing a good job that matters.
The best part of field work, aside from experiencing the impact of your products, is to gather feedback on what to improve. Field work validates or invalidates your assumptions about your product’s reception, usage, and performance. The office is an ideal testing ground since all the conditions are under your control. The field is another matter. It is the perfect testing ground. Incorporating the takeaways and test results into your product or service is a big step in building a usable, reliable and relevant solution.
Growing up in Kenya it was common to see in many households OMO as the first washing powder, so much so that OMO was used to mean “detergent.” It was not surprising to hear children at kiosks asking the shopkeeper for “OMO ya Sunlight” or “OMO ya Toss.” Such was OMO’s influence. OMO is an acronym for Old Mother Owl. This name brings to mind wisdom and nurturing care, connotations which are not accidental.
Certain factors made it possible for OMO to have such a significant impact. It is not that there was no competition. There was Persil, Orbit, and Sunlight. OMO had first-mover advantage. According to the Unilever website, it was introduced in Kenya in 1953. By the time similar products had hit the market, it was a bit too late.
OMO had also garnered mass appeal from a favorite quiz show called OMO Pick-A-Box. It was a Sunday-night staple of every household. By the end of the month, and thus shopping day, OMO was the only thing on almost everyone’s mind as far as a detergent was concerned.
You may wonder what a short history of a traditional soap and its marketing might have to do with educational solutions built for the periphery. During the 2015 BRCK Expedition, while we were at Kiltamany Primary School, an interesting thought occurred us: this was the first time a lot of the people there were seeing and using tablets. Not just any tablets, but bright yellow ones with the word “Kio” at the back. Like OMO, it is a simple, easy-to-remember two-syllable word that captures the imagination.
It would be a welcome thing to have our product synonymous with tablet computing, and thus digital education. We could work on this aspect of our brand to ensure that in every country the Kio Kit is shipped to, any similar devices will be referred to as Kios, much like quite a few of us call non-Apple tablets iPads. That kind of brand recognition would put us miles ahead.
But, we would be putting on a show, instead of striving to build something that makes a positive difference to pupils and teachers in remote areas. The attention that we garner has to come from a sincere and honest place. We want to hear teachers telling us how the Kio Kit has made their work easier. We want to see children’s eyes going wide at the prospect of using a Kio during class, and we want to see their grades getting better because of the Kio Kit. We would like parents to let us know what an improvement The Kio Kit has made in their children’s lives.
Awareness about us has to come from being genuine and building relevant products.
We have tested The Kio Kit extensively.
We go for expeditions, not merely for the fun, but to put our products out there and ensure they live up to our brand’s promise, that it will work in the places we claim it will work and in the way we guarantee. We have also tested the Kit in schools in and around Nairobi and not just in exotic locations. The value that the Kio Kit can deliver goes for both private and public schools. Partnering with content publishers such as eLimu and Pearson ensures that we provide the most up-to-date and relevant learning materials.
OMO is still in great ways interchangeable with laundry washing. The word “Kio” is a play on the Swahili word “kioo” meaning mirror. The Kio tablet (and Kit) is intended to make you see your potential, what you could become. We do not just imply this. We firmly believe that making learning devices and materials easily and affordably accessible to children in the remotest regions of the country (and the world) will put them on a better footing with their age mates in more affluent and well-developed areas. The Kio Kit is the best solution for this.
The Kio Kit is built specifically for regions with limited or no internet connectivity, places that are far from modern civilization, like large swathes of our country and the African continent. However, it is highly adaptable and can be used in all parts of the world.
It eliminates the need to be constantly online to access a broad range of learning materials, is hardy and rugged and is easy to charge.
The Kio Kit
With these advantages, one would think that teachers will eventually become obsolete. In discussions concerning digital literacy, this question invariably comes up, “Will The Kio Kit replace teachers?” No. Digital literacy solutions work best to enrich, not replace, human-to-human experiences. They enable us to reduce teacher and student effort and help us help educators and students even faster.
This task is a great responsibility, and the people behind these processes (ourselves and others) determine their success or failure. And let us not forget, whenever technology lets us down, we will always want a friendly human to pick us back up. In other words, the quality of a digital learning experience will never exceed the quality of the people building the solutions and working with them.
A teacher with the Kio tablet
The BRCK team has grown up, lived and works here in Kenya, a place in the developing world, and the kind of place for which we build technologies. We are in a superb position to develop relevant solutions that affordably address education and connectivity challenges. Our diverse set of skills and context-specific knowledge have enabled us to build the best device for turning an ordinary classroom into a digital classroom, The Kio Kit.
On a rainy Friday last week we went to Joyland Primary School in Gatundu to carry out teacher training for the Kio Kit. We went with Jeff Crystal of Voltaic Systems, Jamie Drummond (co-founder of ONE.org), Mwambu Wanendeya (ONE.org Africa Executive Director) and Keith Stewart (CTO of Thomson Reuters).
The Kio Kit empowers pupils and enables teachers to have an easier time with their jobs. Our approach is to introduce them to the Kit and then let them explore it on their own. The reception was encouraging. The teachers took to the Kit fast.
Peer learning and collaborative learning are integral parts of our training. After we introduce the Kio Kit, we find teachers are more receptive to it when we give them the freedom to learn with other faculty and by learning from other teachers.
We also installed solar-powered lights for eight of the classrooms with Jeff. It seems like a small thing, but a well-lit classroom makes teaching and learning much more efficient.
We took a lot of photographs, and they can best tell the story.
The class where the training took place.
BRCKs + Kio Kit
Mark Kamau, our UX Lead, taking the teachers through the training.
Bottom-right corner – Mr. Nguuuo, the school manager
Teachers playing a memory game to help “flex their fingers” and minds.
Juliana on the roof installing the solar panels.
Juliana and Reid installing solar panels.
Jeff Crystal of Voltaic Systems installs lights in one of the classrooms.
Jeff testing the lights.
Juliana fastens the solar panels.
A sample of the solar panels and cables used.
Mark and Keith having a chat with Jamie in the back.
Teachers getting more acquainted with Kio tablets.
One of the teachers heading a lesson.
L to R: Juliana Rotich, Jamie Drummond, Keith Stewart, Mark Kamau, and Mwambu Wanendeya
BRCK has been known for developing products for the edge of the network and very remote regions of the world. Lately our products have been pushing even what we as BRCKers consider the edge.
One of our biggest themes is the “if it works in Africa, it can work anywhere.” And that was never more apparent to us than when we recently found ourselves on a very small outboard motor boat hopping from one Solomon Island to another. The size of craft did not warrant being in this ocean infamously called the ironbottom sound. “Ironbottom Sound” is the name given by Allied sailors to Savo Sound, the stretch of water at the southern end of The Slot between Guadalcanal, Savo Island, and Florida Island of the Solomon Islands, because of the dozens of ships and planes that sank there during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942-43.
We were on our way there because the Savo Island School in 2016 is also the new home for a Kio Kit. Our most remote school in Kenya has been in the Kalama Conservancy and in an interesting play on words, the school in Savo is named Kalaka school.
Upon safe passage through to the island, we were greeted by an amazing group of teachers and students alike. Savo island is beautiful, volcanic hot springs and rivers, palm farming and with a population of approximately 2000 people, the Kalaka school offers Primary, Secondary and Vocational training.
With no electricity and connectivity, getting access to research and technology for education through the Kio Kit becomes a major boost to the community and the future.
As we did the teacher training, it was apparent that our visit to the areas our products are used informs us on how to make a world class product but also localized enough to bring value at the regional level. For example; Content is a major aspect of the Kio Kit and education in general. Part of our commitment in the Kio Kit is to help communities grow. That being said, the growing pains of one community can differ widely from another. The Kio Kits in Africa have very good content on issues like cholera and sanitation, while the South Pacific Islanders were asking for more information on tsunami preparedness and diabetes awareness. While in Kalama we build for dusty conditions, in Kalaka we have to consider humidity and sea salt. Galvanization is now a new discussion in our UX and engineering departments. Going local helps us address local issues.
On this trip we also did visit a 2nd grade classroom in Canberra ACT region Australia, the contrast in classroom technology a mere 3 hours away from Savo island is mind boggling. But it is because of this that we are putting our best foot forward, in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Americas and beyond. Together we can narrow the gap in digital education, research and libraries around the world.
As we move forward, we also would like to recognize the amazing partnerships that we have on the ground and in the region without which this new frontier for BRCK would not be possible.
I mentioned BRCK’s “You can do hard things” slogan at the beginning of the Mt Kenya posts. And it has come up a number of times in other BRCK posts as well. I am going to do my best to relate some of the unique difficulties that we faced over the last few months on one of our projects. Our upcoming PicoBRCK is meant to be a generic platform for IOT devices. In our first application we are in the process of installing about 50 of these units across a water distribution network to measure water flow and transmit the data to the cloud. This will help the municipality get a better visibility of where their water is being used or lost. (In some cases up to 70% of the treated water is lost.) This post is a summary of the kinds of challenges we have faced in this project.
1. Typical Hardware Design Issues
Every engineering endeavor has it’s challenges including technical and logistical. For example, the sensor we had to interface to for our water project application of the PicoBRCK was completely new to us and the datasheet was less than clear. So it took a bit of testing to understand how to read the electronic pulses coming from the sensor. This is a normal part of any hardware design process no matter where it is engineered. However these kinds of issues are inevitable and can often cause project timelines to slip in otherwise ideal development environments. The blog at bolt.io (blog.bolt.io) reveals a lot of these nuanced difficulties of doing hardware development in San Francisco.
PicoBRCK deployment kit.
But in addition to these kinds of challenges we have some additional categories that really make life interesting.
2. Classic “Design-in-Emerging-Market” Challenges
As we got ready to push out the PicoBRCK prototypes I realized that I had forgot to order one part for the solar charging circuit. A part that could have arrived at my desk the next day was completely unavailable locally and so we had to get creative to revamp the charging system for the prototypes.
Also because very little is available locally and customs officials are not used to importing circuit boards, specialized batteries or electronic components, various parts of the PicoBRCK arrived after we were already back from Mt Kenya. And everything we have to import incurs a monetary cost and a schedule cost. The cold reality is that the resources we work with simply take twice as long and cost twice as much to get to our office.
These supply chain issues and lack of local resources are the typical challenges that we usually mention when we have to summarize the unique challenges that we face.
Preparing a PicoBRCK for deployment.
3. Structural Challenges
However, there is a final, less well defined but oh so prevalent category. On a recent trip to install the PicoBRCK prototypes we encountered a number of interesting (read: HIGHLY frustrating) issues which demonstrate these types of challenges beautifully.
First we found that some of our SD cards that we had purchased locally were failing. We realized that the quality control on parts coming here is not quite what it is in other places; it seems that knock-offs and quasi-legit parts abound. (I saw this in Tanzania with fake flash drives that reported as 32GB BUT when you tried to actually copy more than say 4GB everything fell apart.) Emerging markets are a dumping ground for poor quality components.
The RF cable and SD card that gave us so much trouble.
Next we realized that some RF cables that were made for us locally were significantly degrading the cellular performance. It was not a straight work / not work situation and this issue alone took significant effort on the field to troubleshoot. Similarly we needed some parts (labels, gaskets) laser cut and there are actually a number of options around Nairobi. But our BRCK staff ended up teaching one laser shop on how to tune their laser and another place burnt their laser trying to cut our gasket. Even the most basic of elements in a system might be stretching the capability of the local manufacturing chain.
Then, after our initial installation, the units all started discharging indicating that they had been unplugged but the local technicians reported that everything was plugged in and turned on. I drove the 4 hours up the next day only to find that although everything was plugged in it was not actually getting power. The power outlet was of such poor quality the contacts were bent out of position.
Troubleshooting network connectivity issues.
Now, three times over the last few weeks we have been flummoxed by the cellular back-haul failing. Sometimes the whole connection goes down, sometimes just the data portion of the connection fails and other times the behavior of the connection is different. Just like pulling my hair out to figure out why my circuit is not working, only to discover a bad connection at the power bar, a flaky cellular carrier is very difficult to identify when we are troubleshooting our own code. (And that is quite an understatement.) The code for making a connection via a modem is well documented and everyone agrees that it just works; but of course “everyone” is operating in another environment. As a result we have had to create some incredibly robust GPRS code that catches all these corner cases and accommodates them. (Huge kudo’s to Reg on this front!) The most basic infrastructure (in this case cellular and electrical outlets) inhibit the development of more sophisticated infrastructure.
Typical power outlets.
Why we push on
In the early days of BRCK we prided ourselves (and we still do!) at making do with whatever resources we have available. There are definitely situations where this is an incredibly valuable skill. But to develop world class solutions one needs the proper tools. A good friend of mine is luthier and insists on have exactly the right tool for every job he undertakes. Otherwise he will not be able to live up to his customers expectations.
Some reading this post may, at this point, be feeling sorry for us or assuming that BRCK has no future under such adversity. However, there is a larger factor at work which propels us, and numerous other startups, to success. Our customers are demanding world class solutions. They know what is possible, they see the opportunity in their market and they know that BRCK has the expertise to overcome the unique challenges that crop up in emerging markets. So while the challenges are significant they are simply an indicator about how burgeoning the market is.