Silicon Savannah’s new solution
for global tech hardware
African tech innovation is now serving global needs through the BRCK device, a solar-powered gadget that provides 4G internet for up to 20 connections from almost anywhere in the world. Developed in Kenya as a mobile Wi-Fi tool for power and internet outages, BRCK (so called because about the size of an actual brick) is now being used in digital dead spots in the United States, Europe, Latin American, and Asia. “We have a saying, ‘If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,’” says Juliana Rotich, co-founder of Ushahidi Inc., the Nairobi-based company behind BRCK.
The device is an outgrowth of Silicon Savannah, the nickname given to Kenya as it has risen to become Africa’s unofficial tech capital over the past decade thanks to four distinct markers. First there was the success of Safaricom’s M-PESA mobile money product, now the paragon for digital payments. Then came the development of Africa’s first globally recognised app, the Ushahidi software, a digital mapping tool that aggregates data for just about any demographic event. It’s been used for multiple crowd and data-sourcing needs across the world including the Washington Post, which used it to track snow cleanup during the 2010 East Coast blizzard and by the Huffington Post to monitor polling in the 2012 presidential elections.
Ushahidi the app became Ushahidi the company, which led to the formation of Nairobi’s iHub innovation centre. Created “to serve as a nexus point for technologists, investors, [and] tech companies,” says co-founder Erik Hersman, iHub launched Africa’s tech innovation hub movement by encouraging the upsurge in IT incubators throughout the continent. Undergirding all this progress was the Kenyan government’s genuine commitment to fostering a tech ecosystem, namely through the adoption of faster and cheaper broadband that came with the under-sea fiber optic TEAMS cable that reached the country in 2009.
Even with improvements in Kenya’s broadband, power outages and connectivity issues persist, while access to internet and electricity outside of many large cities remains scarce. “That was largely the impetus for BRCK,” says Hersman. “It acts as a backup generator for the internet. With eight hours of battery life, it automatically switches between Ethernet, Wi-Fi and mobile broadband to maintain a connection.”
Since co-founding Ushahidi and iHub, Hersman and Rotich have become two of Africa’s most recognised tech leaders, both TED Senior Fellows who have fostered solid ties between Silicon Valley and Silicon Savannah, and mentor African technologists in multiple countries. To fund BRCK they launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 and attracted some dedicated investors, including American internet pioneer and AOL founder, Steve Case.
"Why do we use technology designed for London or Los Angeles when we are using it in Lagos or Nairobi?"
While the product tapped a global funding base, its blueprint remained unique to its origins. “In designing BRCK, we asked ‘Why do we use technology designed for London or Los Angeles when we are using it in Lagos or Nairobi?’” explains Rotich. Yet since hitting the market in 2014, BRCK has proven that technology solutions built in an African context could serve IT purposes across the globe.
Though Ushahidi could not disclose full sales numbers, they confirm BRCKs have sold in the thousands and shipped to over 45 countries. Some unexpected uses for the gadget have also emerged in Africa, such as tracking and reducing human-wildlife conflict in Kenya and streaming lessons to primary school students in rural Tanzania. Rotich believes BRCK’s example could also stimulate more innovation from Africa’s nascent tech industry. “Its success goes a long way toward inspiring an era in which Africans are no longer just global consumers of technology solutions, but the creators and net exporters.”
Jake Bright and Aubrey Hruby are authors of the newly published The Next Africa: An Emerging Continent Becomes a Global Powerhouse (Macmillan). The book chronicles the continent’s transformation story, led by business, tech, creative industries, and a new cadre of remarkably talented Africans.