BRCK’s new unit aims to connect rural enterprise
In urban conurbations, we tend to take connectivity for granted, forgetting that in many rural areas, it’s something of a luxury.
Local company BRCK is trying to address this imbalance; its BRCK device is a rugged, portable WiFi hotspot that provides internet access to those in rural areas and it also doubles up as a battery extender.
A new version of the hugely-successful BRCK is currently in development and the device will be targeted mainly at enterprise clients.
“We’re working on our next generation BRCK device now though, which is an enterprise grade version of the BRCK. We’ve also done some initial testing of our PicoBRCK product, which is used for connecting sensors to the web in low infrastructure environments. Our first test has been with a county doing water flow management in Kenya,” BRCK CEO Erik Hersman tells htxt.africa.
Its initial product – BRCK – has seen thousands of units being shipped to over 50 countries, but getting rural areas around the world connected is not as simple as developing an internet-in-a-box solution.
“I think this is two pronged, there’s not just one challenge which is what makes it so hard for even the internet giants like Facebook and Google,” says Hersman. “The internet in Africa is slow, expensive and unreliable – to get past these issues we need to be creative on both the business and technology fronts.”
Hersman explains that first it needs to have a real business model for “free” internet in Africa.
“It’s not enough to just say here’s a ‘free’ version of the internet that is a walled garden and isn’t actually the real internet. Africans, like everyone else in the world, want the real thing. To give them that, we need to cover the costs, and the costs aren’t cheap, he says.”
That brings us to the second challenge in getting Africa connected – technology.
“Here we have a much more diverse set of problems than in a lot of other geographies, including vast areas with sparse populations, harsh climates and cultural nuances that change as you go across the continent. My suggestion is to move from centralized caching of data to a more distributed node-based approach, which would be more resilient,”Hersman says.
A good number of companies have rolled out initiatives in the past aimed at providing more connectivity in Africa, and rural areas specifically.
All of these are great, and it’s exactly what the continent needs, but Hersman adds that there naturally needs to be companies that can provide the “last mile” of internet – which is what makes BRCK so successful.
“It’s actually a place where a lot of people are playing,” he says. “However, not a lot of them are doing so with the last meter of connectivity in mind. Most are working on the expensive and important backhaul part of the equation, which we need. At BRCK we work at where the person with a phone in their pocket connects – the last meter.”
The concept of BRCK was born through recognising a need, persistence, and of course a great idea, and Hersman explains that in order to foster more technological minds in Africa, we need to encourage people with good ideas to try them out.
Hersman knows a thing or two about mentoring. After all, he is the founder of iHub and co-founded Ushahidi, two of the biggest startup and technology incubators on the continent.
“We need to have spaces where people can experiment with their ideas and try to get some traction out of them to see if there is a viable market or interest. It used to be that access to smaller amounts of capital was a problem to get things started, thankfully there are a lot more avenues for initial investment or funding than there was even 3-5 years ago.”
He does lament though, that in Kenya specifically (where iHub and Ushahidi are based) there is an expectation to get a proper vacancy before even thinking about creating one’s own startup.
“One of the larger problems we’ve faced – at least in Kenya – is that the culture of young smart Africans to do a startup is beset by family issues where they’re not encouraged to do it due to the need to ‘pay back’ the family for the investment in their future,” he says. ” In short, they’re expected to go get a well-paying job at a good company.”
Being surrounded by technology all day, where does he think the future of African technology lies?
It might not come as a surprise, but he believes ecommerce and renewable energy will be making major in-roads in the continent over the next five years.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of really interesting things happening around eCommerce as we get the logistics side figured out,” he says. “We’re also going to see a lot more renewable energy work going on and seeing it speed to the corners of the continent that are the hardest to reach.”
* Hersman was recently in Cape Town for the annual Net Prophet conference, where he served as a speaker.