The West has a lot of plans to bring web access to the swaths of Africa still off the grid. But as thrilling as internet-carrying Google balloons hovering over the desert sounds, the low-tech grassroots solution being developed for Africa in Africa may be more effective: a rugged little black box to designed to survive without much accompanying infrastructure.
The device is called BRCK, an apt name because it looks more or less like a black brick. The project made a big splash this spring after raising $172,000 on Kickstarter. Shortly after the BRCK co-founder, well-known Kenyan entrepreneur Juliana Rotich, gave a rousing TED Talk on how to reach the last mile. Now engineers in Nairobi are working to build the device, which will first be sold to businesses and residents in Kenya, and eventually beyond.
The BRCK is essentially a backup generator for the internet; it’s programmed to jerry-rig connectivity where it would otherwise be missing or unreliable, like a portable modem or wi-fi router. Unreliable access can be a major headache for in Kenya: Blackouts are common throughout the country, as are power spikes that will fry a piece of equipment engineered for more developed countries.
This is why the team's designing BRCK to be physically robust to withstand harsh rural and jungle conditions. The body of the box can get pretty well beat up from drops, dust, or weather and power through. It has enough battery power to keep running for eight hours during a blackout, and connects to multiple networks at once in case one fails, automatically hopping between Ethernet, wi-fi, 3G, and 4G networks.
As can be expected, it's not easy to design a product to solve the problems caused by volatile electrical infrastructure while running up against those same problems. But the upshot is, it's a very effective way to understand the headaches you're trying to fix.
“It's also the best way to understand the real problems and challenges that the BRCK is here to solve," BRCK CTO Reg Orton said in a Vimeo video on the project posted last week. The problems they're bumping up against basically act as an organic blueprint to make sure the device is optimized for what users will need.
In the video, Orton talks a bit about the double-edged sword of engineering hardware in Nairobi. The process is much slower than developing hardware in China or the US, he explained, thanks to bloated shipping costs, dragged out wait times, and less accessible hardware components. Without access to rapid prototyping with 3D printers, now commonplace in developed countries, the design process takes much longer.
What’s more, the team is essentially reinventing the wheel. Engineers can't use off-the-shelf designs pre-made in China or the West, since the whole point is they don’t translate to the rougher conditions in sub-Sh. They have to design a high performance product with limited resources. It's "resourceful flexibility over slick packaging and gimmicky features," the Kickstarter explained. "It is why we will chose an old Land Rover over a new Lexus. Practical beats pretty everyday when you live beyond the edge of the concrete jungle."
Each BRCK is a hub for multiple devices, and can connect to up to 20 devices with different wireless networks. In this aspect, the technology coincides nicely with the mobile revolution in Africa. The continent is making up for its dearth of internet-carrying fiber optic cables with satellite and mobile wireless networks, which some experts think could actually wind up catapulting Africa to the forefront of web access.
"The cost of the infrastructure is quite high, especially if you have to connect every home with copper cables and fibre-optic cables," telecommunications expert Les Cottrell told Al Jazeera in September. "I think in many cases Africa will actually 'leapfrog' the need to install hard-wired cables everywhere, and will be able to use different techniques such as the BRCK modem, the low-earth orbiting satellites or the 3G solutions to get connectivity to where they need."
The startup behind BRCK, called Ushahidi, has become somewhat famous over the last several years. It's an open source software nonprofit best known for its crisis crowdmapping platform. The boots-on-the-ground mapping system was put to the test when violence spread through Kenya after the 2008 election, and has since been used for disaster support during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, monitoring elections, and tracking commodity prices in Afghanistan.
Ushahidi later built iHub, a hacker workspace in Nairobi where engineers are now building BRCK, sometimes called called the "Silicon Savannah." But before innovation in Africa can really thrive and compete in the global information economy, the continent has get online.