Even in the biggest cities in Africa, it’s not easy to get (and stay) online. But this small brick-shaped device—called, appropriately, the BRCK—could help bring better connectivity to the entire continent and maybe to everywhere else, too.
"In this part of the world, one of our constant challenges is that at any moment, the Internet can go out," says BRCK's chief operating officer Philip Walton. "As an example, in the last 12 months, our undersea fiber optic cable has been severed by ship anchors twice. Imagine you have a team and they’re working on coding and doing development work and all of the sudden the Internet goes out not for a few minutes, but for a few weeks."
The BRCK, which will begin production in April, works like a backup generator for the Internet: If one connection fails, it automatically searches for another, using a combination of SIM cards. A battery keeps it running for eight hours when the power goes out. And a tough outer case means it can hold up on rough roads, if someone needs to take it across the city or farther afield.
Originally, the BRCK team, which is based in Nairobi, was just trying to solve a local problem. The founders also helped start the iHub, which has become a center of the tech community in East Africa, along with Ushahidi, a platform that helps crowdsource and map information during disasters and political unrest. They saw the challenges of reliable connectivity first-hand. But they quickly realized the device could go beyond just being a backup generator.
The company plans to help entrepreneurs in remote areas finance purchasing the device over time. Entrepreneurs will be able to set up mini-networks for villages using the BRCK, or even provide a computer to use for people who don't have a device to connect.
The BRCK can also start to help monitor physical problems with the addition of sensors and a small solar panel to keep it running. For example, sensors could monitor wells for drinking water and use the BRCK to send back real-time reports if anything goes wrong with the equipment.
"NGOs doing well projects estimate that over a third of all of the wells on the African continent that once were functioning are no longer functioning," says Walton. "And the suspicion is that a large number of those are small mechanical issues. But if you don’t have access to monitor the flow of water in a cost-effective way, then you’re not able to solve that particular problem."
Designing the BRCK in Africa has been a challenge. "We didn’t set out to be pioneers developing hardware technology in Africa. It just so happens that nobody else had done that. It turns out it’s much harder than any of us imagined," Walton says. But designing locally provided the opportunity for constant iterative feedback—as the team experienced new challenges firsthand, they were able to immediately incorporate new features into the product. They found solutions for problems that were unique to Africa, but also new approaches to problems that could happen in other parts of the world.
"We have an expression that if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere," Walton says. "We deal with some tough stuff. We have physical world challenges in terms of infrastructure and environments, we have public infrastructure challenges, we have political challenges. And so we found if you solve something in the African context it often will work exceptionally well in other contexts."
It's a product that could even be useful in places as connected as the U.S.—as Walton and I talked over Skype, I was using a hotspot on my phone because my Internet was down yet again, despite the fact that I live in the ultra-wired Bay Area.
"Imagine if this little East African technology company built a product that was bought by people in the U.S.," Walton says.