Flip over most any Apple product, and you’ll find the company’s famous tagline: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." It’s no doubt a point of pride, even while the labor practices of the company’s vendors in China have come under scrutiny in recent years.
Far from Silicon Valley, there is a place that some are calling "Silicon Savannah." It is here, constellated around Nairobi-based nonprofit collective Ushahidi, that an explosion in African tech is taking shape. This month, for the first time, backers of the collective’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign, are finally getting their hands on BRCK, a long-awaited device that, in many ways, is the antithesis of Apple’s shiny products, yet potentially just as revolutionary. True to form, on the bottom of every BRCK is the declaration "Made in Kenya, Assembled in America."
Ushahidi originally billed BRCK as a "backup generator for the Internet," though their messaging has evolved into "The go anywhere, do anything, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device." It is essentially a mobile Internet router. It connects to the web in three ways: by plugging in a standard ethernet cable, by bridging with other Wi-Fi networks, or by accessing 3G or 4G data via a basic SIM card.
Ushahidi invented it in order to overcome infrastructure challenges—specifically, inconsistent electricity and Internet connectivity—plaguing young upstarts in Nairobi. Turns out, plenty of other people and places face the same challenges; the first run of BRCKs are being delivered this month to users in some 45 countries.
Lest you think Internet outages are reserved for the developing world, both the U.S. and U.K. encountered major, multi-hour blackouts recently, in what appear to be unrelated events: Virgin Media customers across London lost service, while millions of Time Warner customers across the U.S.—with high concentrations in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa—were knocked offline.
"Everyone in the U.S. is so used to basic infrastructure ‘just working’ that few have a response when things don’t," says BRCK CEO Erik Hersman. The company’s best bet, for U.S. and related markets, may be to position BRCK for those exceptional moments—times of disaster, extreme weather, or super remote travel.
But even just focusing on the so-called developing world, BRCK’s potential market is enormous. While only a quarter of people from the developing world are currently connected, they already account for a staggering two-thirds of all people online today.
BRCK is not exactly cutting-edge by most standards. "I describe it as a new remix of old technology," says Hersman, who cut his teeth as a tech blogger. "That’s the key to understanding Africa’s technology."
Beyond its three connection methods, BRCK can keep users—as many as 20 at a time—up and running for as long as eight hours during an electrical outage. Most mobile hotspots can handle no more than a few, and drain both power and data rapidly. Should the Internet be down or not available in a given locale, the device continues operating offline, syncing up when its connection is restored. The stock hard drive is 4GB, with up to 32GB storage capacity.
Born in Sudan and having settled in Kenya with his young family, Hersman believes, "If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere." He sees the company’s base in Nairobi as one of its greatest assets, particularly given its target market. Hersman recounts a pivotal situation, about a year ago, just as Ushahidi had finished its Kickstarter campaign. Kenya was struck with a power outage across the entire country, culminating in a surge of 400 volts that lasted five minutes.
To put that voltage surge into perspective, it’s roughly 70 to 80 times more than the power used to operate most electronics. A telecom executive that Hersman spoke with estimated that the surge blew more than 3,000 routers in Nairobi alone. "So we committed to ensuring that BRCK could handle at least 400 volts of power," Hersman says. "We’re playing with dirty power and crappy Internet, so the device has to be resilient." Meanwhile, BRCK’s lithium battery can charge on as few as 5-18 volts.
While designed in Kenya, BRCK is manufactured and assembled deep in the heart of Texas, by a company called Silicon Hills. Located outside of Austin, the company has the key ability to iterate and do small runs. According to its CEO, BRCK couldn’t also be manufactured in Kenya because of the considerable import taxes and time delays when bringing components into the country.
With its matte black, rubberized case, BRCK is elegant, but mostly unassuming; it has the relative dimensions of an actual brick. It’s far too big to stick in your pants pocket, but plenty small enough to toss in a backpack, place on a desk, or even on the hood of your Land Rover in the African countryside. Safari outfitters Sandstorm Kenya, a Nairobi-based company, already has a customized carrying case for BRCK.
By weight, BRCK is substantially heavier than a plastic router, but it’s also much more than one. In addition to its battery, BRCK has multiple ports, including a general-purpose input/output, enabling users to program and connect other hardware—such as sensors or a solar charger—to the device. "It’s like a Swiss Army knife; if you describe every feature, you get lost," Hersman says.
What is perhaps most compelling about BRCK, however, are its potential applications. "We see enormous resonance with the work of other organizations," Hersman says. "Take the proliferation of web-enabled laptops and tablets in schools; why is it that each of these devices connect to a mobile tower? Why not to a single, centralized point?"
Education, health, environmental, and even military and governmental organizations are already in conversation with BRCK and multiple entities are testing it out. For consumers in emerging markets, BRCK’s $200 price tag may be a stretch; the company is looking at purchasing plans, which have worked well in the cell phone and energy sectors. But BRCK’s business model is ultimately based on companies than individual consumers, according to Hersman.
"The reason that we backed BRCK and that I’m excited to see it come about is because it fills an important gap in hardware and tools," says Emily Jacobi, founder and executive director of nonprofit Digital Democracy, which has worked in two dozen countries around the world. "We’re going to remote areas and training groups—indigenous groups, refugees, and other at-risk populations—to map the land and communities using GPS devices and cameras. We’re particularly excited about BRCK’s ability to facilitate collaborative work, as well as function offline."
"We’re at a place in history where the barriers to entry are no longer in the software space, but in the hardware space," Hersman says. "Because we don’t yet have fully functioning maker spaces and rapid prototyping abilities here in Nairobi, the design process is still relatively slow and expensive, but the barriers are coming down."