BRCK by BRCK – Solving Last Mile Connectivity in Africa

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brck-logo-black11 Power blackouts are relatively uncommon across North America. Poeple still talk about the 2003 blackout, where for up to a week, 50 million people across the Midwest and Northeast U.S. and Ontario were without power.[1] While calamitous, the event was a complete anomaly.  Across Sub-Saharan Africa, power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences, no matter your income level. Nigerians expect nearly 300 outages a year, each lasting five to eight hours.[2]

In a global world where borders mean less, countries without internet connectivity “lag behind in the development of their businesses and can’t capture the efficiencies that the technology provides.”[3] Internet has become an essential element of our day to day lives, yet most devices require a stable source of electricity to maintain connection. But, “what if we could overcome the problem of unreliable internet and electricity, and reduce the cost of connection?” [4]

The BRCK was created to meet this challenge. It is a full-featured modem and router designed in and for the developing world. Developed by Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company that develops open source software, the product has since been spun out into its own company, BRCK Inc. Their portable, rugged, self-powered Wi-Fi device makes accessing the internet simple and reliable, no matter where you are. It connects via Ethernet, Wi-Fi and mobile phone networks, recognizing that the way we connect to the web is changing. By taking advantage of Africa’s pervasive mobile connectivity, when the power cuts out, the BRCK can intelligently and seamlessly connect to the nearest network, with enough speed to simultaneously share with up to 20 devices. Multi-SIM capability for over 140 countries allows you can hop on to the fastest network. An external antenna port ensures connectivity in even the most remote regions.

 

Tough as Nails

cloud_compBeyond connectivity, the BRCK was designed to withstand anything Africa could throw at it. It has enough backup power to survive a blackout – eight hours in full power mode – and can handle everything from surges to reverse voltage. The lithium battery can be charged from a solar panel, car battery or computer on as little as 5-18 volts. At 132 x 72 x 45mm, it is smaller than a brick, and ¼ the weight, while its rugged design allows it to work through drops, dust and less than ideal weather. [5]

The idea, according to COO Philip Walton, is for the BRCK to be one component of a larger development ecosystem, not unlike the bricks and mortar of a structure. [6] Its design allows for the addition of customized software or hardware, while the BRCK cloud facilitates remote access and management. [7] Sensors and other machines can be attached to the BRCK, allowing a continuous flow of information to a remote monitoring or data collection station.[8]

With all of these features, the BRCK has little competition. “There are modems, there are routers, there are mobile phones, [and] then there is the BRCK,” says BRCK CEO Erik Hersman. There’s nothing else that “combines the best parts of these all into one place and in a package that is built for Africa’s low infrastructure.”[9] BRCK seeks to fill a significant market gap, and investors are recognizing the potential. A successful Kickstarter campaign attracted 1078 backers and raised $172,107, and in July 2014, BRCK closed a $1.2 million seed funding round.[10] At this point, the BRCK has been sold to 54 countries around the world.

 

Pride of Place

 

According to Hersman, one of the company’s greatest assets and appeals is that the product is designed in and made for Africa. This allows them to see and feel the problems first hand and connect with their target market. For instance, the BRCK can absorb a 400 volt charge – 70 to 80 times the electricity used to operate most electronics – because they had that happen during production. On the bottom of each BRCK, the inscription reflects this sense of pride: “Designed in Nairobi, Kenya. Manufactured in the USA.”[11]

brck-slide-1However, development has not been without its challenges, and often for the same reason. During early prototyping, many parts had to be sourced from outside Africa, costing a great deal of time and money. For instance, “two $15 cases that would have been overnighted for $20 in the US, EU and parts of Asia … cost $100 in shipping and another $200 in customs duty and clearing costs” and took over a week to arrive. The delays have been significant: the second version of the BRCK, originally slated for May 2014, is three months from final testing, with the expectation that they will have them out by the end of the year.[12]

At $249.99, the cost matches their focus on companies and governments over individual consumers. However, they are considering purchasing plans similar to those in the cell phone and energy sectors.[13] The device itself also reduces the both monetary and time costs for connections.

The BRCK’s potential extends far beyond the product itself. As internet becomes more accessible, it opens opportunities for education and learning. Hersman points out that “in Africa, where the youth bulge is high… it also creates a way for more people to get into digital jobs and a future that isn’t as wrapped up in the status quo businesses that are the only options around them right now.”[14]

To learn more, visit BRCK’s Twitter or website.

 

 

Notes

[1] http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/BlackoutFinal-Web.pdf

[2] http://thenextweb.com/gadgets/2014/07/16/brck-africa-funding/

[3] From correspondence with Erik Hersman on 07/03/2015

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsJYrwzfd6w

[5] https://www.brck.com/

[6] http://qz.com/82445/ushahidi-brck-of-africa-ensures-the-cloud-works-when-your-connection-doesnt/

[7] https://www.brck.com/

[8] http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2013/05/05/brck-keeps-the-internet-on-when-the-power-goes-off-even-in-africa/

[9] From correspondence with Erik Hersman on 07/03/2015

[10] http://thenextweb.com/gadgets/2014/07/16/brck-africa-funding/

[11] https://www.brck.com/

[12] From correspondence with Erik Hersman on 07/03/2015

[13] http://www.fastcoexist.com/3035137/change-generation/made-in-kenya-assembled-in-america-this-amazing-internet-anywhere-router-c

[14] From correspondence with Erik Hersman on 07/03/2015

 

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Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott is a writer, teacher and human rights advocate from Peterborough, Canada.

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