Online, Off The Grid: The Promising New Tech Tool About To Hit African Markets

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An African tech company is gearing up to unleash a brand new tool that will help people across the continent get connected to the Internet, even in the most remote places.

It doesn’t look like much at first -- just a silvery, tough-looking device the size and shape of a brick. But inside this hunk of metal is some amazing stuff; its intelligent software, durable hardware and portable power source can keep users connected to the Internet wherever they go.

It’s called BRCK, and it will hit the mass market in November at a sale price of $199. The company behind it is Ushahidi, a Kenyan enterprise headed by Julianna Rotich.

“While Africa may have joined the digital revolution and mobile is becoming ubiquitous, Internet connectivity is not always reliable and the price of connecting is high,” Rotich told the BBC. Importing technology from other continents hasn’t managed to close that gap, which is why Ushahidi designed its hardware to cater specifically to African users.

BRCK is durable, easily portable and eminently capable. Its user interface is simple and intuitive, its smart software can switch between Internet sources -- anything from Wifi to 4G to Ethernet -- and its battery can keep users connected even when the power is out. It can also hold data from devices or apps like Dropbox, with a total 16 GB of storage.

That’s perfect for a continent where connectivity can be spotty, but online communication has nonetheless become a major driver of development. Business hubs like Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana, and Lusaka, Zambia, are becoming centers of economic growth, and opportunities abound for ambitious African techies. With the proliferation of connectivity tools like BRCK, those opportunities will become even more accessible outside of major cities.

Ushahidi, a non-profit enterprise, used Kickstarter to help raise funds for manufacturing. In just one month, 1,078 backers contributed $172,107 to get BRCK off the ground.

Before creating this hardware, the company created platforms for crowdsourcing information; its software can be used to conduct market research, monitor elections or organize events. It has been useful in times of crisis; during the aftermath of disasters including the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and the recurring Queensland floods in Australia, witnesses and aid agencies used Ushahidi’s technology to coordinate reports of victims’ needs.

With BRCK, Ushahidi is gearing up to broaden its operations even further. Africans will find the new hardware particularly useful, but Internet users all over the world will be able to reap the benefits, too. “The BRCK is like a backup generator for the Internet,” said the company in a press release. “Our motto has always been ‘if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.’”

 

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