While the Covid-19 health crisis demonstrated how relevant new technologies are to support the health and economic resilience of the continent, the birth, the approach and the trajectory of this Kenyan company that is BRCK are a strong symbol more ‘a title. At the head, there is someone who has distinguished himself remarkably in the world of tech in East Africa. And for good reason, he participated in 2008 in the birth of the Ushahidi application, the first mutual aid platform for African citizens which has since been deployed in 200 countries around the world, but also in the creation of the iHub, one one of the continent’s very first innovation centers, which in a few years became the center of gravity of the Nairobi geek communities. His name: Erik Hersman.
A graduate of Kenya’s Rift Valley Academy and Florida State University, this 45-year-old engineer, who spent his childhood in Sudan and East Africa, is a geek familiar with the difficulties of the local environment. This gradually fueled his grand design to find a way to give the maximum number of people access to the new opportunities opened up by new technologies, in this case the Internet. This led him to create in the Kenyan capital, in 2014, BRCK, a start-up specializing in connectivity.
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The economic model questioned
“The Internet only highlights what we have been saying for a long time: we cannot be part of the global economy of the XXIe century without connection, “he says. Starting from the observation that more than 80% of the Kenyan population is deprived of access to the Web, Erik Hersman and his teams will deeply question the economic model of the Internet and the barriers to entry induced for the most modest. “The vast majority of our customers are very low income people. The real emergency for them is not to buy an Internet package, but rather to feed their families, ”he explains.
His thinking starts from a raw reality: for years on the continent, millions of rural households have been ignored by the big access providers, for lack of sufficient commercial profitability. However, if the most modest populations cannot connect to the Internet, then what is ultimately its real use in these regions? How can the Internet be more involved in the development of real, often informal, economies? And a fortiori in a pandemic period as currently with the Covid-19? How to transmit to hospitals information, day by day, on the evolution of contaminations, for example?
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Internet for all: first a method
So many questions that will explain the BRCK approach. In 2016, the young Kenyan shoot is developing a new form of Internet that is inclusive and human-centered. This is intended to be accessible without resource conditions and distributed equitably in the most difficult to access territories, in a decentralized manner. For this, BRCK will disseminate across the country thousands of small, very robust portable metal routers. Anyone can send a Wi-Fi signal accessible from anywhere.
Once connected to the router with his phone, a user can in a few taps freely surf the Internet through Moja, an application created from scratch by BRCK. Moja is a free internet browser, which Erik Hersman and his teams first thought and then created from a long phase of daily observation of the difficulties encountered by the inhabitants in the field. “Users do not have to take money out of their pocket to use our services and benefit from the Internet for free. They can do what they want, that is to say, have access to informative, educational, leisure content, in short, access the entire Internet, without any restrictions, “explains Erik Hersman who continues: “Moja is also used more and more to look for a job or work online. In order to be able to browse for free, users give in return a few minutes to respond to online surveys, follow training courses or even view video capsules sponsored by local companies, most often food companies or the Kenyan media. “
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A model that has taken root
The enthusiasm was instantaneous and validated in a few months the value proposition as well as the hybrid business model of Moja. Word of mouth did the rest. In 2019, the solution enabled BRCK to generate US $ 5 million in revenue. Today, BRCK connects more than 2 million people to the internet. “We are about to cover 10 million people in the next 2 to 3 months,” says Erik Hersman. With already more than 200,000 wi-fi access points installed throughout Kenya – but also in Rwanda, where the start-up has recently set up -, the company sees its development grow week after week.
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Routers installed in minibuses
The secret of this meteoric execution lies on the side of Ngong Road, the long avenue located twenty minutes from downtown Nairobi, which rises in the business district of the capital. This is where BRCK’s small industrial workshop is located, equipped with state-of-the-art assembly lines. There, patiently, the employees of the start-up assemble, inspect and put into service a dozen routers every day. Visible from a distance, yellow and black Moja stickers are stamped on the shockproof shell of the devices which will be positioned on the ground. But not anywhere.
These countless collective minibuses in flashy colors crisscrossing the roads of Kenya have the advantage of stopping in every corner of the country, including in the most remote villages. This popular, very inexpensive means of transport thus enables the vast majority of the population to go to work every day. An influx that decided the BRCK technicians who install the routers directly in the cabs of matatus drivers. Once fixed, each box becomes de facto a “rolling” Wi-Fi antenna, open and free for all minibus passengers.
Once the Moja application has been downloaded to their phone, travelers only have to freely consult the Internet during their journey. An effective way for BRCK to allow Internet users to kill time in the traffic jams that are suffocating Nairobi, but also to bridge as it can the digital divide that crosses Kenyan society.
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A news channel dedicated to Covid-19 in Moja
While the Covid-19 is still present, the BRCK services are acclaimed by the most precarious populations, as Erik Hersman confirms: “Our networks are exploding! People are connecting more than ever. It must be said that, from the onset of the pandemic in Kenya, a news channel dedicated to the prevention of Covid-19 appeared on Moja, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization . “We offer prevention videos and educational quizzes on the Covid-19 in order to maintain engagement. Isn’t this a good way to inform about the virus and disseminate information? Explains Erik Hersman. The application also offers daily updated statistics on the pandemic, educational content for children out of school during confinement or tutorials to properly practice barrier gestures.
In a few days, more than 200,000 Kenyans subscribed to the channel to learn about the evolution of the Covid-19. A connection that has become a survival issue, because how can you eradicate the virus without tracing its evolution, whether you are in the rural and distant county of Siaya in the west of the country or in the giant slum of Kibera in Nairobi? The Internet thus illustrates its strategic nature for the management of the pandemic.
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Services rooted in the local context …
At the same time, BRCK conducts regular interviews with users in the field. Thus, the economic model of Moja has been enriched with a playful dimension, but also with value creation. “The more our users consume content through Moja, the more they create digital value. In return, they earn and receive digital points, ”says Erik Hersman, who explains that this opens up a new field of opportunities in passing through access to food through a barter system. Concretely, those who carry out digital micromissions on behalf of BRCK customers will receive Moja digital points, bonuses that can be used in small food businesses or partner kiosks. Points are redeemed for pasta, flowers or even small manufactured items. This allows small shops to sell more products and BRCK to create a virtuous circle for local ecosystems on a small scale, thanks to digital technology.
… And better coverage of white areas
This model works well in urban or dense areas, but what about the situation in areas where the population density is low and the connection infrastructure almost nonexistent, in other words in white areas. When BRCK teams come to meet them to connect them to the Internet, populations react very positively. “Some villagers living in lost places await the passage of the matatus with whom we work. They take the minibus just an hour because they know they will have free internet access during the journey, ”says Erik Hersman. In the logic of going even further, in the spring of 2019, Erik Hersman’s teams even came to a village located in the isolated region of Lake Magadi, in the Rift Valley. With the agreement of the inhabitants, they were able to install long-range Wi-Fi towers which now provide a very fast Internet connection to the entire perimeter around. “This has connected many lost villages and even isolated guard posts who try to protect the rhinos from poachers in Chyulu Hills National Park to the Internet.” Before, they had no connection! Continues Erik Hersman.
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In perspective, combining the internet with energy
If the Internet provision stage gives reason to hope for improvements in the connection, BRCK now plans to go further. The start-up simply wants to combine connectivity and economic development in the heart of the remote territories of East Africa where it is established. Erik Hersman is currently working on the development of a technology to bring energy and connectivity together in one place. “We could thus supply solar energy where there is nothing today, by combining connectivity and off-grid technologies”, he indicates adding: “Not to mention the impact that this out of the thousands of African SMEs of the informal sector, in search of digitization and sales solutions for their products. “
In the meantime, in order to ensure the continuity of the signal and its quality in a pandemic period, a battery of engineers take turns every day in the field to ensure the proper functioning of the Wi-Fi terminals. To accelerate its scale-up, the small workshop on Ngong Road continues to produce new devices at full capacity, since the social enterprise aims to multiply by five the number of its access points in the coming months, or one million wi-fi relays in total. These will be deployed in East Africa, but also in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A first foray into French-speaking Africa which is not trivial. It must be said that this is where we find the most difficult to access forest regions of the African continent, those that have never been covered by a wi-fi signal. And Erik Hersman says: “One of the virtues of Covid-19 is to help raise awareness of the multiplier effects of connectivity in white areas. The primary beneficiaries would be all those healthcare workers still on the frontline who lack data, as well as all those children who do not have a school and have no access to education. ” Today in discussion with its local partner located in Kinshasa, BRCK plans to install 3,400 wi-fi access points across the country. Starting points: important cities like Lubumbashi, Bukavu or Goma. Enough to open a new field to the Internet for all in a country, the DRC, under construction in many areas.
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* Columnist of twenty African digital ecosystems that he has traveled for 4 years, Samir Abdelkrim is the author of “Startup Lions, at the heart of African Tech”. He is the initiator of the Tech4Good EMERGING Valley platform and founder of StartupBRICS