A Dash SouthNovember 24 2014
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4:30am wheels rolling to make it to the Beit Bridge border crossing into Zimbabwe, 3 hours crossing through that ridiculously complicated border, finally arrived in Harare at 9:30pm. We're all exhausted after 17 hours on the road. Tomorrow we spend time with Hypercube and the Harare tech community though, so that's exciting and means a day of non-travel as well!
We've been excited to show up at Maker Faire Africa (old site) in Johannesburg for quite a few months, so actually being there yesterday was a big deal for us. Especially as we had driven 4,400km to be here and it was our primary goal for the journey.
The BRCK table certainly drew our fair share of interest at Maker Faire Africa this year. While Maker Faires elsewhere often feature the likes of fire-breathing dragon statues and other impressive works of art, making in Africa has a slightly different tone. The Faire in Joburg had plenty of amazing artwork – not least of which was a 30-foot tall LED light sculpture made of CNC’ed plywood and steel that looked amazing as the sun went down – but it also featured a leveling device for brick layers to make high-quality masonry easier to achieve. There’s a strong enterprising spirit to many local makers, and lots of them were keen to learn BRCK’s story of starting a hardware company in Africa.
From questions about sourcing components, to finding access to tools, financing, and marketing expertise, makers from across the continent wanted to know BRCK’s story of taking a uniquely African innovation to commercializable product. We held a joint workshop with the Gearbox team on how to take a product design from idea to prototype to production, and showed lots of people how they could leverage their experience in the local market and knowledge of the local context to develop innovative new products that no one else in the world would be capable of making.
While this year's MFA is a bit smaller than in years past, we were still in great company with people building drones, robots, DIY kids electronics kits, 3D printers and a guy who built his own art car and skinned it in denim. (The best coverage is found on HTXT.africa. There were these guys who had built a small remote-controlled hovercraft who kept sliding it around, as well as a whole space setup for people to 3D print and make their own things.
Prototyping to Manufacturing
MFA is a great event, if for no other reason than that it brings together the engineers and inventors in an area together. There's a lot of learning and connections made, and then more things happen afterwards. The other thing that happens is that people who are inventing new things are found by media and business people who can help them.
Last year there wasn't a Maker Faire Africa, so we at BRCK weren't able to showcase our prototype-level devices. This year, we had one of the more polished items at the event.
There's a lot that needs to happen between your first hacked together prototypes and a real production run of a new product. This is why I think providing an on-ramp to manufacturing is the obvious place to go next with Africa's inventors. This is why we're helping to build Gearbox in Nairobi. We need people, training and machines that can take guys with great ideas and early prototypes, and move them into becoming real businesses.
The foundation is a lot more hardware-based prototyping, whether that's Fundibots in Uganda, MakerHut in Zambia is trying to foster a community around hardware, and there's a lot of activity in robotics groups by engineering students in Kenya, South Africa, Egypt and Senegal much of it happening in their respective tech hubs.
[As an aside: read Bankole's post on "Africa needs an Industrial Revolution"]
The next layer is what we need to plan for next. So, while we're thinking of Gearbox in Kenya, there are others doing the same in South Africa (who has always had a great manufacturing base). What others are out there? Who else is creating a program, space and bringing together that city's inventors and engineers to not just create prototypes, but take things to market?
At the border. It is cooler today and the car + bike problems we had all of yesterday appear to have been solved.
Getting connected on the BRCK in Botswana was a tad more difficult than expected, always get your SIMs registered when you buy them. Also, bet on good quality Nokia phones...it was exasperating trying to add credit with a Chinese ENES which broke within 15 min (menu button just stopped working)
So for most of the Botswana stretch we've been mostly just on old school text.
Other problems on the connectivity side another time.
For now, appreciating the efficiency, cleanliness and no fuss of Botswana immigration
This is an experiment to see if a cross-post from my blog will work on OpenExplorer (with HTML for images).
TL;DR - We're chilling by Victoria Falls today, a 5-hour drive took us 11-hours yesterday, and someone stole our med kit, a vest and 300m Nikon lens in Livingstone today.
Friday was amazing. We had gotten in the night before to Lusaka, and this meant we got to spend the whole day with the BongoHive team and the rest of the tech community here. They were some of the most hospitable people, and we gave demos/talks on the BRCK, as well as Mark giving a talk on User Experience (UX), which was one of the best talks I've heard in a long time. Later, I gave a talk on Savannah Fund and raising investment money for startups, and the whole evening was finished by Juliana and myself giving a joint keynote to get the local Startup Weekend going. Busy, and fun!
It's interesting, with Lusaka being a smaller, though major African city, they have the ambitions of larger things. However, their issues become more challenging than people who live in some of the larger cities like Lagos, Cape Town or Nairobi, since there isn't the critical mass of things like investors, customers or talent. It seems like the strategy to build a big company is that you have to move across borders and anchor off of a larger region more quickly.
A Day Off on the at Vic Falls
Today I'm sitting in a camp on the edge of a tributary to the Zambezi river, a couple kilometers from Victoria Falls. The rains have been late here, so everything is dry, including the falls themselves - they're still epic, but not nearly the same as the real falls. We went out there this morning to get a few pictures, and were able to get the BRCK connected from "Danger Point".
Today is mostly about rest. We're doing a bit of testing, connecting the BRCK to the vehicle mounted Poynting antenna, and then amplifying that with a Wilson booster, which successfully turns a non-existent signal on a mobile phone into a 19 (with antenna) and then a 61 (with amp + antenna). It's great to have a device like this where we can get such great connectivity wherever we go.
Mark has begun his lessons on how to ride a motorcycle today. He's been busy putting around the campsite this afternoon with a big fat grin on his face. :)
@Mark_Kamau learns how to ride a pikipiki at Victoria Falls, Zambia.
A video posted by Erik Hersman (@white_african) on Nov 11, 2014 at 6:32am PST
The Road to Livingston
We had an interesting day yesterday, with a plan for a 5-6 hour ride from Lusaka to Livingstone. It turned into an 11-hour drive though, since the Land Rover had some issues with air in the fuel line. For a while, we could only go 20km at a time before it would stop and we'd have to bleed it. Luckily Philip really knows his way around a diesel engine, we worked through all the obvious issues and finally got it to go 100km before we had to bleed it again.
Last night Reg spent some time on it and though we think the fuel lift pump is the culprit (and weak), it's working well enough to make the 500km run to Francistown, Botswana tomorrow.
We thought Zambia was different. Mark accidentally left Juliana's big Nikon camera at a restaurant in Lusaka. Mark wanted to go by and see if it was there, I was skeptical, it was lost forever. However, the next day our friend and TED Africa Fellow, Mulumba went by and they had found and kept it for us. Where were we? This doesn't usually happen in a big African city...
Today, we had to run to pick up some food at the local Shoprite grocery store in Livingstone. We locked up the Land Rover and went in for 30 minutes or so. When we cam out we found everything sitting in the back seat was stolen, including a nice 300mm Nikon Lens, a riding vest, and most importantly of all, our amazing Med Kit. This med kit is put together by my wife, a nurse practitioner, and has some of the best expedition stuff you can find.
Oh, just found out that they got our Mozilla Firefox phone... this is a 3-SIM phone, and it's what we used to top-up credit on SIM cards and figure things out along the way. What a shame.
We're more than a bit pissed off about this, if I found the thieves there might be violence.
Pushing On and a Jua Kali hack
With the vehicle acting well all day today, the bikes tightened up and a chance to rest ourselves, we're all set to hit the Botswana border in the morning and do a run down to Francistown. Reg had to head back to Kenya, so Mark will take over on the Land Rover, though we will miss having an engineer with us.
With Joel's riding vest gone, we had no water for him. Fortunately, I carried an extra bladder. We put together a jua kali water pack for him using this, along with one of those small Alite chair bags, and a couple Rok straps (see below).
We have been travelling down south since 6:30 a.m, we around half way to victoria falls. We have stopped several times due to some mechanical problems on the Land Rover but the BRCK has been steady, giving us over 500kbps in the middle of south Zambia. Today, the BRCK seems to be out performing the landrover.
We ended our first day well at an incredible campsite in the middle of Tanzania. We mostly got to bed at a reasonable hour with an agreement to get moving at 6 and wheels rolling by 7. We hit the first but missed the second. It wasn’t that we were wasting time but there is always a bit of effort to get ourselves into high-performance, expedition pace.
The early part of the morning was spent at a proper speed on some of the best roads in Africa. We would hit towns of various sizes every 40-50 kilometers and we learned to recognize the size/status of the town based upon the number of speed bumps and cell towers. On the bikes it was easy to lift up out of the seats and take the speed bumps at a reasonable speed. The truck on the other hand had to slow down. In addition to the impact of the speed bumps, the truck was a target for every police stop. The bikes just waved as we went flying by. We really were in a zone for a couple of hours as we let the kilometers roll by under our wheels.
And then things changed… A lot!
We had a choice this morning to either go the eastern (shorter) route or the western (better) route. Everyone (I literally mean every human we know who has ever even heard of Tanzania) told us to take the western route. We, of course, decided to take the eastern route. They were right. We were wrong.
It started off reasonably ok with a bit of hard packed dirt. Although my bike wasn’t really designed for this kind of stuff, the other vehicles are in their element when the tarmac ends. And then things got worse. The road went from hard pack to fresh-fresh (talcum powder like sand). We would have sections with washboards so bad that our bikes would bounce all over the road. Then we would have sections with huge rocks that did their best to total our vehicles.
Reg had the first incident when he slid the truck in the fresh-fresh and ended up in a ditch. Nothing serious but we found out a few kilometers later that he had bounced the rear spring out of its mounting. We subsequently found out that the spring had rubbed on the sidewall of the tyre. The tyre (and rim) met their end on some very difficult washboard when they disintegrated into many, many pieces. No injury, but it was another delay on an already delayed day.
Although the bikes faired better mechanically (the only issue during the day was a broken box mount on Joel’s KLR), the riders suffered greatly. As we watched the remaining distance to Dodoma very slowly trickle down, our bodies were thrashed royally by the terrain. Sore hands, dust filled eyes, and shattered nerves from the many close calls in the loose dirt. When the dirt wasn’t giving us grief the buses that would fly by at uncontrolled speeds would nearly knock us off the road. We would stop frequently but the breaks were always too short and the pressure for pushing on too great.
We had intended to be in Dodoma by 10am where we were going to pick up Mark Kamau and Juliana Rotich. The plan was that we would then keep going to Iringa and spend the night closer to the Zambian border. As the hours ticked along and the kilometers did not we started to realize that our decision was going to have a significant impact on our overall schedule. Instead of making it past Iringa, we were going to have to fight to just make it to Dodoma. With about 70km to go we stopped at a police check to ask how much farther to the tarmac. The cop answered 20km but we are generally suspicious of time and distance responses from people in rural Africa. He was actually spot on and, 20km later, we rolled our bikes onto beautiful a made tarmac road. We had to hang out for a bit as Reg was dealing with his disintegrated wheel but we all breathed a sigh of relief to be back on the good stuff.
As we flew along towards Dodoma we settled into the reality of needing to adjust our schedule slightly for the remainder of the day. As if we had not had enough punishment for our decision, we suddenly found the tarmac ended and we were once again getting pounded on the loose dirt. We knew that we weren’t far from Dodoma and we were confident that the capital city would have only paved roads.
We were wrong again.
The dirt took us all the way into Dodoma – with pavement showing up once we were in the town proper. We found the rest of our team hanging at the New Dodoma Hotel and we used their wifi to search for accommodations south of the city that would put us on our path towards Zambia. We quickly found out that the New Dodoma Hotel was the only option available and so we relented to real showers and a night in real beds. While we still had daylight we did a full round of mechanical checks and fluid top ups on the vehicles. We reworked our route for the next two days going into Lusaka and we enjoyed a nice meal together as a team.
Although today was not anything like we expected when we woke up this morning, we once again validated why we do these expeditions. It is simply impossible to know what Africa can throw at you until you get out there and experience it for yourself. We are learning a lot about what is required to actually be rugged-enough for Africa. We are seeing how critical reliable technology is in remote and difficult situations. We are improving our ability to persist and succeed in the face of insurmountable odds. Finally, we are learning to adapt to our circumstances and not lose sight of the bigger objectives. These aren’t new lessons for us but they are lessons that we need to be continually reminded of as we attempt to build BRCK into the kind of company that can have the kind of impact that we want on our greater community.
It wasn’t the day that we hoped for but – with all vehicles and riders still in this expedition – it was the kind of day that we will look back on with fond memories. We will tell stories of this day for years to come and, hopefully, somewhere in the dust, oil, sweat, and tears there was the start of an idea that will eventually find its way into a BRCK product. For that one goal, today was well worth it.
Rest and repairs in Dodoma.
Today was difficult for part of the team who had to deal with a shredded tyre and terrrible patch of road. Doing some repairs and will rest and try to catch up with our timeline. At this point we are about half a day behind and hope for a smoother route tomorrow.
The connection here is quite slow, pictures and more as we get our kit set up.
(Cross posted from the BRCK blog)
I’m writing this blog post using my Mac, connected to a BRCK which is connected to a satellite internet connection using an Inmarsat iSavi device, somewhere about 100km from Arusha towards Dodoma. Inmarsat gave us this test device, a small unit, made for global travelers, so we could test out what worked and give them feedback on their tools. It also helps us figure out what connecting to the internet looks like when you’re beyond the edge of the mobile phone signal in Africa.
Here’s Reg, using his phone to do the same at our campground this evening:
We left at 5:30am from Nairobi to beat the traffic out of the city. With the beautiful new roads, we were at the Namanga border by 8am and cleared by 10am. Before you go on one of these trips, make it easy for yourself and get the following:
- Carnet de Passage for each vehicle (get this via AA)
- COMESA insurance (get via your insurance company, or buy at the border)
- International driver’s license (get via AA)
- Yellow fever card
By noon we were in Arusha, and took a chance to see the cafe that Pete Owiti (of Pete’s Coffee in Nairobi) set up with some Tanzanians, called Africafe. If you ever find yourself in Arusha, this is the first place you should go. Great food, good coffee, right in the middle of everything.
Knowing we were only going about 100km more today, we set off around 1pm. We got to a roundabout, and I knew which direction the main road was, so even though Philip mentioned we should go right, I went left to the main road. 45 minutes later we realized my mistake when Philip checked his GPS and realized we were further away than we were supposed to be.
Lesson learned: always listen to your cofounders (especially the one with the GPS).
With many sighs, we turned around and went back to Arusha, where Reg had been smart enough to stay with the Land Rover when he realized we went the wrong way. We quickly split off in the correct direction, aiming to get to the camping spot by 4pm latest.
As we were sitting in traffic in Arusha, Joel says, “Erik, your bike is smoking.” I replied that it was likely just the car I was parked next to. Nope. Sure enough, I was leaking oil… For those of you who don’t ride motorcycles, this is the last thing you want to hear when on the front end of a 4,400km trip. I ride a 2007 Suzuki DR650 - they have some of the most bullet-proof engines, and are perfect for Africa’s roads.
Fortune smiled upon us, and we were pointed towards Arusha Art Limited, which turned out to be an amazing garage (the best I’ve ever seen in Africa). Their director, Hemal Sachdev helped us out by helping to troubleshoot what could be wrong, and even fabricating a high-pressure oil hose, with compression fittings on the spot. There was oil everywhere, so we washed it off and kept going.
Lesson learned: there are a lot of people willing to help you in your journey, especially if you ask nicely.
5 km down the road, I was still smoking… Thanks to Hemal’s help, we knew what the problem wasn’t. It was now that we chanced to notice that the problem seemed to be coming from the timing chain setting hole. We realized this could be filled by a normal M5 screw, so got trucking to the campground where we could let the engine cool down and screw it in.
Now, I sit here in Wild Palms Camp, some place we saw on the side of the road near the Tarangiri game reserve. For 10,000 Tanzania Shillings ($6) each, you get a patch of ground to put a tent, there is a banda with table/chairs, and there are even some showers and toilets. Not real camping, but definitely nice after a day on the bike!
In the vein of our past expeditions to Turkana and the Nile, this one is on the edge. We’re taking 3 motorcycles and a Land Rover from Nairobi to Johannesburg in time for Maker Faire Africa on Dec 3-6.
If you do the math, you’ll realize this is more of a mad dash south in time for the event, covering 4,400km in 9 days. Here’s what the route south looks like, from Kenya through Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and into South Africa. The journey north takes us through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and back to Kenya, which we’ll take a little slower.
The People We’ll See & Events We’re At
We do have plans for a day off along the way. We’ll be stopping to visit our friends in the Zambian tech community in Lusaka. The Bongohive has been kind enough to host us, and we’ll be hanging out there, doing BRCK demos for techies and businesses, and I’ll give the keynote that evening for the beginning of Lusaka’s Startup Weekend.
Since I’m a founding organizer for Maker Faire Africa, I’m excited to go back, and this time have a product of our own to show for it. Besides demoing the BRCK and sharing how to build a hardware business in Africa, we’re also going to have some fun hacking on the devices with whoever is around and wants to play with them. We’ll have a couple of our engineers on hand as well.
Gearbox, our new prototyping and making initiative in Kenya, is a supporter of this year’s MFA too, so I’ll be able to speak to that and will have one of the Gearbox team with us at the event.
On the way back North we’re stopping in Harare, Zimbabwe to meet up with the tech community there. We’ll largely spend our time around the Hypercube, though plans are underway to get together with members of multiple tech spaces.
Testing BRCKs and Electronics
There are a couple new things we’re testing on this trip, three of which I’m extremely excited about:
BRCKpi – this is our RaspberryPi + BRCK device – it’s an add-on to the BRCK (we call those MRTR, as in “bricks and mortar”). We launched it last month with Mozilla in London, and are targeting it primarily at schools and clinics in Africa. However, we know there are a lot of other use cases for it, and one of those will be as a media server for our images and video on this trip.
Satcoms – we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can extend the BRCK beyond the edges of the network, so that it’s the one internet device that’s smart enough to pick the right connectivity type depending on what it can sniff around it. To that end, we’ve been having great conversations with Inmarsat and we’re testing out their newest product, the iSavi (not even on the market yet, first one in Africa). Internet speeds are comparable to cellular networks at up to 384 Kbps down, and 240 Kbps up. It’s much smaller and more portable than a BGAN, so we’re excited to pair it up with the BRCK, stress test it and see how it goes off-grid.
Antennas – We’ve tested some of Poynting’s antennas before, and they’re some of the best we’ve ever found. This time around we’re testing their mobile units, paired with amplifiers which we built into the vehicle, in order to see if we can create quick, deployable units at the edge of the grid. Of course, Poynting is a South African company too, and as one of our partners, we’re going looking forward to seeing them in-person for the first time in Johannesburg.