In a classroom unlike any other, children’s faces light up as they connect to a world beyond the four walls of their classroom through easy to use tablets. This is an unlikely image of schooling in rural Kenya, where many can’t afford school fees, and have no access to electricity, let alone the internet.
Education tech solutions like tablet technologies are becoming more commonplace in schools in developing countries, with hardware and education content being designed and shipped out from far off places like California and Germany. Often these technologies are not made to deal with the infrastructure problems found in developing countries, where electricity and internet access can be scarce or unreliable, making them inaccessible and costly. However, hardware company BRCK, based in Nairobi, is changing this by designing technology that can be used in Africa for Africa.
BRCK emerged out of the Silicon-Savannah ecosystem where tech startups were trying to fix problems in Kenya and the region. Founder Erik Hersman realised that if the internet would routinely cut out, even in Nairobi’s tech hub, then digital solutions would have serious challenges in reaching rural Kenya where people aren’t even connected.
The BRCK, a rugged, self-powered and mobile WiFi device that can link in to a variety of different connections (ethernet, satellite, and 2G/3G/4G sim cards), working offline and offgrid, was designed to combat this problem. Managing Director Nivi Sharma explains its importance in this region:
“It is pretty simple. It is a wireless router, has onboard storage, and it’s got a battery life - but no one has ever thought to bring those together before because, there is no other part of the world that manufactures devices where those things are needed. Those aren’t needs in Tokyo or San Francisco or London. But they are Africa’s infrastructure realities.”
The premise and idea behind BRCK is the need to build hardware solutions in Africa for Africa, rather than importing off-the-shelf solutions from the East or the West, and thinking they will work the same way in very different contexts.
BRCK also works to provide children with digital access in schools. The Kio Kit was designed to expand education beyond the four walls of the classroom. Often the only source of information for children in rural schools are their teachers, who are typically overworked, underpaid and undertrained, and textbooks. The Kio Kit - a large black box with 40 Kio tablets and a BRCK inside - is an offline provider of education content that is sourced from around the world, but also locally curated.
A combination of hardware, software and connectivity tools that are designed to be drop resistant, dust and water resistant, the Kio Kit can transform any classroom into a digital learning environment within minutes. And unlike most edtech solutions, the Kio Kit was designed in a Kenyan classroom. As Sharma observes:
“If you think of every edtech hardware solution that is being used in Africa, not a single one was designed while sitting in an African classroom. They were designed in offices elsewhere, assuming ‘this should work for you’, not recognising the large differences in infrastructure and massive discrepancies in digital literacy with the teachers who are tasked to integrate this ICT into their classrooms”
By watching teachers in classrooms, the Kio Kit was designed as a simple, easy and affordable solution. This makes room for tackling the more time consuming issues.
“The beautiful thing about the kit is that the teachers and students need so little technical training on operating the technology," explains Sharma. "Instead we spend time with the teachers on how to integrate technology meaningfully into their classrooms, with the empathy that these are teachers who have never taught with technology before, have never learnt with technology before, their entire lives have been chalk and chalk. Getting them to change the way they think about teaching and learning is the most time consuming part of integrating in schools.”
BRCK collaborates with various local content providers. Often schools and NGOs that donate Kio Kits to their partner schools and libraries also have their own set of content they want to send out. For example, UNICEF are very focused on eliminating cholera, so they have integrated lessons on how to wash your hands properly, or how to prevent and identify cholera. The Kio Kits have also been distributed in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, providing literacy content in the Somali language, co-authored with the camp residents themselves.
The key value of the BRCK lies in its ability to locally host content, rather than relying on a cloud server somewhere halfway across the world. This has allowed the organisation to develop an innovative business model that can provide free WiFi known as Moja in public spaces and on public buses in Nairobi and Kigali. Rather than users having to pay, or disclose personal information to log in, they have the option to earn access by completing an exercise like watching a clip or doing a survey. This way BRCK not only provides digital access to a population that was previously disconnected because of access or affordability, but also provides a way for organisations to access a disconnected population and engage with them digitally. The landing page of Moja provides people with some direction of how people can use their digital access that is relevant to local needs, such as videos on agricultural best practices, how to write a CV or vocational training opportunities.
Sharma identifies BRCK’s deep focus on user experience as being key to their achievements so far:
“We design our solutions with humility, curiosity and imagination when speaking to the people who we are designing for. By keeping them front and centre in our minds, that has been the driving force of our success. We are not sitting in an office designing for ourselves, every single person in this office has to go out once a month into the field and interact with a real user.”