Staying connected anytime, anywhere

Source: Ying M. Zhao-Hiemann

Ushahidi, a not-for-profit technology company based in Kenya, has invented a cloud-managed, portable Wi-Fi router that consists of a mobile modem, which can also be used as a backup power generator for the Internet during electricity blackouts or in situations of limited network coverage. Called BRCK (pronounced as “brick”), experts are already recognizing it as an ingenious solution to Africa's intractable power problems.

The BRCK is rugged and water-proof and compatible with any device that requires between 3 and 17 volts power supply. It weighs 510 g and it's about the size of a Mac Mini. Ideal for use in particularly rural areas, it can be charged on readily available power sources such as a car battery or a solar panel. When the electricity goes off, BRCK automatically switches to battery mode, which can then last for eight hours.

The BRCK is expected to alleviate problems that African Internet users face daily such as high communication costs and unreliable electricity. In addition, currently available modems in Africa don't meet local needs. They are designed primarily for use in more developed regions, particularly the West and Asia, where there is mostly uninterrupted access to electricity and Internet.

The gadget can switch between Ethernet, Wi-Fi and mobile broadband connections, and deliver connectivity for up to 20 devices at the same time through multiple sim cards, thereby allowing users to stay connected at a relatively low cost. Ushahidi is optimistic about the device's potential to help small business owners in Kenya and other parts of Africa. “Out of adversity can come innovation,” said Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi's executive director, at a presentation at the TED Global Conference in Scotland last year.

Ms. Rotich emphasized the importance of connectivity and entrepreneurship for Africa's digital economy, and highlighted the BRCK's role in keeping Africans connected. Last July, BRCK's creators were invited by eLimu, a Kenyan tech company, to consider delivering an e-learning to schools in remote locations.

The BRCK has also been stress-tested successfully in rural Kenya and during the Rhino Charge, an annual off-road motorsport competition. Launched last July in Nairobi, each BRCK sells for $199. Africa's ongoing information and communication technology (ICT) transformation makes BRCK a potentially popular device.

Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" or "witness" in Swahili) was originally founded in 2008 as a website to map reports of violence in Kenya in the aftermath of the disputed 2007 presidential election. Since then, the company has evolved into a leader of the technology community in East Africa.