On a shoestring, a small integrated hardware and software company based in Nairobi, Kenya is succeeding where giant technology companies have failed. It is connecting Africa to the internet. CEO Erik Hersman and his co-founders at BRCK are proving that a combination of visionary technology and socially designed solutions are more likely to bring connectivity to the frontier markets of Africa than all the money in the world.
The company’s ambitious goal is making it possible for everyone, even in remote rural villages, to participate in the opportunities connectivity provides. So it created a rugged, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device that connects people and things to the internet in areas with poor infrastructure. It’s a tough and versatile wireless modem and router about the size of the familiar building material for which it and the company are named.
To create the BRCK device, Hersman and his team worked from the bottom up, based on an urgent and specific need—overcoming unreliable connectivity and the conditions that cause electronics to fail, like too much heat or dust. Taking such a bottom-up, needs-based approach is a key principle of social design. It flies in the face of the approach of tech giants. They typically develop new products in special innovation labs insulated inside large institutions and then market them, at great expense, to convince users they need them.
The BRCK device was first developed four years ago. It is battery-powered; it can be charged with anything from a solar panel to a car battery; and it can withstand power spikes of up to 400 volts. It connects to the internet via cellular network, Ethernet cable, or Wi-Fi network. It also has a built-in global SIM card, its own Wi-Fi network that can accommodate twenty devices concurrently, and because it is open-source it can connect other devices. All those features were developed based on the company’s intimate, on-the-ground knowledge of the community and marketplace.
Now the company is addressing another big problem. After shipping the BRCK to more than 50 countries, Hersman and his colleagues conducted man-on-the-street interviews and user experience research in Kenya. It convinced them they had solved only the accessibility half of the connectivity equation. The greater obstacle to regular internet access for most Africans was that it was too expensive.
A4AI, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, has found that the average price for 1GB of prepaid mobile broadband, as a percentage of average per capita gross national income, was 17.49% in Africa, as opposed to only 0.84% in North America. As a consequence, in most of Africa only about 20% of smartphone owners can consistently afford to pay for the internet it requires.
Other companies aiming to tackle the affordability problem were all taking a familiar tack: reducing the price for subscription Wi-Fi. In Hersman’s view, that strategy could profitably capture only about an additional 10% of the market, leaving 70% of the smartphone-owning population still unable to afford regular internet access.
By framing the challenge concretely—another principle of social design, which paradoxically provokes greater creativity than “blank sheet of paper” approaches—the company created a new breed of BRCK, special software to run on it, and a new business model that circumvents pricey subscriptions.
SupaBRCK is not only a router/modem but is also a rugged mini data center capable of hosting content. It provides internet at LTE speeds to up to 100 devices at a time, while its dual core processor and five-terabyte hard drive streams cached content such as textbooks, music, and instructional videos. It runs on software called Moja, the Swahili word for “one,” which is meant to convey what the company calls “internet for everyone.” Businesses pay BRCK for presence on the Moja platform in the form of apps that can be downloaded, surveys, or caching of their content. That enables the company to make much of the content available to users for free.
The company has deployed more than 1,500 SupaBRCKs on buses and minibuses in Kenya and Rwanda, where passengers can access the content and get online at no charge, and has started testing in Mexico. This strategy embodies another key principle of social design: use the scarce resources at hand, free from the constraints of established models—in this case, the centralized networks the rest of the world uses. And BRCK’s ingeniously dispersed network is faster, cheaper, and more resilient than a centralized model dependent on unreliable infrastructure.
With a proven technology, market fit, a growing user base, and a viable business model, the company is now aiming to scale dramatically. It has rugged hardware and a problem-solving approach rooted in social design. Its success provides a model for virtually any place in the world where seemingly insurmountable challenges prevent penetration by technology.
Cheryl Heller is founding chair of the MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and president of design lab CommonWise. She is also the author of The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design.