'Jua Kali': Why Hardware Could Beat Software

From internet backup machines and locally made drones to mobile surveillance units, Africa is seeing a growing demand for hardware technology that goes head on with local challenges. In a few years, this industry will overtake software industry in all its form.

In the early nineties the image of Kenyan entrepreneurship was bare-chested men hammering away at steel to create the perfect shapes for home equipment and utensils. The men worked boiling metal to high degrees and finally displayed their wares to potential customers in obscure and informal areas around the city. The famous industry known as “Jua Kali” (meaning hot sun) was reminiscent of the men toiling in the baking equatorial sunshine.

Today this industry is still there, but the new crop of entrepreneurs is now opting for more technologically advanced type of “Jua Kali”. In practice, this means many entrepreneurs have opted for software development and internet related services. And to some extent this has proved to be highly successful with the launch of world-renowned services such as Ushahidi, the crowd sourced reporting platform.

However, when the iHub launched a new hardware prototype to solve internet connectivity in Africa, the whole world turned to see a great innovation. Termed as BRCK, the gadget is an internet backup that helps internet users to stay connected even when the electricity or internet fluctuates. Now hardware tech is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with and many suggest that it could even overtake the software industry in Kenya.

BRCK was initially posted on KickStarter, quickly raised over US$125,000 to oversee its production and caused a buzz in the international media.

Reg Orton, the chief technical operator, told IDG Connect that such projects can easily and directly solve Africa’s problem.

“There are problems in Africa that are unique. For example, [take] the BRCK; there is really no requirement for this device in the US. The power is generally very stable. The internet is also much more stable than here. So to develop this device we had to be here before we realize there was a problem. We have to be close to the problem to develop the solution,” Orton said.

Within the incubation center iHub, a new innovative section is also growing. As you enter iHub’s Gearbox office you are greeted by the sight of wires and open electronics all over the place. This may be unusual, but it’s necessary in hardware development and is clearly emerging as a sophisticated mirror the “Jua Kali” sector.

The Gearbox opened mid-2013, aims to nurture hardware developers, and has already attracted a number of users.

Compared to software entrepreneurial cases in Kenya, hardware has the potential to quickly generate a lot of jobs with the right capital injection.

Elijah Kupata, an entrepreneur in Nairobi, Kenya came up with a mobile surveillance unit for homes and businesses where tenants and business owners can monitor their premises through a live stream right to their mobile phones. The system can also alert them when someone breaks into their premises through text messaging.

With this technology, Kupata has been able to employ over 60 people, a number that small software companies cannot dream of. Kupata is one of the many innovations that have been incubated by the National Council of Science and Technology.

The council gives grants to promising ideas within the hardware tech industry and in turn creates a massive opportunity for innovators to build their business and employ others. This has seen great ideas being developed including one of Kenya’s first tablets.

“There are opportunities for jobs and growing the GDP of the economy,” Orton agreed as he pondered on the future of hardware.

Able Wireless, an ambitious project that will offer a Netflix-like service to Kenya had to create hardware to realize its dream. The company manufactures its own black box that will enable users to stream movies and TV series; it also provides a stable internet for a very low price Kshs 500 per month (US$6.5 per month).

“Our box is very ‘Jua Kali’ box”, Kahenya Kamunyu the founder of Able Wireless said. “We are assembling it in a very small shed and we are pushing around 100 units (of the black box) a day. I have a big problem people underestimating ‘jua kali’.”

Kamunyu tells us that with the technology he has used it would be easy for any electrician in Kenya to fix the box in event of failure. Able Wireless is also recruiting vendors who sell illegal pirated DVDs to become legitimate businessmen by providing support for the black box users. This in turn opens a big avenue for legitimate business in Kenya.

Kamunyu also believes in the future of hardware tech in Kenya. “We are bringing the work here,” he said, instead of shipping in finished material. “But if only the government would ease up on the tax, then it would work,” he added.

Government bodies in Africa hold the key to opening up the hardware tech sector in Kenya. Gearbox and Able Wireless have had to import their raw materials from outside countries, which has cost them extra cash, and in essence pushed up the price of commodities. With tax there is little that can be done.

This makes government support within the borders extremely important. Chris Ghalily, a certified aeronautical engineer who studied in China for some years, came back to Kenya and invented his own drone that could be used for security surveillance. However, this project hit a snag when the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority did not know how to license his craft due to lack of legislation on drones. His project has since been grounded.

Chris Ghalily is not the only one who has faced draconian government legislation or lack of it. Last October, Gabriel Nderitu an IT expert in Nyeri County, in central Kenya came out and showcased three aircraft that he had assembled from scratch. Yet he has found the venture quite expensive, spending over Kshs 1 million (US$12,000) for the three aircrafts.

“Kenya is not silicon savannah. There are few software ideas that have thrived in Kenya and for the startup, the success rate is anything close to 15%,” Kamunyu said in support of hardware tech industry.

Today there are numerous cases of hardware tech development in Kenya though they are rarely in the limelight like their software counterparts. Yet there is everything to play for - this industry could change the face of Africa and provide true innovations that solve real local problems.