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Erik Hersman: A Founding Father of Kenyan Tech

“The war got bad when I was a kid so we ended up moving to Kenya,” says Erik Hersman over the phone from San Francisco, where he is on business for his latest intuitive BRCK. He is talking about his childhood - his parents were both British linguists who started off in South Sudan and migrated south over the border into Kenya.

It was this upbringing that made East Africa home. “In later years after I finished university [in the US] and came back [to Africa] Kenya seemed like the place with the most opportunities.”

Erik Hersman has been at the forefront of numerous East African tech initiatives for some little while now. “Tech stuff is what I know,” he says by way of explanation.

This is the man behind Ushahidi, which initially emerged to map post-election violence in 2008 but has come to be used the world over. He then went on to develop the iHub, an innovation community based in Nairobi which has since been copied across the continent. And he has now launched BRCK a “self-powered WiFi device” for emerging regions. This is on top of running two highly influential blogs, WhiteAfrican and AfriGadget  and acting as partner in local seed fund and accelerator, Savannah Fund.

Hersman sees his three businesses as part of a necessary continuum: “Ushahidi stepped into a vacuum,” he says “the iHub stepped into a vacuum and the BRCK is now stepping into a vacuum. When I look at these problems that need to be solved I always look at ways we can provide a platform for more.”

“Ushadi is a platform, the iHub is a platform for the tech community in Kenya to build on top of and we now have an iHub research arm, the user experience lab a supercomputer cluster and all these things running off it came from the community. And so that’s grown and become its own platform. And the BRCK is also a platform - it is a platform for connectivity. So it can get bigger than ourselves. If it is a single product it is not nearly as interesting and my challenge is to find the opportunity that is big enough that can reach beyond our borders.”

Hersman now spends 90% of his time on the BRCK and is in San Francisco to launch a new EdTech product. “It’s a BRCK but we’ve also added a Raspberry Pi,” he explains. “This makes it a BRCK micro server that you can use on the edge of the grid.”

“It can carry all the content for education and schools and can have all the connectivity you need.  And even if it is not connected it still has the content so you can serve that up to tablets and administrators in ways you can’t do yet. Nobody else is producing this.”

Like all Hersman’s businesses the BRCK has made rapid progress. It launched in June 2013 on Kickstarter, quickly overshot its target, and received $1.2 million seed fund earlier this year. It is now shipping to 45 countries and although Hersman stresses “we focus a lot of our efforts on Africa because that is our world…” it is relevant everywhere.

He explains at present, the people who buy these devices are those who might have a need: people who tend to travel a lot and tech people who operate in Africa and Asia. Yet this is also relevant to SMEs who might want to buy a couple of units at a time. And the serious target is ‘social’ verticals such as education and humanitarian response.

“Not only is it a needed product that is actually built to work in that environment,” he tells us “it is also something that is good for the world at the same time.”

“There is going to be this massive continued growth in children,” he continues in regard to the educational vertical. “How are we going to train them and get them educated? We can’t scale what we already have in Africa and nor can we use the same kind of methods that we’d use in the UK or the US to do it - the infrastructure is not the same.”

“At BRCK we’re trying to come up with equatorial ways to think about connectivity and content. The content isn’t enough, the connectivity isn’t enough, but if we combine them together into a package with the right functionality, maybe we can make a difference then.”

The truth is many organisations are looking to solve Africa’s problems through technology but very few really understand what is happening on the ground. Hersman has a deep-seated understanding of the area and long-term interest in promoting social good through technology.

“The whole [East African] region is starting to come alive a little more, it is really vibrant,” he says. And although Nairobi is clearly the centre of all this he is keen to add context: “Even in the developed world there are certain hubs of activity. Even if you’re in the UK there is really only London and maybe, Cambridge.”

“In the US there is really only Boston, New York, Austin and San Francisco, so it is natural that there are hubs of activity. You need critical mass to make these things happen. And I think what we’ve been doing is building that base for the past four or five years. There are companies that are getting to that next round of investment. The large international tech companies are making Nairobi their headquarters.”

“It feels overall that we’re moving in a really good direction - the only wild card is the government. I’m excited about it still growing,” he concludes “I just hope we can stay on the same trajectory.”

 

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Con

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