From iHub to the BRCK: how Ushahidi became an African success story

Juliana Rotich

Juliana Rotich

If you’ve spent more than a minute in the African tech scene, you’ve probably heard of Ushahidi — and the Kenyan team behind the non-profit software didn’t stop with its crisis mapping, crowd sourcing service. It went on to create iHub, a space for Nairobi’s geeks and innovators to meet, collaborate and turn their ideas and code into the next wave of exciting startups. It then rocked Kickstarter with the BRCK — its backup generator for the internet, which is designed to ensure its owners can get online wherever they are, even without a reliable connection or electricity.

So, how did they do it?

Speaking at Design Indaba, co-founder and executive director of Ushahidi Juliana Rotich shared some insights into the group’s journey working in and growing the tech community in Africa and beyond. While Ushahidi started out as a way to centralise and share information during the chaotic Kenyan elections in 2008, it grew into a platform that has been used around the world to map everything from the 2011 Japanese Tsunami to the earthquake in Haiti.

It was a growth process that was helped along with a talented team, a motivated community, millions in investment from big names like the Omidyar Network and increased connectivity on the continent.

Rotich explains the decisions the team made and steps it took along the way:

It bet on open source and collaboration

Instead of controlling the code that powered their crowdmapping tool, Ushahidi embraced the open source movement and made its work publicly available. Now anyone with an internet connection and the inclination can participate in the movement. Rotich explains that they made the decision so they could give citizens a voice, so they could say “I am here and this is what I see,” more freely.

The same philosophy of community and collective growth eventually inspired iHub, where the team aimed to “create a petri dish where people engage and collaborate,” according to Rotich. The lab now has more than 11 000 members, and has incubated 48 startups to date.

It went local

While Ushahidi eventually grew into a platform used from Australia to the Ukraine, it started as a way to fill an information hole in their backyard — to map incidents of violence and resource points in the aftermath of the presidential elections. Rotich points out that some of the most useful and informative tools look locally, and ask what is going on in the immediate vicinity. It could be anything from mapping major natural disasters to the hunt for the best burger in town. “Do what you can where you are,” she says.

It scaled fast

For Ushahidi, one of the biggest barriers to world domination was language. So it set about making sure that its service was translated and that it worked just as well for English speakers as for those who didn’t use Latin-based languages. “It was really important to make sure that the platform was available in languages people could connect with,” Rotich says. It aimed to tap into emotional languages — which she defines as the default language you’d use innately in times of stress – to make Ushahidi relevant to different people and their issues.

It went lean

There is a reason why terms like “minimal viable product” and “lean startup model” litter advice columns — getting off the ground fast is important when you’re just starting out. Ushahidi opted for building a team of distributed members who worked from wherever they were in the world. Rotich says it went with the mantra that “as long as you’re good and awesome, we don’t care where you live.”

It focused on functionality

Instead of using technology to influence the functionality of its service, it considered what it wanted to do first, then used that to drive the technology component. “Keep a keen eye on the question of function,” she says. “It can help you push the boundaries of what is possible with technology.”

It didn’t forget its reality

BRCK Kickstarter

The key reason why the team was driven to create the BRCK was a frustration with the fact that Western technology simply didn’t work in Africa. Why should you use tech designed for an office in London when you live in Nairobi and deal with a completely different set of circumstances? Rotich lists just some of the problems the team faced: different connection settings in different African countries, the high cost of phone calls and bandwidth, intermittent power blackouts and unreliable internet connections. The team asked itself if it could have connectivity with less friction. Its solution is the BRCK.

The portable, rugged router (which blew past its funding goal back in June) now offers a way to ensure African entrepreneurs and programmers don’t have to fall victim to internet outages and blackouts, and gives them a new tool to use to solve problems in their communities.

It also ensures that an internet connection – which has now become an important utility like water or electricity – is available for people to work and learn. “With connection comes a flow of information and a way to experience and be in the world,” says Rotich. “A true exploration of who we are.”

Image: Adam Tinworth via Flickr.



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