Millbug Tablet: bringing touch-screen connectivity to rural villages

Millbug Technology

You can smell Port Elizabeth, the city where Millbug Vuya Tablet PC was invented and still manufactured, before seeing it. At least that was the case when I first visited the city as a teenager. This visit was also my last, although I have always intended to return. In my 48-hour visit there, I smelt PE, wrestled strong wind, engraved my feet in sand and watched the waves wash them away and started all over again until the teachers summoned me back to the bus.

The smell made its way to the city from the Marina Sea Salt mines in the Swartkops area outside of Port Elizabeth, about 12kms away. The salt mining is not new – in the 1700s local inhabitants were already gathering salt in pans. The production of the salt unfolds in four phases — evaporation; crystallisation; harvesting and washing; and in the last phase, the salt is laid out in mountains and mountains in the sun and wind so that it dries.

Port Elizabeth is an industrial city, and like all industrial cities across the world, the locals are sucked in by low-paying jobs. However, a technology start-up is changing the narrative PE writes for itself. Sabelo Sibanda, 30 and Thulisile Volwana, 24, started Millbug Technology in 2012. The two met at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University while studying commerce and started the company together.

“We sold affordable women’s clothing and focused on the 15-35 demographic — millenials as it were. In order to appeal to our ideal customer, we designed the website ourselves on Magento, making use of responsive design (HTML5 and CSS3)”, says Volwana.

In its first year of business, the company was nominated for a South African ecommerce award. Even with this sudden success, which would have driven many businesses into a permanent state of comfort, the company continued to seek different ways of doing things, which ultimately give birth to the Millbug Vuya Bug 30 Tablet PC.

“In its first guise, Millbug was an eCommerce company, but after doing research on our then clients, we discovered that most of them accessed the internet from their phones and were thus more inclined to purchase digital products than tactile products as a result. To fully address our clients’ internet related needs, we decided to develop a solar powered tablet PC”.

Port Elizabeth has produced some exciting musicians, cricket and rugby players. But the idea of a tech startup is new.

Sibanda, the CEO of the company, acknowledges that PE has a small startup scene but he is quick to point out that this is an advantage for start-ups.

“Companies like Aspen pharmaceuticals were started here so anything is possible”, he argues.

Another advantage PE has over other large cities is that its office and accommodation rental rates remain low.

“The affordability of life here makes it particularly awesome for entrepreneurs – especially those in technology”, adds Volwana, the COO of the company.

The Millbug Vuya Bug 30 Tablet PC is a tablet that responds to the needs of its uses. It is solar powered, allowing people who do not have to electricity to use it. In the Eastern Cape, most villages do not have electricity and the power supply tends to be sporadic in those that do. Wind, rain, thunderstorms, livestock and anything can trip it and it takes forever for it to be connected again. A tablet that uses the sun to charge is perfect for such an environment.

“Our product solves the problem of access to a quality online experience in areas with intermittent access to electricity,” Volwana tells me.

The solar in the tablet is bundled. “We found that the photo-voltaic cells in the solar panels we wanted to integrate into the device were not powerful enough to charge the 3 000mAh battery,” she explains.

The Vuya tablet can also be charged via USB or a traditional power outlet.

The best African tech innovations come out of necessity and the Millbug Tablet is no exception. On its website, the company writes: “Research and development is a constant at Millbug so feel free to let us know what products and services you would like to have”.

The Vuya tablet has a 7-inch display and runs on Android 4.4 KitKat. It comes with a 1.2 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of storage and a photovoltaic (solar) power source. Millbug Vuya 2 comes with 16 GB of storage.

Vuya means “be happy” in isiXhosa, the dorminant language in the Eastern Cape. The company’s name is a little less poetic. Sibanda explains, that when the company was started, Volwana made up the name Millbug. But not everything was without meaning. The company’s mission statement is “To bring happiness to those that need it the most”

Millbug Vuya Tablet PC is not the first of its kind in Africa. There are also GIL (Ghana), Nhava (Zimbabwe), and Encipher (Nigeria).

Millbug Technology offers other services to its clients and is not limited to the Millbug Tablet, including cloud storage and back-up services, web development and web hosting.

Since the MiIlbug Tablet came out, the company has been busy trying to find solutions to other obstacles. Its most recent innovation is “Umoyair”, designed for one of its clients. Umoyair allows for free calls to and from mobile devices on any network. This app is available on all phones, including non-smart mobile devices.

To build Millbug Tablet, the company received R35 000 in funding from the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) incubator for the certification of the device as well as consultation. The rest was self-funded. Its unit was built in overseas because it was cheaper to but its printed circuit board and schematic were developed in South Africa.

“Our single biggest challenge is access to markets. As a relatively new brand, it is a considerable effort getting the markets buy in,” Sibanda explains.

The other challenge that the company is faced with is getting the tablet to a wider market. The tablet has received a fair amount of media attention and this has helped. The company speaks of big plans that extend beyond the South African border. “We would like to have our products available throughout Africa, South America as well as the Middle East in five years,”Sibanda says.

The company had to balance production cost and consumer expertise. At the retail price of R1 499.99, the company has struck a good balance. The tablet is available in a variety of colours, including black, red, blue and purple. The company is also currently working on extending the range.

As well as Sibanda and Volwana, Millbug Technology currently has three other employees. One can describe that as a small contribution to uprooting unemployment, but three lives have been changed and many other lives connected to it have also been changed.

In October, Millbug Technology will exhibit its product at the upcoming Global Smart Partnership Dialogue, which will be attended by the heads of state of all the countries in the Commonwealth.



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