Made in Congo-Brazzaville: One Man’s Story

Its been a while since I posted a blog, but last week I attended a Tech Salon that really got me thinking. A previous Salon in London asked the question “What would mobile phones look like if they were designed by women?”

This time the question was “What does technology look like when its designed in Africa?”

The conversation started out with a relatively typical examination of the challenges the ICT4D community knows all too well. The cost of mobile phones are too high. People don’t want to pay for text messaging services. Connectivity – and sometimes even electricity – is few and far between even in big cities. People don’t have the requisite literacy skills – much less the technological literacy skills. I could go on, discussing these and many more challenges in greater detail – but that has already been done. It was an excellent discussion, but…

Then, Verone Mankou spoke up. And everyone else got really quite.

Verone and the Way-C

I count Verone among the small number of truly inspiring people I have met.  Seriously, just google the guy. In 2007, Verone saw Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone – and thought “I can make something like that.” After trying unsuccessfully to make a low-cost laptop, Verone saw the potential in a simple device – no keyboard or fancy add-ons – for an African market. While ‘tablet computers’ were still a thing of the future, Verone thought through and designed a device that would later become the VMK Way-C. He sold out his first 1,000 tablets a week after they were launched, and since then he has developed the Elikia smartphone and a lower-cost tablet designed for educational programs.

These home-grown technologies help overcome a lot of the problems facing ICT4D. Based in Verone’s home of  Congo-Brazzaville, these phones and tablets are far less expensive than their Western-designed counterparts. While iPads in Congo can go for more than $1000USD, a Way-C tablet is anywhere between $200-$300, putting these devices in closer reach to the everyday African.

In his position, Verone has seen a unique side to the ICT4D story, and faces a subtly different set of challenges from NGO and other do-gooders trying to use technology in Africa.

  • Funding: Verone managed to finance his venture through his own business acumen and grants from the government. Finding other investors was a struggle at first. Congo-Brazzaville doesn’t have a culture of venture capitalism, nor the institutions to properly support it. Investors didn’t understand the value or purpose of a tablet computer, and investing in “Congo” seems like a bad idea. You know, with its ongoing instability – oh wait, wrong Congo.
  • Technological Ecosystem: Hardware is hardware. Processing chips and screens are all the same to a certain extent. The more important factor is the balance between the hardware, the software, the interface, and other systems around the device. For example, iPhones rely on the App Store, but in many places in Africa, the App store just isn’t an option – buying software online isn’t a norm. A system for developers has to be developed to disseminate and sell their programs. Software also must meet the needs and capacity of the end users. Things that are fancy are not always the best. Verone hadn’t used his phone’s GPS until arriving in the states because there are no good maps to make GPS useful when he travels around Africa.
  • Electricity: People in the United States want a battery in their phone that lasts all day. In Africa, many people need it to last a month or more. Battery life is one of the biggest challenges in technology today, not just ICT4D. Especially for schools and other social uses, this means pairing up with government to find solutions.
  • “Made in Africa”: While the NGO community thinks the label “Made in Africa” on any tech product is incredible, consumers don’t seem to feel the same way. Being made in Africa is often a warning of poor quality – something Verone had to overcome by exhibiting the high standards he uses for his products.
  • Transportation Costs and Distribution: Shipping a tablet from Hong Kong to Africa costs about a third as much as shipping it between African countries, which makes centralizing this operation more difficult. VMK als relies on third parties to sell their products at the moment. To make an extra bit of money, these third parties might add on a few extra dollars to the cost. But even to this Verone has a solution. In the next year, he has designs on opening VMK stores – allowing him to sell directly to consumers, following yet again in Steve Jobs’ shoes.

Verone is a shining example to other young Africans – and people generally. He has more business sense, technological insight, common sense and drive than most. He sees these challenges, but finds solutions – working with governments, NGOs, and other talented individuals to build and grow the first truly African tablet and smartphone. The development community would be served well to learn from him, and find others like him who are driven to improve themselves and their countries and not let anything stand in their way. Looking at the challenges he faced is a useful measure to the roadblocks other young leaders will face in the developing world – and his success is a small taste of hope for a changing world.

On the May 28th, Verone will be speaking at the Tech Salon in San Francisco – don’t miss your chance to hear his story yourself. Read a bit more about him here.

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